Showing Rape: The Double Victim
As feminists we are caught between a rock and a hard place: the erasure of rape from the narrative bears the marks of a patriarchal discourse on honour and chastity; yet showing rape, some argue, eroticizes it for the male gaze and purveys the victim myth. How do we refuse to erase the palpability of rape and negotiate the splintering of the private/public trauma associated with it? Insaaf came under fire from Indian feminists because the fictional representation of rape elided the reality of underclass women’s rape by the state (police or warring armies). Further, a (commercial) filmmaker’s intervention in a discourse forced upon the nation by women was viewed as opportunism, which feminists found particularly odious. Equally, feminists who had seen (or not seen) the film roundly declared that the filmic depiction of rape could only titillate and entertain male viewers.25
Some of these criticisms are valid; still, too much gets thrown out with the bath water. It is no accident that Insaaf chose an up-market model as the victim of rape. By showing a woman voluntarily “selling” herself in the world of advertising, the film operates through the same doublespeak discussed earlier. Popular cinema in general focuses on the lives of the rich and famous, just as alternative cinema is conversely obsessed with portraying the lives of the poor, the subaltern. By focusing on Bharati, played by Zeenat Aman (who herself won the “Miss Asia title” in 1969), the film plays on extratextual information that the audience has about the star and situates itself in the space between Aman’s real life and the character she plays on screen. Insaaf, unlike Teesri Manzil or Aradhna, set the new trend of eroticizing the heroine’s body. Bharati’s job of striking poses, openly flaunting herself before the camera, centres attention on her body. The centrality of Bharati/Aman’s body (mis)leads the audience into drawing incorrect conclusions regarding beauty, desire, lust, and rape. The subtext of this is the most insidious of rape myths: “she asked for it.” While such a critique rings true, it is equally pertinent that the film’s second half subverts the argument of the first half.
When a humdrum, low-paid existence replaces Bharati’s glamorous lifestyle after the courtroom fiasco, her little sister Nita gets a hard-won interview with a prestigious firm. It is of course a set-up, an occasion for Ramesh Gupta to assert his personal vendetta against Nita for testifying against him in court. If initially the film makes confused connections between lust, desire, and rape, on the one hand, and women’s culpability on the other, this latter part of the film clearly deflects such a thesis. Nita represents the position of millions of women in lowly, underpaid positions, acutely vulnerable to men with power.
Regarding the rape scene’s imbrication in representations of the already (sexually) coded woman’s body, I disagree with Indian feminists who argue that the rape sequence in Insaaf is titillating. Although protracted, it conveys nothing but pain, horror, and naked male aggression. The rape is unquestionably gruesome. When Ramesh enters Bharati’s bedroom he intimidates her and his intentions are soon clear. As she protests, “No, no,” Ramesh taunts, “Yes, yes.. .beauty queen… .Now kiss me.” Bharati first fights back, then breaks down and finally passes out. She lies on the floor on the other side of the bed; in view are her feet tied to the bed, her head thrown back in an expression of terror that turns to numbness from exhaustion as Ramesh Gupta stays on top of her.
Mary Ann Doane (1988, 216) discusses the impasse confronting feminist filmmakers (or theorists for that matter) that stems from a “theoretical discourse that denies the neutrality of the cinematic apparatus itself. A machine for the production of image and sounds, the cinema generates and guarantees pleasure by a corroboration of the spectator’s identity.. .[an] identity.. .bound up with that of the voyeur and the fetishist.” She points to essentialist and anti-essentialist theories wherein the former presume and aim to restore representation of the female form in “images which provide a pure reflection of woman” (225), while the anti-essentialist refuses “any attempt to figure or represent that body,” since the female body is always already and inescapably coded, written, overdetermined.
In her attempt to go beyond this impasse Doane (1988, 226) identifies the stakes involved as “not simply concerning] an isolated image of the body. rather, the syntax which constitutes the body as a term.” In Insaaf, the rape scene’s mise-en-scene, attacked so vociferously by feminists, frustrates, refuses to indulge the voyeur’s fetishistic gaze, without neglecting to “show” the brutality of rape. Its “syntax” distances it from the “mandatory rape scenes” reviled in Hindi films. Displacing elliptical references to rape in the Richardson/Forster tradition, pushing rape into the public domain, and refusing its status as a private matter are unequivocal gains made by the women’s movement.26
Yet scopophilic pleasure in rape representations is still a tangled issue. Linda Williams offers a psychoanalytic explanation of melodrama (weepies), horror, and pornography, three “body genres” that she classifies by their convulsive impact on the body—tears, fear, and orgasm, or the “tearjerker,”“fear – jerker,” and texts “some people might be inclined to ‘jerk off’” to. Williams draws attention to the perversions that these genres draw upon: masochism in melodrama, an oscillation between sadism and masochism in horror, and
sadism, at least in the anti-pornography group’s perception of pornography. Williams (1995,148), however, urges us to see
the value of not invoking the perversions as terms of condemnation. As even the most cursory reading of Freud shows, sexuality is, by definition, perverse. The “aims” and “objects” of sexual desire are often obscure and inherently substitutive. Unless we are willing to see reproduction as the common goal of sexual drive, then we all have to admit, as Jonathan Dollimore has put it, that we are all perverts. Dollimore’s goal of retrieving the “concept of perversion as a category of cultural analysis,” as a structure intrinsic to all sexuality rather than extrinsic to it, is crucial to any attempt to understand cultural forms.. .in which fantasy predominates.27
Invoking Clover’s reading of the horror genre, Shohini Ghosh (1996,176) points to the difficulty of fixing (gender) identification among viewers, and Lalitha Gopalan (1997,53) concedes the viewer’s oscillation between masochism in rape and sadism in revenge sequences. Even if we do admit to a variety of permutations and combinations in the masochistic/sadistic viewing positions—masochistic identification with rape, sadistic identification with revenge, a masochistic identification with rape and revenge, or a sadistic incitement in the rape and revenge sequences—it is not clear what is at stake for us as feminists. What are our anxieties about the effects of spectatorial arousal?
