In Rohit Shetty’s latest hit film Simmba, the difference between good men and bad men is, how they feel about rape. The titular Simmba is an unscrupulous policeman, a loveable rogue as it were, complicit in land grabbing and all else; but there is a conscience somewhere inside, brought to the fore finally when confronted by a rape. That this woman is raped isn’t enough, she has to be brutally raped to shake Simmba’s conscience; she is like his sister we are told (he says this both times he meets her in the film before her death). And she has to die from it, because her death is crucial to building the hero’s identity and for the convenient resolution of his righteous rage. Also her living after the rape would take the film out of the “entertainer” space it so happily wants to occupy. Watching the film, I was wondering if this “entertainer” will end with a loud song and dance, and it did. This is a film where the central point of conflict is that a woman has been raped and killed, but let that not stand in the way of the good old-fashioned song and dance.

As a society, we take a lot of cues on life and its antecedents from cinema. Growing up on a diet of Hindi films, or any language films for that matter, it’s hard to have missed the depiction of on-screen sexual violence on women, what it entails and how they should feel following the violation — that is, if they aren’t killed or commit suicide.

Called out as the “women in refrigerators” trope in comic books originally, it is a term that has come to be applied to films as well, where the violence inflicted and suffered on a woman’s body becomes the pivot for the hero’s narrative arc.

It's no secret that as film watchers we are cast in the role of voyeurs looking on to the private lives of characters on screen. A lesser acknowledged aspect of that voyeurism is how often we revel in sadomasochistic storylines. Sudhir Kakar, in his book Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, raises the important question of why rape was/is a staple feature in Hindi cinema where even a kiss is taboo. His answer is, “what is being enjoyed by the audience is the sado-masochistic fantasy incorporated in the defencelessness and pain of a fear-stricken woman”.

Depictions of rape have been used often in films purely to draw men to theatres who enjoy and are titillated by these scenes. A famous Hindi film villain in the 1970s and ‘80s, Ranjeet holds the dubious record of acting out 350 rapes on screen. “So popular were his raucous acts, that distributors would demand ‘a rape scene with Ranjeet’ to boost the viability of a film”, says this piece on the Hindi film world’s most famous rapist. In the same piece he mentions how scared Madhuri Dixit was of doing a rape scene in the film Prem Pratigyaa (1989). The story of this rape scene surfaced on a radio show in December 2017, where actor Annu Kapoor said Dixit’s refusal to do the scene was met by an adamant, “Scene toh hoga!” from the film’s director Bapu.

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In the wake of the #MeToo movement, actor Dalip Tahil too described an experience of filming a rape scene: “Some 25-30 years ago, I was doing a film; in those days rapes featured in almost every film. We were told not to worry about the story, and that these scenes really worked in the interior parts of the country. The director of this film called me aside — we were filming the rape scene — and said ‘Don’t hold back, tear her clothes off’. My jaw dropped. I completely refused. I was shocked at what he was asking me to do… I told him to tell the actress but he got scared and left. I told the actress; she broke down and locked herself in her room. And then the director accused me of spoiling his shoot...”

This insensitivity of filmmakers looking to make a “hit film” by including rape in their narratives is clearly not yet a thing of the past. What’s particularly disheartening about a film like Simmba is that it is trying to ride on the back of a social issue, while actively reinforcing stereotypes about women. The raped victim of the film teaches children in a night school. She pays a price for being out of her home at night, and meddling in affairs best left alone by women. The other women in this universe are assigned to the home space, focussed entirely on providing food and chai to the men. The affront doesn’t end there, at one point to provoke the rapists and manipulate their encounter deaths, the women along with Simmba mock them by saying they look like “na-mards (emasculated)” incapable of committing rape. This is a narrative that is problematic to men and women alike.

The surges in the women’s movement are hope-giving, but it seems almost cyclic that popular culture takes those issues and reduces them to mass-y fantasies that only serve to further the status quo; changing nothing — while masquerading as a demand for change.

The rape revenge drama genre that Simmba falls into was birthed in India somewhere towards the 1980s, inspired by Hollywood and also by the women’s movement as it was picking up in India (largely dormant since pre-independence). Films like BR Chopra’s Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980) came in the wake of widespread outrage over the Mathura and Maya Tyagi rape cases. Pratighaat, Zakhmi Aurat, Damini etc. followed. The difference though, was these films featured women as the lead characters, bestowed with agency, avenging violence on themselves, or on other women, a sisterhood protecting itself; most famously in Zakhmi Aurat (1988) where a dream team of women castrate rapists.

By the 1990s we were getting films like Benaam Badshah (1991) where a woman works towards getting her rapist to marry her. Or Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat (1997) where while the heroine is unabashed and outspoken, performs all the misogyny traditional marriages are steeped in, including sucking snake poison out of her rapist husband, nearly killing herself in the process.

