In an earlier column, I had written about the constant anxiety women are subject to in public spaces. Public transport, malls, cinema halls, cabs, autos and even their homes… there is no place in which a woman can claim to be truly safe from harassment. This constant tension has become so normal to most of us that it is part of our routine. With April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, there isn't a better time to speak of Roshan Andrrews’ Prathi Poovankozhi.

Based on a story by writer Unni, Prathi Poovankzhi is a tale of revenge. Madhuri (Manju Warrier) gets groped by Antappan on a bus. The incident refuses to leave Madhuri's mind, as she is enraged, dying to exact revenge. She starts on a trail to identify him, and hit him, as payback.

Prathi Poovankzhi might not get all its notes right, but it clearly builds a harrowing account of harassment. There are two cases of assault in a bus shown in the film, in excruciating detail. The background score becomes loud and ominous the minute Madhuri (Manju Warrier) steps inside. And when Antappan (Andrrews himself), clutches Madhuri, you can clearly see the pleasure on his face, and the shock on hers. The staging is brutal, a reflection of the trauma victims go through. Watching Prathi Poovankozhi, I was reminded of what Anubhav Sinha said about his film, Thappad. Both films revolve around assault, and how the woman deals with its trauma. But he believed that his film was for the men, more than women.

The reason is when you watch these accounts of sexual assault, one realises how flawed our gender stereotypes are and how they almost always push the women to a disadvantageous position. In Prathi Poovankozhi, there are two instances when a character proudly proclaims that ‘he is a man’. And both situations reek of toxic masculinity. In the first case, a drunk old man berates his wife, and says “Women are a curse.” He abuses his wife for not being able to bear a child, and says women would line up for him, should he want to remarry. “I’ll show that I am a man,” he bellows, as his wife cries and trembles under the weight of the insults. The second instance is when Antappan, after a ‘mass’ fight that usually is reserved for our heroes, warns the men of his market.

Our films are usually a celebration of this toxic masculinity. A 2017 study which analysed 4,000 Bollywood films from 1970 and 2017, concludes that ‘Female characters are mostly described as "beautiful" and "attractive" whereas men are called "strong" and "successful". While most women go on to marry or love, men were likely to kill or shoot. The data also observes that women are described with surface-level qualities, with ideal women shown to be “submissive.” 

When women step outside of these gender normative boxes, they are often subjected to harassment. Madhuri’s journey of anger, leads her to losing her job, facing more harassment from a police officer, and also social stigma. The world is unfair to a woman who doesn't abide by its rules. Recently, a female actor who questioned a sexist fan art was viciously trolled by fans. It is that simple. All types of harassment have one thing in common: The women is held responsible. We will question the woman – about her clothes, opinion, character. But never the man.  

This is why Madhuri’s rage is rare a thing of beauty. In a redeeming climax, Madhuri hunts down a man who gropes a schoolchild, and hits him brutally. “All of you are the same,” she bellows, as she pounds on the man’s hand with a rock. The primal rage is a realistic detour from the submissive boxes women have been jailed in. Manju Warrier gives a terrific performance as Madhuri, as she balances a beam between being the responsible daughter, the independent woman, and the furious woman out to seek her own brand of justice.

The film got me wondering about the gender stereotypes and the ghastly shade they cast on power dynamics. Would harassment be so omnipresent, if we refused to celebrate toxic masculinity? How do men think they have the right to violate a stranger's body? Is it just power? Would sexism be so ‘easy’, if our heads weren’t drummed with stereotypes? Would justice be so hard to get if survivors weren’t discriminated against, every step of the way? When a film makes you reflect and ask as many questions, you know it’s done its job.