For long the women’s movement has tried to establish that rape is not a mere manifestation of a ‘sick mindset’ that defines the mindset of a few. Protection from rape cannot be ensured either by locking women in or by identifying and selectively keeping out a few visible ‘others’ who alone can be perceived as capable of rape. Rape is a crime of power and thus the battle against it must target the asymmetrical power structures that make rape possible. The battle against rape must necessarily target the patriarchal foundations of our societal structures and institutions that fuel and keep alive rape culture.
And as this battle is fought on ground, every now and then one finds attempts that are made through various media to reflect or shape the discourse around rape. A recent example being Leslee Udwin’s documentary that focused on the 16th December rape incident. In the debates that followed the online release of Leslee Udwin’s ‘India’s daughter’, a question often posed to those critical of the movie was- “Is it really possible to make a movie or a documentary on rape that could really capture most, if not all the aforementioned nuances and complexities that underlie rape and rape culture?” An opportunity to watch a documentary by Mitali Biswas, ‘Naam Poribortito’ (Identity Undisclosed) during the Cinema of Resistance Film Festival in Kolkata and later again during a screening of the same in Jadavpur University, has strengthened my conviction that yes, indeed it is possible to make a movie on rape and rape culture in a manner that is neither reductionist nor sensationalist.
Naam Poribortito is based on the increased instances of rape in India and in particular West Bengal, over the last few years and on the narratives of ongoing struggles for justice that are being waged by rape survivors and several other fearless activists.
One of the central themes of Naam Poribortito is to question and dispel the assumption that rape is a crime of lust wherein a rapist tries to satisfy an enhanced sexual drive. In a society where it is not the perpetrator but the victim who is usually put in the dock and held responsible for inviting rape through the choice of dress, time of venturing out or the choice of lifestyle, dispelling this assumption becomes particularly significant. The documentary attempts this through various ways that includes analytic insights by psychologists and activists from the women’s movement. However, it is not just through these articulations that this assumption is busted. A more potent tool of rebutting such an understanding is through the selection of diverse narratives that include cases of marital rape, rape by other family members, child sexual abuse, rapes that were committed with clear intentions of political score settling and quelling voices of dissent and rapes by the army in the regions where AFSPA has been imposed.
In each of these cases, the act of rape did not result from mere promise of sexual gratification and the rapist was not a demonic, uncivilized beast who existed on the margins of our society. Instead, the rapes could be seen as resulting from the presumption of impunity that stems from being in power or being close to those in power or the power that the societal institutions accord over familial own or the smug assuredness that victim is too feeble to complain and that any complain is likely to invite castigation of the victim and not of the perpetrator. Further, in case of West Bengal, be it the rape of Tapasi Mallik during the Singur agitation by CPI (M) backed goons or the issuance of rape threats, attempts to rape and actual rapes of CPI (M) women activists and sympathisers by TMC goons, there are ample evidences that help in establishing the use of rape as a political tool. The documentary, by drawing examples from both locations of sexual violence, is able to forcefully show how successive ruling formations in WB have systematically used rapes as tools of political vendetta and ensuring subjugation.
The significance of the selection of narratives also lies in the fact that these cannot be used to legitimise confinement of women by propagating the fear of the ‘demonic’ other. When a rape occurs in the confines of one’s own home or the home of a known other, confinement cannot be a way of ensuring safety. Also, when a rape occurs as a punishment for standing up and speaking out, the confining of the potential victim can only further strengthen the potency of rape threat as an effective tool of silencing!
The movie further explores and exposes mindsets of common people and various political and social leaders to bring forth how misogyny is not confined to the mindsets of a few from whom we can try and safely distance ourselves.
Another dimension of the documentary that was particularly significant is the depiction of the rape survivors. Frequently one finds that in movies, news reports, stories, novels and even in our everyday discourses, the rape survivors are either reduced to agency-less figures deserving only our patronising sympathies or their agencies with which they made certain lifestyle choices, are turned into targets of most vicious and misogynist comments and attacks. In the dichotomies that largely play out in our structural spaces, a rape survivor is thus either a “zindaa laash” (a living dead body) or a woman of dubious character who brought upon rape on herself. In the first few minutes of the movie, the infamous ‘zindaa laash’ (living corpse) comment of Sushma Swaraj – that she had made in reference to rape victims – was played. I had a gut feeling that it would be immediately followed by a rejoinder by other women activists who would lucidly explain why it wasn’t so. While watching the movie I momentarily wondered why such a blatantly patriarchal remark that considers survivors of sexual violence as less able and dysfunctional beings was included without there being a rebuttal of the same by activists who had been part of the 16th December movement. However, as the documentary progressed, the resilience and the struggles of the survivors were evident. The refusal of the women to meekly accept rape as an unfortunate event in their lives and move on without demanding justice, begin to emerge as a powerful theme of the documentary. Then the realisation dawned that the only connecting thread between the different narratives was not just the occurrence of rape, but importantly also of a story of a fight back.
During the course of viewing, I had begun to wonder why the documentary had been titled ‘Identity Undisclosed’. As the movie attempted to uncover the power structure underlying rape, one found that the usual cautions regarding concealing the identity of the victim had been carefully observed. However as powerful narratives of resistance by the survivors and some courageous activists emerged, one began to wonder about the significance of the title of the movie. Definitely, ethics demanded that the identity of the rape survivors remained undisclosed, but was this the most dominant theme of their narratives, of their struggles and of their lives that they continued to live?
The more the courage of these stories touched a chord, the more the title of the film disturbed, till a moment towards the end of the film where a victim belonging to a lower socio-economic strata who continued to be subjected to ostracism, character assassination and threats for having dared to fight for justice, was heard saying to the cameraman to the effect of– “I want to speak through your camera to all who are listening, I am not the one who needs to remain hidden, what wrong did I do, what have I to feel ashamed of? Why should it be that my assaulters move around freely and boldly… it is them who should be ashamed and who should feel the need to hide.” And at this moment, she directs the cameraman to show her face…her identity stands disclosed and as the camera finally reveals her face, what one witnesses is not an expression of being a ‘zindaa laash’, but of a survivor and a fighter. There perhaps could not have been a more befitting response to the likes of Sushma Swaraj and those who continue to use rape as a political tool to subjugate. Barring the child victim of sexual abuse, all the adult rape survivors featured in the documentary, had in the documentary itself and by way of written statement decided to disclose their identity. In both the screenings that I attended, the survivors were part of the audience.
The potency of the movie to enable the audience to see rape and rape culture not as an outcome of a decadent morality but as a systemic violence unleashed by the hallowed patriarchal power structures was effectively conveyed in the discussion that followed the first screening. Importantly it was most visible in the words shared by the survivors who made it amply clear that their fight for individual justice was not inseparable from the larger struggle for gender justice. After the screening, as the audience stood up to give a standing ovation, the survivor who had instructed the cameraman to reveal her face, urged them to join the movement, saying- “some days ago we all came together and raised the slogan of hokkolorob (let there be noise), we must again come together to fight and raise the slogan of hokpratibaad (let there be resistance)”.
A crime of power needed to be resisted by nothing less than a political struggle. The point could not have been better conveyed.