(The Hindi translation of this article was published on bbc.com/hindi/ on July 25, 2015. It was written as a follow-up to the right-wing reaction to “The Rape of Avanthika”, my column that appeared in The Hindu Businessline on July 18, 2015)
By Anna MM Vetticad
“It’s not rape, it’s seduction, b**ch!”
“Ignore her Her name says she’s from Vatican city and She might have got money from church to write this column.” (sic)
This is a tiny – relatively polite – sample of the venom being spewed on my social media accounts since the appearance of my column, “The Rape of Avanthika”, in The Hindu Businessline last Saturday.
By the time the column was published, the Telugu blockbuster Bahubali – simultaneously shot in Tamil and released in multiple dubbed versions – was already a certified hit. Fans of the film, you would imagine, had no reason to be insecure.
Still, I expected a standard misogynistic backlash since I had written about the trivialisation of sexual violence in Indian cinema. The immediate provocation was an extended ‘seduction’ sequence in Bahubali, in which the hero repeatedly violates the body of the female warrior Avanthika, then – through music and dance – roughs her up, strips off part of her outfit, alters the rest of her attire and her face despite her resistance. Within seconds, she falls for him and falls asleep in his arms.
This song-and-dance metaphor for rape insidiously perpetuates a prevalent notion that the way to a woman’s heart is through force. I knew from experience that I would receive sexist vitriol for my critique. What I did not realise was that hordes of viewers have been counting Bahubali as a “Hindu success” and a matter of “south Indian/Telugu pride”.
And so, vile comments have been pouring in for a week now, from film fans and from the Hindu Right who see Bahubali – steeped as it is in Hindu mythology – as a “Hindu answer” to the “Muslim PK”. “Muslim” because of the lead actor Aamir Khan’s religion and “answer” because they saw PK’s indictment of religion per se as a Hindu-bashing exercise.
Be that as it may, Indian films have trivialised violence against women for decades. Readers of this website would be familiar with the phenomenon in Bollywood in particular. Just this year, in director Aanand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns, the character Pappi abducts a woman from her wedding because, despite her denials, he believes she loves him. Pappi is portrayed as loveable, his actions as a joke.
From stalking to molestation and other forms of assault, our heroes are doing it all under the guise of courtship. In Rai’s 2013 film Raanjhanaa, the hero is a pest who slashes his wrists twice and even drives the heroine into a river on a scooter in anger. In Holiday (2014), Virat Bakshi (Akshay Kumar) stalks Saiba (Sonakshi Sinha) and forcibly kisses her. In Kick (2014), Salman Khan lifts Jacqueline Fernandez’s skirt with his teeth, surrounded by a group of male dancers.
Violence, you see, is cute and amusing in Bollywood’s book. Even a seemingly enlightened director like Imtiaz Ali has featured rape jokes in both Jab We Met (2007) and Rockstar (2011).
The cliched response to such criticism is that films portray India’s reality. My experience this week tells you that fans don’t like those who raise their voices against a glorification or comedification of this terrible reality. The thing about breaking the silence though is that whenever you do, you discover multitudes who share your opinion but were feeling lonely with their views since no one around them had spoken up. Far greater than the flood of Bahubali-loving trolls abusing me this week is the deluge from men and women saying: “Thank goodness you wrote this. I thought I’m the only one feeling this way.” You are not. I am not. And we both ought to speak up.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
BBC Hindi link: http://www.bbc.com/hindi/entertainment/2015/07/150723_mysogyny_india_films_bahubali_women_rns
Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/bahubali.the.movie
Note: This photograph was not sourced from BBC Hindi