We might reconsider our own anxieties about the rape scene and focus instead on various other moments in the first half of Insaaf (especially the advertising agency’s filming) that fetishize the female body as an object of the male gaze. The onus of such a construction shifts to a different filmmaking mode—advertising—and its recipients, the generalized consumer’s scopophilic gratification, rather than the male’s gaze. Bharati’s post-rape depression interrupts her ability to glow for the camera and infuse consumer products with her radiance, motivating the second half of the film. Racialized beauty myths and proliferating beauty pageants (C. Chopra and F. Baria, India Today, 15 November 1996), offering women dramatic upward mobility from India’s small towns to metropolitan penthouses, are aspects Insaaf clairvoyantly signals. This naturalized body/beauty myth combines far more pernicious aspects of patriarchy, capital, and commodification.
I draw a distinction here between the fetishization and sublimation of women’s bodies for consumer commodities in advertising, and felicitations of the body as a site of intimacy, pleasure, and desire. In the 1980s the sexualized Hindi film heroine was no longer punished as was the phallic vamp for satisfying specular desires to see women’s bodies, as Pandit Indra candidly states. Previous female stars’ feigned lack of awareness about their bodies gave way to consciously teasing the limits of, and the pleasure in, “showing.” In the 1990s bawdy film songs further pushed the boundaries of sexualized public discourse. Playing off the ribaldry in the rasiya tradition, these songs celebrate the risque once associated with the peasantry and folk music. Displacing earlier decades of film music’s lilting poetry fashioned by a refined urbane sensibility, these tongue-in-cheek lyrics reflect the trouble between the sexes as well as women’s pleasure in being both the objects and the subjects of desire.
Bharati’s courtroom tirade at the end of the film results in more than a symbolic victory. The judge ruefully admits the court’s (read Indian state’s) failure towards women and sets Bharati free. The sequence’s extreme lack of credibility undermines it and fails to vindicate the original indictment of the judicial system. Yet a lot has changed since the self-punishing Vandana in Aradhana a decade before quietly acquiesced to a twelve-year incarceration for defending herself against rape. If melodrama condenses profound public/private conflicts, at once exposing and reaffirming power relations (Gledhill 1987; Landy 1991), it is also a vivid emotional register in Hindi films. In Aradhana the centrality of affect shored up by the profilmic masculine fantasy acknowledges patriarchal oppression and proffers reverence in the form of a grand award from the state (fusing mother/nation/state)—an awkward and phan – tasmic compensation. On the other hand, in the post-198os woman’s film nothing short of “sweet revenge” compensates for women’s suffering.
The 1980s rape-revenge film, fuelled by women’s rage, dramatizes a public discourse that repudiates victimization and patriarchy and that is distinct from the pre-198os obsessive “inscription” and “erasure” of sexual violence, Teesri Manzil-style. The topos of rape, a weapon against the weak, is used by filmmakers as a rhetorical trope to conjure images of power, coercion, and humiliation in conflicts between the culturally powerless and powerful.28 Yet domination/subordination, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in the context of Bandit Queen, is not an eternal category but an unstable one, and the vengeful action fulfills this prophecy. Nor is “meaning,” and here I reiterate her invocation of Susie Tharu: “so much total expression as a tension, a difference from that which went before” (Tharu 1989, 866).
I contend that the historical context is crucial to understanding the arrival of the avenging women’s film, its success and role in the circulation of discourses between representation and reality.29 In the films I have discussed— from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—I see the discourse on womanhood in an orbit from reverence to rape, and then revenge. It is no accident that the sharp reaction to Mathura’s rape in 1978 spearheaded the women’s movement. Gopalan’s anguished point is that, within the Hindi film narrative, it takes a woman’s rape to permit revenge. Ironically, and rather more ominously, the rape-revenge genre’s history reflects an unhappy reality. It took Mathura’s (and Rameeza Bee’s and Maya Tyagi’s) rape for the nation to focus attention on women’s rage organized as a movement.