MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
Remember the last few times men and women took to the streets, stood hours in the sun waving posters and shouting slogans demanding that rapists be punished?
Seven years ago, when a young woman in Delhi was gangraped by six men, beaten up and her gut brutalised with an iron rod. She died.
Then last year, when the body of a child — gangraped and then strangled by seven men in Jammu — was found. She was eight.
People, mostly women, took to the streets to protest and demand quick action over sexual assault only when the details of the case went beyond their threshold of tolerance. I deliberately use the word ‘tolerance’, because the first survival lesson taught to women in India is to tolerate harassment or the knowledge of sexual violence happening around them until it breaches a level of brutality. The protests broke out because the horrors of these cases couldn’t be contained by our usual ‘this is life’ blinders.
In Section 375, a filmmaker is accused of rape by a junior costume stylist. The filmmaker denies the allegation. In a bid to show the extent to which the accused’s life is disrupted, the movie shows angry, violent mobs of people waving ‘hang the rapist’ posters, clashing with the police and demonstrating outside the courtroom throughout the trial.
People, mostly women, took to the streets to protest and demand quick action over sexual assault only when the details of the case went beyond their threshold of tolerance.
It also shows a kurta-clad woman throwing black ink at the face of Tarun Saluja (played by Akshaye Khanna), the lawyer who represents the accused filmmaker. The narrative is designed to make the protests look like unthinking, reckless acts of excess, pointlessly targeting a man (the lawyer) just doing his job.
Even at the peak of the Delhi gangrape protests, there were no reports of people physically harassing the defence lawyers. And the most infamous ink-throwing incident in recent times occurred when workers of Shiv Sena, a right-wing political party, threw ink on the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a writer known to be Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speechwriter.
Conflating legitimate protests against brutal cases of sexual assault with the response to allegations by a junior artiste against a Bollywood hotshot is patently irresponsible and, I’d go to the extent of saying, vindictive. Because the latter is far from what happens in such cases.
In the past year, many women in Bollywood spoke up and accused men of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. How many dharnas were organised in support of these women? How many of these men faced angry protesters on the road demanding they be jailed? NONE.
Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 ends up being an irresponsible, dangerous film that seeks to dismiss the existence of unequal power structures in Bollywood and several other industries, ones that makes it easy for rich, powerful men to oppress and harass women.
In the movie, Khanna’s Saluja is defending Rohan Khurana (played by Rahul Bhat), a Bollyood director accused of sexual assault by Anjali Dangle, a junior costume stylist. Saluja is up against Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadda), his former protege and the prosecution lawyer who has a reputation for taking up women’s cases and winning them. Saluja initially builds his defence on the premise that the assault never took place and then suggests that the forensic evidence — semen, pubic hair found on the survivor — points at a consensual relationship, not rape.
Throughout the trial, Saluja’s character is shown to be calculative and calm — parsing reports, reading between the lines and gathering evidence — whereas Gandhi is reckless and shouty. Her character is constantly on a backfoot because she seems to have not done the basic research that should be obvious even to a non-lawyer. Right from the beginning, the film’s sympathies are with Saluja, who is shown to be a conscientious, thorough lawyer, whereas Gandhi rants without logic or need for proof.
For example, while poking holes in Gandhi’s case, Saluja finds out that the evidence was sent to the forensic lab five days after the assault took place. You’d think that a woman being touted to be the first female advocate general of the state would do the basic check, but hey, she doesn’t. She constantly protests during valid cross-examination, only to be ticked off by the judges.
The film’s big twist at the end is that Rohit and Anjali were indeed in a consensual relationship. However, Anjali was degraded and humiliated in the course of it, leading her to file a ‘false’ rape complaint against Rohit, But Rohit lands in jail because the prosecution argues that Section 375 of the IPC says that if there is a considerable power imbalance in a relationship between a man and a woman, and the latter alleges that she was coerced into a sexual relationship with the man, he’d be jailed.
If the filmmakers wanted to actually delve into false rape cases and male victimhood, they’d probably find evidence of disruptions in the way of job losses, or social stigma and ostracism faced by men.
However, before the judgment is read out, the judges are shown looking stunned and nervously pacing up and down their chambers. One of them, then anxiously looks out of the window at the unruly mob shouting and threatening to break police barricades. It is only after, that they read out the judgment making the viewer feel like they felt pressured by the violence of the mob to rule against the man. And that’s a deeply unfair representation of any anti-sexual assault protest the country has witnessed in the recent times.
If the filmmakers wanted to actually delve into false rape cases and male victimhood, they’d probably find evidence of disruptions in the way of job losses, or social stigma and ostracism faced by men. But then, the motive of the film would have to be to reveal the trials of a man wrongly accused of rape. Section 375 seems least concerned with that and more interested in portraying protests against harassment and abuse faced by women as vacuous and vindictive. It’s an elaborate film version of trolls on Twitter howling that the #MeToo movement is an online lynch mob meant to hunt men down for no rhyme or reason.
When Gandhi points out the dismal number of convictions in rape cases, the defence lawyer retorts the number of men let off after following ‘proper’ procedure hints at something. “Does a man accused of rape ever walk free?” he asks. And when the woman lawyer points out that the volume of sexual violence in the country has earned in the name of a ‘rape nation’, Saluja bristles and goes all ‘yeh duniya ek dulhan, dulhan ke maathe ki bindiya’ on her. He feels insulted on behalf of the country and calls Gandhi ‘ignorant’.
The film opens with Saluja addressing college students and explaining them the difference between practicing law and delivering justice. Here’s an analogy he uses: “Law is like a jealous mistress, however much you try, it will disappoint you.”
You’d expect, in this day and time, there won’t be an entire film dedicated to proving that horribly worded, sexist analogy right.
But, well, sure, Bollywood, thanks for showing us plebs how to continue living without a spine.