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Rape, Entertainment and Bandit Queen

Clipping (49kbs) - The Times of India, 06/05/1996. By Radha Rajadhyaksha

Record Number : A0011458

Click to browse by keyword: Cinema Film exhibition National Culture Censorship Public Accountability Gender Women Feminism Freedom of Expression Television TV


Rape, Entertainment and Bandit Queen

IMPOSSIBLE as it is to sort out the tangled skeins of the controversy called Bandit Queen, the responses to the film and its interim banning have brought to the surface certain subterranean truths — truths not so much about the film itself as the parameters of the industry and the society within which it functions. And these clearly demonstrate how we, as an audience conditioned by a certain kind of cinema, media and censorship pattern, have lost the ability to think for ourselves any more.

The responses to the film have ranged from unequivocal (those titillated/morally outraged by the ‘controversial’ scenes) to ambivalent (viewers moved by the film, yet taken aback by its explicitness) to plain absurd (“Bad film, yaar, it had no entertainment”). At first glance there might appear to be nothing in common between these responses; a closer look, however, betrays a larger syndrome at work.

To take the most controversial response first: why did the audience which whistled and, hooted at the scenes of rape and nudity display this deplorable lack of sensitivity? What made it view a terrorised and humiliated woman with lust rather than with indignation and sympathy?

Major Factor

The answer to that question could lie in the more pervasive decay around us, but a major factor, one suspects, has to do with the reprehensible culture that a section of Hindi cinema has been gradually building up — a culture that has turned women into sex objects and unashamedly transformed a crime like rape into an item of ‘entertainment’. This culture has taken its toll on a collective psyche already shaped by patriarchal values: little wonder, therefore, that a rape scene, any rape scene, whether the nauseous depictions shot with a distinct view to titillate, or the horrifying humiliation of a human being as depicted in Bandit Queen, is met with the same Pavlovian response.

Rape as entertainment is the conspicuous damage wrought on public consciousness by Hindi box-office cinema — less obvious but equally dangerous is its unspoken diktat of what a film should be. The kingpins of the industry and certain sections of the media have always, directly or otherwise, decreed that the raisan d’etre of cinema is entertainment — and over the years this mindset has percolated down to audiences, with far-reaching consequences. It is thus that a film like Bandit Queen gets viewed through the same prism as a run-of-the-mill pot-boiler and its specific situations reacted to in much the same fashion. Thus, whether it is the lumpens who cheer the ‘sex’ and ‘violence’ in the film or the ‘family audiences’ who disapprove of it for being unable to ‘entertain’ in the ‘clean’ manner of films such as Hum Aapke Hain Koun, both are handicapped by their conditioning and unable to relate to the film as a depiction of a larger reality — this, despite its obviously different form.

Moral Outrage

After the release of Bandit Queen, a viewer interviewed on television had emphatically dubbed it third-rate: it was “too obscene,” he said, and had “no entertainment in it whatsoever”. The clubbing together of these two completely unrelated qualifiers is interesting — it betrays the fact that the average audience is so drugged by popular cinema that it demands entertainment as its birthright; and within the parameters of this entertainment, rape is acceptable as long as it is not too explicit. Thus the moral outrage when a film like Bandit Queen comes along — audiences are unable to perceive the scenes of rape and nudity in their own sub-context, seeing them rather as a formula that has gone too far.

Stripped of our ability to think, we have begun to react as literally as the vast majority of, Censor Board officials who equate nudity with obscenity; who clinically measure the ‘vulgarity’ in a scene by the degree of flesh exposed, without giving a thought to the specifics. By these simplistic formulae, the most lascivious and purely gratuitous rape scenes are fine as long as they do not show too much skin — but a film like Bandit Queen with its unprecedented full frontal nudity and horrifying gang rape becomes the nadir of ‘obscenity’. And it is this mindset that allows films like Zakhmee Aurat — which, in its six or seven rape scenes, showed less flesh but was far more offensive — get by without so much as a squeak of protest, while Bandit Queen becomes a symbol of ‘vulgarity’ which deserves to be banned.

Had we been exposed to a more mature cinema and censorship pattern all these years, we would certainly have been a maturer audience by now. We would have been able to relate to a film like Bandit Queen for what it is: the story of a woman who is as much a victim of caste and class as gender; a chilling indictment of the lawlessness and oppression that exist in this country so many years after independence.

Admittedly, there could be differing opinions on the merit of the film and other issues. But to even begin a discussion on these issues we have first to alter our own blinkered perceptions and radically change the way we look at cinema.







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