Film Reviews

Screening Rape Culture: Pink

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017
  |

Reviewer: Dr Asma Sayed

In the last few decades, rape culture has increasingly become a mainstream issue around the world; discussions about sexual violence and misogyny have come to the front for a number of reasons. Film, in particular, as a cultural document, has captured socio-cultural desires and fears around sexual violence. Some directors in India are taking up this subject in their films; Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s latest film Pink (2016) is one example.

Pink is a story of three young working women, Meenal (Taapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari), and Andrea (Tariang), who share a flat in Delhi. One evening, the three women were in the company of young men, and after a party gone wrong, Minal hits one of the men with a beer bottle in order to save herself from being molested. Following the event, these women are continuously stalked and harassed. Rajveer (Angad Bedi), the injured man, and his other friends, are all protected by political power. The case finally ends in the court where Meenal, Falak, and Andrea are subjected to the kind of questioning which, unfortunately, is all too common in cases of sexual assault. As the women are defended by their lawyer, Deepak Shegall (Amitabh Bachchan), their characters are up for public dissection, and the three women are subjected to humiliation as the accused men try to prove that the women were prostitutes; the men continually perpetuate rape myths and portray the women as ‘asking for it.’

Pink depicts the realities of a patriarchal system where women are constantly subjected to male gaze and desire. The film’s attempts at dismantling rape myths and ‘educating’ its audiences are laudable. The character of the defense lawyer Shegall, the mouthpiece of the director, reminds the audience that a ‘no is a no’ in all circumstances. It is no coincidence that Chowdhury chose Delhi as the film’s location. Not only is Delhi one of the most unsafe cities in the world, but it is also notoriously known for the rape case of Jyoti Singh, nicknamed Nirbhaya, a case that came to be identified as Delhi Rape Case, and which is the focus of a documentary, India’s Daughter (2015), by Leslee Udwin. The public outcry after the documentary’s release in March 2015, with the Indian government banning it, has brought many issues to the fore, creating friction around women’s issues and human rights in India. This documentary film, both in its content and its enormous impact, questioned the role of popular culture and cinema more generally as a tool to perpetuate or transform society.

Pink is a feature film that follows quickly on the heels of Udwin’s film. It hits hard in a pointed and direct manner at many of the same issues raised first by Udwin, and which since then have been almost daily news in India, as the incidences of sexual violence—particularly gang rape—seem to be on the rise, while at the same time public outcry demands that it be dealt with. This is creating serious and explosive tensions—both social and legal—within the country. Chowdhury, brings to the Indian screen a film that resists the more prevalent practice in Indian cinematic cultural production of representing women as weak, and thereby perpetuating repressive gender-sexual relationships that are the cornerstone of patriarchal social values that normalize and even demand the oppression and control of women. The representation and popularization of sexual violence against women in Indian cinema is indicative of broader socio-cultural issues and rape culture more generally.

In one of the latest developments in the country, stemming from the misuse of technology, video recordings of gang rapes are sold openly. Recent BBC news series titled ‘Shame’ focusing on global cultures of shaming women, covered the rise of gang-rapes in India. One of the cases discussed is that of a 40-year-old woman from North India who killed herself in January after a video of her being raped was circulated on WhatsApp. In August 2016, The Times of India found that hundreds - perhaps thousands - of video clips of sexual assault were being sold in shops across Uttar Pradesh every day. One shopkeeper in Agra told the newspaper, "Porn is passé. These real life crimes are the rage" (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37735370)

India ranks at the bottom of G20 nations on gender equality. The social culture of misogyny one sees in Indian popular films is partially a reflection of what is happening on the streets, in households, and in offices in India. For example, leading politicians and police officers randomly make remarks about how women are responsible for making themselves vulnerable to rape by engaging in ‘anti-Indian’ behavior, whatever that may be. Every few days, a new case of sexual assault in India takes the country by storm. Recently, it was the Bengluru mass molestation on New Year’s Eve that shook people yet again. Many women complained of being groped, grabbed, assaulted and harassed by masses of young men on the streets of Bengluru. This happened publicly, in the open, and in the presence of police who were reportedly outnumbered. Following the ‘Night of Shame,’ as media called it the next day, various ministers and leaders tried to blame the event on the influence of Western culture. Yet again.

Rape culture is constantly enacted and re-enacted in India; for instance, when India’s minister for the status of women, Menaka Gandhi, laments that “India’s rape culture is exaggerated,” or when India’s top police officials advise that women should not dress in Western clothing such as jeans, or when India’s top religious gurus suggest that one way to avert rape is to pray, and when Salman Khan, a leading film celebrity, describes coming out of shooting of one of his wrestling scenes as “feeling like a raped woman,” they are all adding to the acceptance of a culture which needs to be challenged.  

It is exactly this kind of social as well as screen culture that Pink tries to disrupt. Indian society’s refusal to deal with blatant rape culture is rooted in age-old beliefs about women’s roles in society, which need to change at all levels – social, cultural, legal, and political. One of the ways of looking at rape culture is to understand it in the context of neo-liberal economy. Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, argues that ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ are invoked “to create a fictitious unity of men across classes.” Men across the class and caste divide unite to “control [their] sisters and daughters”. She argues that misogynistic culture is “shaped by modern anxieties and economic, social and political motives” and that rape is a way of “disciplining women’s labour in a neoliberal capitalist economy.” Clearly, when girls are considered an economic liability, they are not wanted. Women become commodities in such neoliberal economies, and if they are commodities, their bodies become sites for consumption and entertainment on one hand, and for shaming and disciplining on the other.

Indian popular films normalize male aggression and violence against women in a number of ways: unwanted gaze and touch, eve-teasing, cat-calls, stalking, erotic dance numbers, songs with double entendre, hypermasculinity reflected through male gaze, representations of virginity and chastity, and heteronormativity. While some art and independent film are challenging such trends, popular cinema at large has continued to proliferate rape culture in a myriad of ways. Many films continue to perpetuate rape myths. One of the indicators in these films is to show a woman fighting back aggressively – leaving bodily scars, torn clothes, dishevelled hair, blood on face and body – that is, she is an ‘ideal’ victim (and I use the term ‘victim’ deliberately as that is what she is shown to be), who did fight back.

Pink’s director Chowdhury has called the film a ‘protest call.’ The film seeks to challenge misogynist and patriarchal cultures, particularly in India. Although the film’s focus is India, it speaks well to the global rape culture, as a woman is raped every twenty minutes, and the legal system is far from being perfect in the way it treats survivors. Whether it is the US President Trump talking about grabbing women, the Bill Crosby trial in the US, Jian Gomeshi case in Canada, or Nirbhaya case in India, and all the other mass cases of sexual enslavements in Darfur, Syria, and elsewhere, the bottom line for all the cases is the same – as long as women are viewed as commodities, and weapons of war, change is not possible. What is needed is a transformation in the way that women’s social contributions are seen and valued, something that can only be done by changing the stories we tell about women. Pink is a film that works to destabilize existing inequities to empower women. It is definitely a film worth seeing, and also on that list of strong feminist films are Talwar (2015) and India’s Daughter (2015).

Last modified on Monday, 10 April 2017 11:19
Dr Asma Sayed

An academic living in Canada; she researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema

Website: awaazmagazine.com/

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