AJJI, PLAYED BY Sushama Deshpande, a grandmother-in-mourning, is spying on Vilasrao Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), the man who raped her 10-year-old granddaughter Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) not too long ago. Dhavle has just acquired a humanoid sex doll and the director takes pains to convey depravity through his eyes and body language. We know what’s coming next, and yet, Ajji and the audience are united in their horror even as Dhavle tears the doll’s arms out and begins to hump, climaxing shortly after. This sight settles it for Ajji. This man deserves death and she will be his executioner.
This was perhaps the most talked-about scene from Devashish Makhija’s Ajji, a rape-revenge drama that released recently. Remarkably, Ajji was the fifth Bollywood release of 2017 within the rape-revenge genre, the others being Kaabil (out in January, starring Hrithik Roshan), Maatr (April, Raveena Tandon), Mom (July, Sridevi) and Bhoomi (September, Sanjay Dutt).
It feels like a throwback to the 80s and 90s, an era that saw this sub-genre enjoying an equally prolific run—this includes films like Insaf Ka Tarazu (a 1980 remake of the 1976 Anne Bancroft-starrer Lipstick), Pratighaat (1987), Kali Ganga (1990), Zakhmi Aurat (1988), Sherni (1988) and famously, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), which raised the stakes in terms of the brutality and graphic details associated with onscreen rape.
Fittingly, Dutt, Tandon and Sridevi, who debuted as part of Bollywood’s brat pack in the earlier epoch, are now playing grizzled parents out to avenge their raped children. Sridevi, for instance, played a young, bike-riding, leather-clad vigilante in Sherni— and a middle-aged, mild-mannered schoolteacher in Mom, roused to violence after her stepdaughter is raped. In Jaago (2004), Tandon played a young mother who stabs and kills one of her 10-year-old daughter’s rapists. Thirteen years later, Maatr has her playing a school teacher—surely a nod towards the infiltration of children’s safe spaces—in her forties, another unlikely vigilante, like Sridevi’s character in Mom.
The 80s’ spurt of Bollywood rape-revenge films could be read as a response to some real-life rape cases of the time that were covered widely by Indian newspapers. The most notorious among these was the 1972 Mathura rape case, wherein an underage Adivasi girl (different accounts put her at 14-16 at the time) called Mathura was allegedly raped by two policemen on the premises of the Desai Ganj police station in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. After contradictory judgments from a sessions court and the Bombay High Court, the Supreme Court of India eventually acquitted both the accused cops in a 1979 order condemned by activists across the country. The presiding judge said even said, “Because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops [they were drunk on duty] to have intercourse with her.” This sentence itself incorporates several themes later confronted by the Bollywood rape-revenge canon: victim-blaming, passing moral judgment on women, and the failure of the law or ‘due process’ to get justice for victims and their kin.
Where an earlier generation had Mathura to answer to, we have Jyoti Singh aka Nirbhaya, who was raped and murdered on the night of December 16th, 2012, on her way back home after watching a film in Saket, an upmarket south Delhi neighbourhood. Less than a week afterwards, I watched the Salman Khan-starrer Dabangg 2 at a multiplex in south Delhi. At the stroke of intermission, Khan’s character Chulbul Pandey rescues a woman by killing her would-be rapist (Deepak Dobriyal) with his bare hands. As the villain’s neck snaps with a loud crack, a majority of the audience stood up and clapped rapturously.
CLEARLY, WE ARE in the middle of a ‘second wave’ of rape-revenge films. And because the first wave had already set certain precedents, filmmakers are upping the ante, setting into motion ever-escalating scenarios designed to get audiences baying for blood. And so, we have Yami Gautam’s character in Kaabil being raped a second time, just after we see her trying to resume her normal, routine life. The doll- humping scene from Ajji is another example. In Maatr, it’s not enough for Raveena to be raped alongside her daughter (who succumbs to her injuries); she also has to contend with a shockingly apathetic husband (Rushad Rana) who divorces her not long after their daughter’s funeral.
Sarah Projanksy, in her 2001 book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, splits these films into two categories.
In these films, the male director ‘concedes’ the ubiquity of sexual violence, but suggests that the solution lies in a typically male brand of retributive violence
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‘In these films, sometimes the revenge is taken by a man who loses his wife or daughter to a rape/murder, and sometimes the revenge is taken by women who have faced rape themselves. The films in the first category depend on rape to motivate and justify a particularly violent version of masculinity, relegating women to minor “props” in the narrative. The films of the second category, however, can be understood as feminist narratives in which women face rape, recognize that the law will neither protect nor avenge them, and then take the law into their own hands.’
Although latter works on the topic (most notably, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ excellent 2011 book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study) have refined Projanksy’s categorisation and pointed out grey areas, it remains a useful bifurcation tool in the context of the Bollywood rape-revenge canon. Of the five films in our second wave, Kaabil is the one that belongs most clearly to the first category (men avenging the women in their lives; in this case, Hrithik Roshan’s character avenging his raped wife, who later commits suicide). Bhoomi is a hybrid, where the raped titular character (Aditi Rao Hydari) is a willing if not nearly equal participant in the bloody revenge exacted by her father Arun (Sanjay Dutt).
