Avenging Rape: How Bollywood delivered justice


In the wake of increasing sexual attacks on women, perpetrators invariably get away with their heinous crimes. No wonder there is a growing call for harsher punishment for rape. While some are demanding capital punishment, others suggest castration; harsh and effective.

In decades past, Bollywood has been notorious for using the peg of rape in its film plots to its own selfish ends. In many cases, the act itself would be filmed so lasciviously, as to indulge the baser instincts of the audience. Else the hero’s sister would invariably be raped and go on to commit suicide, spurring him on a path of revenge. Of the numerous films that have featured the issue of rape, only a handful can claim to have truly left viewers shaken by doing justice to the portrayal of this dastardly crime… and occasionally it's a fitting punishment.

Mom, which won a posthumous Best Actress National Award for its leading lady the late Sridevi, tells the tale of Arya, a teenage girl who is gang-raped and left to die by a group of four men. Her parents seek justice through legal recourse but the perpetrators get away with the crime. However, Devki (Sridevi), Arya’s stepmother and a teacher by profession, enlists the help of a local detective DK (Nawazuddin) to eliminate the wrongdoers. And she achieves it single-handedly despite a suspicious cop (Akshaye Khanna) on her trail…

If Sridevi will go down as the avenging angel mother, Raj Babbar will probably never be able to shake off the image of the dastardly rapist of Insaaf Ka Tarazu. A rich, arrogant man, he not only rapes successful model Bharti (Zeenat Aman) but also her younger sister Neeta (Padmini Kolhapure), after which Bharti kills him. This B R Chopra directed courtroom drama created considerable controversy when it released in 1983. Despite its titillating rape scenes, it made a scathing comment on society’s vicious attitude towards women who do not conform to the traditional idea of what a so-called good woman should be like.

Decades later, Pink also portrayed a similar theme, wherein the ‘character’ of a girl who is sexually harassed, is questioned because she parties with boys. The film helped drive home the message that immaterial of what a woman does, or wears her consent is everything.

The issue of rape was depicted with feeling in Ankush (1986). The rape of Anita, a young innocent girl, by her employer, galvanises a band of four lower-middle class young men to avenge her suicide, as the culprit is let off for want of evidence. Led by Nana Patekar, they eventually end up receiving capital punishment for carrying out justice, which the law of the land had failed to deliver.

Bhoomi (2017) also saw the victims turn vigilantes, as a tormented father played by Sanjay Dutt and his daughter (Aditi Rao Hydari) who has been gang-raped, ensure justice is meted out to the perpetrators. On similar lines, Pitaah (2002) sees Rudra, a poor labourer, try with all his might to fight the nepotism and bring justice to his daughter after she is brutally raped by the landlord's two sons. Similarly, Maatr (2017) depicted Vidya Chauhan (Raveena), a school teacher and her teenage daughter Tia (Alisha) being raped, assaulted and dumped on the roadside. While Tia succumbs to her injuries, Vidya survives and plots her revenge strategy as the police are largely unwilling and ineffectual.

Dimple Kapadia in Zakhmi Aurat (1988) was a police officer who was gang-raped and denied justice by the legal system. She goes on to form a band of brutalised women, who identify rapists, trap them and castrate them. Brutal? Yes. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Damini (1993) saw the lead character played by Meenakshi Seshadri take up cudgels on behalf of the housemaid who has been raped by her brother-in-law and his friends. The matter is taken to court, where Damini is asked to testify. However, she is portrayed as a mentally unstable person and confined in a mental institution by judicial order. The film sees lawyer Govind (Sunny Deol) join hands with Damini and her husband to ensure justice to the victimised maid, whose death is written off as a suicide.

Of the constant rape and sexual harassment that Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) faces in Bandit Queen (1994), perhaps the worst is her public rape and humiliation by Thakur Shri Ram (Govind Namdeo) and his men as punishment for her "disrespect" for his previous advances, and for her audacity at daring to fight for equality. The stunning and disturbing final humiliation and punishment is that she is stripped, paraded around Behmai, beaten and sent to fetch water from the well, in full view of the village. It is this last straw that sets her on a path of revenge and retribution.

Crime thriller Kaabil (2017), which featured a love affair between two blind people, played by Hrithik Roshan and Yami Gautam, sees the former avenge the death of his raped wife, by wilfully leading the culprits to their gory deaths. Even if the film was panned for serving up a plot that had last made its appearance two decades ago, it struck a chord with sympathetic audiences.

Audiences felt some sense of redemption at the punishment meted out to rapists in Mardaani (2014). The film told the story of a policewoman Shivani (Rani) whose interest in the case of a kidnapped teenage girl leads her to uncover secrets of human trafficking by the Indian mafia.

The 1978 film Ghar portrayed a couple (played by Vinod Mehra and Rekha)’s inability to handle the ghastly reality after the wife is gang-raped one night on their way home from a movie. The incident makes headlines in the media, while politicians milk it dry as part of their election campaign. While the husband is haunted by the incident, the woman is completely traumatised. Their loveless relationship needs a miracle to make things normal again…

Matrubhoomi (2003) struck an even more frightening note as it examined the impact of female foeticide and female infanticide on the gender balance and consequently the stability and attitudes of society. It depicted rape and fraternal polyandry in an Indian village populated exclusively by males due to female infanticide over the years. And in a situation like this, where the woman Kalki (Tulip Joshi) is raped by her five husbands, her father-in-law and finally gang-raped by the village men, not even a vigilante would be of much use…