The ongoing #MeToo movement in India, while enabling women to call out sexual harassment and misconduct, has also shown the precarious social and cultural place of those who dare to dissent. Many women have faced a range of painful consequences, from public shaming to threats of legal action, for daring to take on powerful men.
This arsenal of powerful forces that are often used to silence and discredit women pushing for change finds many reflections in Indian cinema. In many films, women who attempt to seek social justice are shamed, isolated, assaulted or even killed.
The invalidation of their claims often starts with the devaluation of their character. Consequently, they face double oppression – even as they battle against their powerful aggressors, they also struggle with systematic gaslighting and smear campaigns.
In the Malayalam thriller Thira (2013), a cardiac surgeon runs a shelter for young girls. A powerful enemy involved in a human trafficking racket gets all the girls kidnapped, destroying the doctor’s credibility and reputation.
In Rajkumar Santoshi’s Hindi drama Damini (1993) a newly married woman (Meenakshi Sheshadri) witnesses her maid being raped by her husband’s brother. When she decides to testify against her family, she is declared insane and sent to a mental asylum.
In the Marathi movie Gharabaher (1999), a woman is sexually harassed at her workplace by a local legislator’s son. When she brings the incident to the attention of local authorities, she is threatened and forced to leave her village hastily. Her exit lends credence to the claim that the allegations are false. The politician continues to flout the law, but when his sister Vasudha (Sonali Kulkarni) gets elected as the local MLA, she attempts to ensure that justice is served. As she battles with her brother and father, Vasudha is repeatedly told that her family must take precedence over social justice.
In some films, a woman who has a burning desire to correct injustice is deemed incompatible with a warm hearth and home. In the Marathi drama Umbartha (1982), social worker Sulabha (Smita Patil) is chided by her husband and mother-in-law when she decides to move away from home to become the superintendent of a woman’s rehabilitation centre. Sulabha encounters corruption and mismanagement at the centre. Shocked at the apathy, she returns home looking for safety. However, she finds that her husband has taken a mistress, and decides to move out again. It is implied that in her quest to make homeless women safe, she loses the sanctuary of her own home.
The way this conflict plays out often exposes the double standards and sexism in seemingly liberal men. In Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya (2004), journalist Romila Dutta’s decision to travel to Kargil to report on the 1999 war with India and Pakistan causes her erudite fiance to break up with her. In Mrinal Sen’s Neel Aakasher Neeche (1959), Basanti’s marital life is disrupted by her friendship with a Chinese immigrant and her commitment to the Indian freedom struggle. In the Marathi drama Not Only Mrs Raut (2003), Swati’s pursuit for justice for a wronged woman reveals her lawyer husband’s deep-rooted chauvinism. In Bawandar (2000), social worker Shobha Devi (Deepti Naval) divorces her husband, a social science professor, because she cannot bear the ways in which he asserts authority over her.
Families that do not disallow women from working for change often exert control over them by restricting or determining how much they are permitted to do. In Gharabaher (1999), Vasudha, on becoming an MLA, insists that displaced farmers must be rehabilitated before construction of a local dam can begin. However, she is vetoed mercilessly by her more political veteran father.
In Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan (1997), Jhinuk is praised by her family when she makes headlines for rescuing a stranger from being molested by goons. But when she begins to immerse herself in the legalities of getting justice for the victim, her fiance balks at offering support. Meanwhile, Romita’s husband becomes angry with her efforts to seek justice and rapes her with a violence that surpasses the brutality of her unknown molesters.
Women are also often silenced with threats of bodily harm. In Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985), Mahatmain, a widow, remains silent against the local landlord’s excesses because he convinces her that she needs him to protect her body from other lecherous men. But when Mahatmain decides to testify against him, she is summarily killed.
Journalist Megha is raped by a local gangster because she initiates a crusade against him in the Hindi hit Krantiveer (1994). Pregnant women are even more vulnerable to violence. In Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja (2001) when Madhuri Dixit’s Janki makes a public speech about institutionalised misogyny and sexism, she is assaulted by a mob and has a miscarriage.
Caste politics invariably combine with violence against women, especially when Dalits or Adivasis speak out against the upper castes. In Jayan K Cherian’s Malayalam-English film Papilio Buddha (2013), Manju drives an autorickshaw to help finance a school for Dalit children. She is subjected to constant sexual and physical harassment in her male-dominated profession and when she finally stands up for herself, she is gang-raped. “Let me show you the power of a man,” her rapist tells her.
The Tamil film Indira (1995) demonstrates the role of the voice in resistance and oppression. The titular protagonist’s soulful singing is depicted as a soft act of rebellion and resistance. However, when she becomes more vocal about oppression by upper caste residents of her locality, she is punished by being molested.
When faced with systemic oppression and male dominance, women frequently turn to other women for support and understanding. In Mrityudand (1997) Ketki (Madhuri Dixit) bonds with her sister-in-law, Chandravati (Shabana Azmi), in the face of crippling violence. The women go on to become each other’s safe spaces. Ketki’s outspoken rebellion also emboldens several female labourers to voice their concerns.
In Umbartha, the acrimony between occupants of a Women’s Rehabilitation Centre dispels the idea of a female collective, but it examines a dimension that is ignored by the conception that women are their own worst enemy. Forced to bargain for power in a male-dominated world, the women at the centre turn against each other, resorting to whatever means necessary to survive.