Following 2013, there has possibly been a resurgence of the rape-revenge genre. In 2017 at least five films — Kaabil, Maatr, Mom, Ajji and Bhoomi — were centred on rapes. While some films feature at their centre women as the protagonists, the genre soon disintegrates into being about what the hero in that filmic universe feels about rape. Hrithik Roshan starrer Kaabil focussed only on the hero’s feeling towards his wife’s rape. Her suicide note obliterates any doubt on the subject, stating clearly that she can’t live with the pain her rape is causing him.

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Hindi films have a complex and mostly problematic relationship with rape. Unlikely films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge give us a sermon on “Hindustani ladkiyon ki izzat”, as if izzat was the exclusive domain of Indian women, and other women — in this specific context, white women — were fair play for date rape. Bandit Queen (1994), which was given high praise for its “realistic depiction of rape”, did so without the consent of the living Phoolan Devi. The film was reductive of the living person, claiming she was who she was because of the rapes inflicted on her body, even as she protested those claims. Arundhati Roy in a scathing essay titled ‘The Great Indian Rape Trick’ on Shekhar Kapur’s film wrote, “Phoolan Devi the woman has ceased to be important. (Yes of course she exists. She has eyes, ears, limbs hair etc. Even an address now) But she is suffering from a case of Legenditis. She's only a version of herself. There are other versions of her that are jostling for attention. Particularly Shekhar Kapur's ‘truthful’ one, which we are currently being bludgeoned into believing,” and that “According to Shekhar Kapur's film, every landmark — every decision, every turning-point in Phoolan Devi's life, starting with how she became a dacoit in the first place, has to do with having been raped, or avenging rape. He has just blundered through her life like a rape-diviner. You cannot but sense his horrified fascination at the havoc that a wee willie can wreak. It's a sort of reversed male self-absorption. Rape is the main dish. Caste is the sauce that it swims in.”

Jagmohan Mundra’s Bawandar (2000) on the life of Bhanwari Devi fell into the same trap. Trying to be sympathetic to its filmic protagonist, while failing in doing so for the person whose life the film claimed to be depicting.

If for a minute we could try to believe that Shetty’s intent in using rape in Simmba was well meaning, that in the project of nation building and conscience building, perhaps India’s men will listen best when the message comes from another man?

A man whose masculinity is acceptable and admirable and worth emulating. He has no moral high ground over others and perhaps for that reason is relatable to the male audience? But then this same hero has a stalker call the object of his affection as a means of getting close to her. He invokes the possibility of the rape of the judge’s daughter, who later shames the mother of the rapists. Then also, why are women shown as people without any agency, who need men to protect them. Simmba’s other “adopted” sister says, “Desh ki betiyan padh toh rahi hai, par inn desh ki betiyon ko inn haivano se bachayega kaun? (The daughters of the nation are studying now but who will save them from these monstrous men?)”, because studying in itself is unimportant when faced by the threat of rape?

Countering the rape of a medical student in Simmba with that of a prostitute in Badlapur (2015) one has to ask the question — why didn’t that rape spark any outrage? Possibly because that is committed by the film’s main protagonist as a means of avenging his wife’s murder? The audience in some theatres clapped and hooted as an overtly sexualised rape took place on screen. This binary of who can and cannot be raped measured by the outrage the film’s narrative evokes, is what women have been fighting for years.

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These films perpetuate a constant threat of rape and by extension a threat of public spaces. Professor Steve Derne in an ethnographic study of the male audiences of Hindi films — Making Sex Violent: Love as Force in Recent Hindi Films — wrote: “By emphasising the threat of sexual violence, films remind men of the threats women face outside the home — an awareness that is one reason for so many men’s insistence that women’s movements outside the home be strictly limited. The paper quotes a 30-year-old, albeit from 1987, that women “should not be given much freedom because by such freedom someday a crisis will occur. As women are going alone, many rapes are happening. Before, rapes were few because women stayed behind the veil. They did not go outside.”

In an interview with Anupama Chopra, director Rohit Shetty — when confronted with the fact that his film had used rape as a plot point to further the male protagonist’s storyline — said that he is too far along in his career, a successful one, to have to resort to using rape as a selling point. Yet, here we are. His point of view on the subject of rape is that rapists should be killed. He also bolstered the use of rape in the story with the statement that incidents of drunken driving are reducing because people are scared, but rape isn’t reducing because there isn’t enough fear. I wonder if he genuinely believes his film is in any way going to deter rape, or spark any serious conversation about it. To my mind, it’s lazy writing, echoing populist sentiments that have been around for many years, and are routinely drummed up by those who think that the criminal reform system needs to be retributive. But the truth is the film isn’t really about any of that, it’s a film that wants to entertain. Why rape needs to fall within its ambit is not a question the filmmaker wants to answer.