“When you are deeply in love and deeply connected to a woman (and vice versa), if you don’t have the liberty of slapping each other, then I don’t see anything there,” said Sandeep Reddy Vanga, writer and director of the film Kabir Singh.
Kabir Singh was a remake of a Telugu film Arjun Reddy, and it faced a lot of backlash for its toxic portrayal of a short-tempered surgeon Kabir Singh who goes on the path of self-destruction once he does not get to marry the woman he was in love with. The movie was called out for showing violence against women and romanticising misogyny. However, the movie was one of the most commercially successful films of the year (2019) with a total box office collection of Rs 379.02 crore. There were a lot of people, including women, who went on to justify the movie, and even saying how much they liked it. Often the Domestic Violence (DV) shown in cinema that we are talking about is not the more subtle or structural everyday control and domination, but actual physical violence that hits the viewer with its impact. Thappad was one of the movies that spoke about the issue of DV being non-negotiable in a marital situation.
Domestic Violence (DV) is not just personal, but it is seen as a major public health and human rights issue. Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Considering women often live with their perpetrators, the DV remains underreported. If this is how serious and grave the problem is, the question staring us is why would people be okay with such portrayal of DV in popular culture? If the media continues to perpetuate representations of DV as trivial and comical, it will be further normalized and desensitized in the public view. People watching films that glorify violence, songs that talk about controlling women’s bodies, and literature and media that often portray stalking and control over women as gestures of love – all are to be taken together. In 2015, A 32-year-old Indian man in Australia, accused of stalking two women, escaped conviction after a court considered that he had been wrongly influenced by the Bollywood movies. Further, the magistrate took into consideration the respondent’s cultural background and how he did not understand the seriousness of his actions.
This is how something as serious and grievous as DV gets normalized and trivialized. It is not that our movies, and social mindset does not think violence can be bad, but it also glorifies violent expressions in intimate partner situations, seen as a sign of passionate declaration. Recent studies have shown that 30% of women surveyed across some states in India justified domestic violence. Overarching patriarchy where women should be reminded of their place in the power hierarchy is one major reason. It often puts the onus of dodging violence on women, and often blames women for having incited it in the first place. ‘Saying no might hurt a man’ is heard more commonly than telling men violence against women in domestic situations need to stop. When movies, like Ranjhana take it to the extreme, as the name suggests, it is seen as an expression of love.
So, should we not talk about or show Domestic violence on TV, and in films? The creative side would argue that they are showing what is real and is actually happening. Looking at Indian figures, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019 reports that a majority (30.9%) of all the 4.05 lakh cases under crimes against women are registered under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), that deals with ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’. In 2019, an online petition was started to show a statutory warning on screen when there was violence against women. It wanted to challenge normalizing violence against women in Cinema and was titled, “On-Screen Violence Against Women And Girls Need Disclaimers Too“. Deepali Desai from Breakthrough, an NGO working towards ending violence and discrimination against women and girls, explains portrayal and glorification are not one and the same, giving examples from 2006 film Provoked and then Kabir Singh from 2019. While in Provoked, the husband’s aggression and abuse are shown as terrifying and how it impacts the woman in such intimate partner violence. “They are not glorified. [But] Kabir Singh is dominant, aggressive and abusive. He will go down in history as a ‘hero’ and his violent actions have been glorified as part of the ‘hero’s’ entitlement.”
If one still thinks that cinema dramatizes and exaggerates for artistic effect, two recent news stories, both from South Asian diaspora shook people. A 30-year-old Indian woman allegedly died by suicide at her Richmond-based residence in New York on August 3, accusing her husband of domestic violence for birthing daughters. She shared her decision in a video that went viral early last month. Similarly Sania Khan, a Pakistani-American photographer was killed by her husband, who she was separated from at end of July. She had filed for divorce and secured an August hearing to finalize the split. She also filed a restraining order and changed the locks on her doors, and was finally going to start her new life before this happened. These are real life stories we are horrified to read and there are so many that we hear that are probably more subtle ways of control. We are to think, at least they are not going beyond this, at least there is not physical violence, but the toll it takes on women who face it and live under a constant threat and imminent danger, would not think so.
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