Resilience, four walls of abuse, and women driving their own stories in 2022
On International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, let’s look at how 2022 has been a year of resilience and told stories of women who became their own saviours
Isn’t Friday the most happening day of our week? That one day for which we eagerly await, to get outside the four walls of our offices or homes. That almost liberating feeling, which comes in just ahead of the weekend. But this Friday is a bit different. On November 25, as we observe the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, let’s take a moment to understand how Indian cinema in 2022 has presented us with the most intimate and traumatic experiences that many women go through within four walls. This year, we have witnessed many stories of such women onscreen, and it is almost therapeutic to see them taking a stand for themselves without waiting for the 'saviour.' If Alia Bhatt (Darlings), Aishwarya Lekshmi (Ammu), and Darshana Rajendran (Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey) became their own pillars of courage to stand up against their partners’ violence and walked away from toxic marriages, Keerthy Suresh (Saani Kaayidham), and Andrea Jeremiah (Anel Meley Pani Thuli) sought justice for themselves by using both the legal and extrajudicial routes. A special case would be Gargi where Sai Pallavi gets justice for a sexually abused child, even if it means standing up against her own.
Change begins at home
The makers of these films opine how it is important to tell these stories, which have the potential to facilitate change. “I was watching The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK) with my family, and my mother was serving us dinner. It got me squeamish and uncomfortable. I think even a single scene condemning violence can create a multi-fold change in society,” says Ammu director Charukesh Sekar.
Director Vipin Das too had a similar motive to evoke discomfort among the audience with his film, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey. “At a time when female-oriented scripts are predominantly sobfests, I wanted to give a sarcastic commentary on the theme. It should evoke a sense of discomfort and shame in the viewers. Initially, we thought the older generation would see the film as divorce propaganda, but they didn't want to go down that route and be labelled a misogynist like the protagonist,” says Das, whose film stars Darshana as a woman facing physical and mental abuse from her short-tempered patriarchal husband Rajesh (Basil Joseph).
As for change starting from home, Das recalls how a personal experience made him understand the importance of not being someone like Rajesh. “One of the guests at my sister's wedding was a foreigner. He didn't understand the concept of arranged marriage and marrying off a girl to a stranger. This perspective changed my outlook on arranged marriage," says the filmmaker, who wrote JJJJH at a time when Kerala was witnessing high suicide rates among women due to toxic relationships and lack of support from family.
Breaking the male saviour trope
It's now safe to say that 2022 is definitely a year where our women have come out like a phoenix, breaking away from the male saviour trope, which has been a pet theme of Indian cinema since forever. However, in the aforementioned films, while a few men indeed act as a catalyst for women to get rid of their abusers, the empowerment of these survivors comes from a place where they are not damsels in distress. Observing this, Dr Ardhanaari Manickavasagam, consultant psychiatrist and assistant professor, says, “Rape, domestic abuse, stalking, eve teasing and objectification of women was shown as an evil earlier, but it failed to create the desired effect, because, in many occasions, men either resorted to violence to take revenge for the act, or even worse, the survivors were married to the perpetrators. Thankfully, such scenarios have undergone a drastic change, and now, we have movies that focus on the survivors, and their point of view."
In Ammu and Darlings, the makers take time to show us the cycle of abuse and violence, and how the women's retaliation doesn't come from a one-off incident. Referring to such scenes, Ardhanaari says, “Elaborate scenes on how the survivor is going through an emotional turmoil instills in men a sense of guilt and responsibility. Films should focus on women making an attempt to solve their own problems in straightforward and bold ways.”
Gargi director Gautham Ramachandran too stands by this opinion and says that the most significant achievement in cinema has been breaking away from these accepted tropes. “A lot of writers are trying to find truth in perspectives of women and what happens to them actually, instead of just writing skeletal scenes. They break away from conventional grammar and don’t opt for a pathos way of staging these scenes. Instead, they bring in multiple perspectives, thus making a difference,” says Gautham.
Such films also give a chance for women to be not just 'heroines' of other projects, but protagonists of their own films. “We have finally reached a place where people are open to different kinds of storytelling irrelevant of who is headlining it,” says Andrea who played a rape victim who does not allow anyone to victimise her in AMPT. But these films do come at a cost as the actor suffered from PTSD-related effects while shooting for a particular sequence. “I broke down and I had to talk to a counsellor. At the end of the day, I was getting affected as a woman too. Even when we talk about such incidents, we still refer to them as 'victims'. Referring to them as survivors is a more recent phenomenon. Most women are victimised by their families. In fact, I'd pick being murdered over being raped because of the stigmas associated with the latter,” adds Andrea.
Can films bring a change?
Indu Gopal who runs a divorce and domestic violence support group, says that films are a medium to create awareness. “Films like Naane Varuvean, and Kaatru Veliyidai normalise abuse. When films have a wider reach, it is important to handle them with responsibility. When I saw Thappad, it triggered me, but it also started a conversation.” Indu also feels that films should go beyond the stereotypical portrayal of abuse. “A partner verbally abusing to restricts my communication is also violence. A film, which can also show these apart from physical abuse would be very helpful,” she adds.
Agreeing with Indu, Ardhanaari says, “To our relief, with films like Ammu and Gargi, audiences have started noticing the women handling the obstacles that come their way. This might just be the first step, but it is indeed a huge leap when it comes to this representation in our films.”
Now that we have a sea of films that talk about abuse, filmmakers feel the shortening of the gap between such projects is actually a boon. “Instead of sporadic releases of these films, the back-to-back releases trigger more pressing conversations. While we are not sure about the actual impact of such films on real-life survivors, it does de-stigmatise the conversations surrounding domestic violence. Aishwarya told me how Ammu gave a survivor the courage to face her reality," mentions Charukesh. Vipin too recalls receiving messages from women who felt a strong connection with the happenings of JJJJH and tapped into their inner courage to face the outer demons.
The filmmakers also stress on the importance of big stars lending their faces to such scripts. Vipin, who had the JJJJH script ready for two years, says how many producers felt the film would not be commercially viable. “It is only when names like Basil and Darshana came onboard that we got a producer to back the film. The process was far from easy.”
With the audience expressing their willingness to collectively embrace such content, and make it roaring successes at the box-office, it is now the responsibility of production houses, stars, and filmmakers to come together to make more such compelling films. There needs to be a community where such stories are viewed from a lens of empathy and not just sympathy. The importance of telling stories that bring the survivors to the forefront is paramount, not just for the betterment for the society, but as an act of solidarity with the survivors. The success of such films will enable more voices to come out in the open, and provide a collective sense of being together. This Friday, when sections of the world await the liberation that the weekend gives them, let's hope that our films give survivors the most important form of liberation... the confidence that their voices will be heard.