Rape and the Rape Threat8
I now take a quick detour from Hindi films to representations of rape within a broader cultural milieu, particularly before the transformative moment of the second wave of the Indian women’s movement. Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver (1991, 2-3) note that representations of rape in myths and literary texts are at once a structuring device and a gaping elision: “an obsessive inscription— and an obsessive erasure—of sexual violence against women (and by those placed by society in the position of‘woman’)….Over and over…rape exists as an absence or gap that is both product and source of textual anxiety, contradiction, or censorship.” Classics, such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, are cited most frequently as examples. With the arrival of the women’s movement in the United States, signifying rape displaces its erasure. As Carol Clover points out, what mainstream Hollywood glossed up to Oscar standards in films like The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988) had already been said a decade earlier in the lowly horror/slasher genre, only “in flatter, starker terms, and on a shoestring.” She suggests a temporal lag between high and low culture’s representation of rape; and in folkloric terms, “a motif graduated into a tale-type” (Clover 1992, 20,137).
The silence, elision, the gap to which Higgins and Silver allude was as much a mark of popular Hindi cinema’s tradition, notwithstanding its “obsessive inscription” of rape.9 Before 1980 Hindi cinema too dealt with rape covertly. Teesri Manzil, ostensibly a murder mystery, exemplifies this simultaneous inscription and erasure by using rape as a structuring narrative device and then adeptly repressing it. An entertaining 1960s thriller10 with a superb cast, excellent pacing, and an enthralling storyline, it differs markedly from later films (like Insaafka Taraazu) in how it stages rape (or, rather, the rape threat) and represses it.
As the opening credits roll, a car pulls up in the darkness of the night. The camera tracks a woman’s footsteps as she runs up several flights of stairs, jumps from the third floor, and dies. When the main narrative begins, Sunita (Asha Parekh) announces her resolve to avenge her sister Rupa’s death and travels to Mussorie, the hill resort where her sister, she believes, was murdered the year before. Reconstructing Rupa’s letters as evidence, Sunita is convinced that Rocky, the rock’n’roll musician at the hotel there, is responsible for her death. Sunita meets Anil (Shammi Kapoor), enlists his support for her mission, and the two fall in love. Anil conceals his alias—Rocky (his band name)— and the fact that he knew Rupa, who was once his admirer (an infatuated fan). When Sunita discovers his chicanery she rejects him. Meanwhile, several abortive attempts on Anil’s life compel him to get to the bottom of the mystery. Sexual intrigue among Rocky’s admirers and Ruby, the night club dancer, intensifies this mystery. Rocky single-handedly finds his assailant, the villainous Kunwar Sahib, and as he uncovers the connection between the deaths of Rupa, and later Ruby, and the attempts on his own life, another subplot unfolds. Rupa, accidentally an eyewitness to a murder implicating Kunwar Sahib, was pursued to her death, and Rocky, a suspected eyewitness to that death, becomes the next target.
The rape threat is an unmistakable subtext of Teesri Manzil. Sunita’s goal to avenge her sister’s death motivates the action in the first half of the film. Convinced that her sister was raped, her goal is to find the perpetrator. The text is, however, equivocal about the exact circumstances of Rupa’s “rape” and death. This equivocation stems partly from the fact that the crime is reconstructed through second – and third-person accounts a year after Rupa’s death. Apart from the prologue, which establishes the crime scene—a long shot of a woman running up stairs, her fatal fall, followed by a cut away to a man’s footsteps fleeing the crime scene—the scenario surrounding her death is revisited several times in the film. Rashomon-style, we get varying accounts of the event: we are given Sunita’s version twice, Anil’s fragmented description once, and, in the denouement, the villain’s nameless lover’s tale fills in the missing pieces.
The difficulty is in fixing, and naming with certainty, what happened to Rupa. Sunita’s reconstruction, along with other narrative accounts, move restlessly between explanations of unrequited love, a spurned lover, desire, shame, honour, homicide, suicide—and rape. Sunita infers from Rupa’s account— wrongly, it is later proven—that Rupa was driven to commit suicide. Rupa’s own letter, apart from expressing her desire for Rocky, is ambiguous. Rocky’s later account quite plainly states that he consistently rebuffed Rupa’s overtures. But one thing is clear according to Sunita: when a girl transgresses boundaries she must die. Rupa, Ruby, and Kunwar Sahib’s nameless mistress all meet this fate. When Ruby dies, she lies in Rocky’s arm and says: “My only crime, Rocky, has been that I have desired you.”
There are moments in the film when the rape threat buried within the subtext is openly enunciated. Sunita’s initial discomfiture with Anil when she journeys with him (to locate Rupa’s killer) turns into romantic love after he makes short shrift of a marauding gang threatening to rape her in the woods. In an earlier scene Meena, Sunita’s friend, is accidentally separated from Sunita and Anil on the same journey. The camera tracks Meena’s lonely figure walking through the woods, tightening the frame around her as she looks fearfully beyond its edges—a classic cinematic signification of the rape threat.
Yet the quest for Rupa’s rapist, which initially propels the narrative, stops abruptly, changes course, and becomes a tale of the accusation and redemption of an innocent man. Certainly the female protagonist, Sunita, is no defenseless woman. She sets out from her home as a woman with a purpose, a mission, to avenge her sister’s death. Teesri Manzil, however, becomes an exploration of male anxieties of wrongful accusations—anxieties that constitute the founding principles of English common law transferred to the Empire’s colonies.11