The other three second wave films—Mom, Maatr and Ajji— present us with a fascinating theoretical conundrum. These are films where women are doing the avenging on behalf of other, younger women under their care; even though Tandon’s character in Maatr is raped alongside her daughter, the latter, who is a minor and does not survive the attack, is portrayed unambiguously as the ‘primary’ victim. Prima facie, they belong to neither of Projanksy’s categories. Indeed, the assumption that a woman lacks the will or physical strength to execute violent revenge is hammered home in several scenes. Maatr, perhaps the worst and crudest film in the second wave, has a rapist literally saying, “Aurat kyaa kar legi (What could a woman possibly do to us)?” Similarly, in Mom, investigating officers rule out Sridevi’s character as a suspect when one of the rapists is found dead under mysterious circumstances; the reasons offered are predictably sexist.
A closer look at these films tells us, however, that the second wave is merely old medicine in a new bottle—with newly discovered side effects to boot. The second wave is about Bollywood negotiating with feminism, or at least the feminist movement’s public discourse within India. The ‘negotiation tactic’ here goes something like this: the male director ‘concedes’ the ubiquity of sexual violence, but suggests that the solution lies in a typically male brand of retributive, hyper-macho violence (conveniently ignoring the roots of this violence in the same culture that tells men it’s okay to ‘overpower’ women and assault them).
In Mom, this is taken one step further: Sridevi’s character’s step-daughter, who does not love her, is raped. And it’s only after Sridevi murders the perpetrators that her step-daughter offers her affection, calling her ‘Mom’ for the first time ever. So one can be the most nurturing mother, but unless one becomes the uber-masculine avenging angel (that is, the stereotypical avenging father, like in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, one of the pioneering works of the rape-revenge canon), one’s motherhood itself will be indicted or rejected.
The ‘unlikely avengers’ from Maatr, Mom and Ajji all take their cues from the analogous exploitation film genre in Hollywood, wherein the wronged woman ‘toughens up’, undergoes a ‘purgatory’ period of weapons-and-physical-training, and finally unleashes hell upon her rapist(s), brutalising the enemy with a distinctly masculine abandon.
In Ajji, this ‘purgatory’ sequence is especially significant for its totalitarian and dehumanising ramifications. Ajji is shown visiting a butcher shop, asking the proprietor for meat-chopping lessons. The kindly butcher obliges, miming how the soft parts of the goat are sliced off. In the next shot, Ajji severs the goat’s testicles in one clean swing of the cleaver. Ajji and the butcher lock eyes fleetingly, and we see the butcher’s naked horror at what he has set in motion. The literal emasculation depicted in that moment (echoing similar scenes in such rape-revenge cult classics as 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave) pales before the butcher’s foreshadowing of the brutality Ajji will inevitably unleash.
With Maatr, we are shown repeated shots of Tandon pumping iron at the gym, preparing to take her daughter’s rapists down. When the moment of reckoning arrives, she is every bit as ruthless as her targets: she saves the youngest rapist (Madhur Mittal) for the end, bludgeoning him to death in a blood-soaked scene. This is echoed in a separate, even more horrifying story arc from Bhoomi: the underage rapist Jeetu (Riddhi Sen) is tortured psychologically and physically by Dutt and Hydari’s characters. Tied to a chair, he is repeatedly told that he will be slaughtered on the day he turns 18. When the day comes, Jeetu is presented with a birthday cake—and a comically large knife to cut it with. He chooses to slit his own throat instead, ending his misery.
These choices are not insignificant. As is well-known, the youngest rapist in the Nirbhaya case was a few months shy of 18 at the time of the rape, and hence technically a juvenile delinquent. He escaped jail time and was sent to a rehabilitation facility for a few years. Due to widespread protests at this decision, the Juvenile Justice Bill was passed in 2015, which lowered the cut-off age for heinous crimes from 18 to 16. Maatr and Bhoomi add their shrill voices to this bloodthirsty chorus, one that seeks to define a unified, vengeance-happy response on behalf of our maatrubhoomi (motherland), the word you get when you fuse the names of both films.
Which brings us to the second major problem with the second wave. In most of these films, the rapes themselves function as little more than narrative ‘hangers’, vessels for discussing socio-economic forces or motivations. Mom, Maatr and Ajji demand our incredulity in the face of their avengers, who happen to be women. Kaabil chooses a different axis: the victim and her husband are blind, and so we’re forced to look at the avenging man (who’s every bit the alpha male) through our underdog glasses. Never mind the fact that like so many of its predecessors, Kaabil, too, is ultimately a story about men killing other men in increasingly spectacular ways.
Whoever would have thought, these films are saying, that a blind man or an old woman could be just as efficient at murder as the square-jawed macho man of yore? As cinematic statements go, this is neither original nor particularly interesting. Which is a pity, because the rape-revenge genre can be fertile cinematic ground in the hands of a shrewd operator, someone like a Wes Craven, for instance, whose film The Last House on the Left, while very much a part of the exploitation sub-genre, also worked as a cautionary tale about the nihilism and spiralling violence that can overwhelm the life of the avenger.
But perhaps that’s still too much to ask of Bollywood, circa 2017.