The theatre around rape
The rape conversation spilled over last year. Let’s hope it continues in less gimmicky ways this year
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Vibha Bakshi’s Daughters Of Mother India, recently screened in Mumbai, is a piece of old-fashioned documentary film-making. It has a heart, the facts, and some assorted bits.
A former reporter for the news channel CNBC, Bakshi builds a linear, brass-tacks narrative around the rape that put India under the world spotlight two years ago: the gang rape of the 23-year-old Delhi girl in a public bus. She also takes up the lesser-known gang rape and brutalization of a five-year-old in a slum in the Capital—the two girls now canonized as “Nirbhaya” and “Gudiya”, and what happened to these cases. Bakshi recounts the events in her own voice, and meets the little survivor’s family for a sketchy interview. There are interviews with experts from the police force and legal establishment in Delhi about changes that may have come about in the way our police and courts tackle rape and rapists. The public outrage after Nirbhaya’s death is seen through staple newsreel. The polished camerawork and crisp editing do not cover the film-maker’s earnest tone, emphatic about the sorry state of affairs she narrates, and the larger point about women’s safety and crimes against India that she seems to make. The film is produced by Maryann De Leo, an Oscar-nominated documentary producer and director who helmed HBO’s Chernobyl Heart.
After Yael Farber’s testimonial play Nirbhaya, after the numerous trenchant commentaries on rape, open letters to prime ministers and film stars, a fashion campaign, and the serial mythicization of “Nirbhaya”, “Veera” and “Gudiya”, Daughters Of Mother India is refreshingly basic in its telling, being just a recounting. As in classic journalistic practice, Bakshi lets statistical data further her case. She offers no big solutions or meta-narratives.
While “Nirbhaya” is now about many things—the most obvious being a reminder that there is an ugly Indian rapist on our streets—rape also came out of class trappings in 2013-14. Former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal was arrested for allegedly raping a junior, and a short-lived media spectacle unfolded.
After the shock and horror of the Delhi bus rape, the theatricality of the protests that followed it, and the kind of resigned fear that has been justified by the rapes and attacks on women since, talking about “Nirbhaya”, and reimagining or reinterpreting the incident in art or cinema, evokes powerful emotional reactions from audiences. Like the names given to rape survivors, art and performance can further valourize or exoticize a rape victim, alienating the audience from the subject. In Hindi cinema, the rape scene, usually of the hero’s sister, was once a trigger for vendetta dramas. Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, which explicitly showed the gang rape of dacoit Phoolan Devi, started a conversation about the depiction of rape in movies and art.
Farber’s testimonial format is strikingly close to reality. It has some flesh-crawling, transformative moments, especially the testimony of acid attack victim Sneha Jawale. But the beautifully presented production is without catharsis, its production design making the rape victim seem like an anomaly or a mythical being.
In the last month, I must have received at least a dozen PR calls asking if we were writing a story on the anniversary of the “Nirbhaya” rape on 16 December. They represent security companies, playwrights and fashion houses. The Ordnance Factories Board in Kanpur designed a single-shot revolver called Nirbheek. Last month, The Huffington Post reported that the gun cost Rs.1.4 lakh and had sold over 300 pieces since its January launch.
The rape conversation spilled over last year. Let’s hope it continues in less gimmicky ways this year.
For the screening details of Daughters Of Mother India, visit www.daughtersofmotherindia.com
Political Animals is a fortnightly column on the intersection of politics and culture.