Questions We Don’t Ask

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Is depiction of sexual violence, animal abuse and communalism in Indian films a recipe for commercial success?

Our cinema is filled with tropes. These require us to abandon our faith in physics, morality and the legal system. Films might entertain, but the questions they raise can be inadvertent.

Do women need to be harassed in order for them to like men? Does having fair skin make one a hero, and dark skin a villain? If a hero’s cause is heroic, does that enable him to run from the police? Is all the collateral damage incurred during a police chase paid for? Can I get away with striking down my enemies with violence, without worrying about a dozen odd court cases to my name?

When watching films, if we were to suspend our suspension of disbelief, just for a moment, we might find ourselves asking uncomfortable questions at many junctures within a film.

But films are powerful. They have a hard social impact. The acts people get away with in films sometimes translate into real world examples. It takes a type of mindset to precede the act of rape, or animal abuse, or of breaking the law. This thought process is disseminated through culture – traditions, films, rituals and advertising.

Indian cinema by and large shunts these questions. Unsurprisingly, our society does not seem to prove otherwise either.

We know that one can get away with various acts of animal abuse – both on screen and off it. We know that everyday forms of aggression, molestation and rape towards women are ever-present – and can go largely unreported. Celebrities are often worshipped, and we know that extreme fandom can lead to violence, rioting and even suicide.

We know that domestic violence and rape are tolerated when it’s within a marriage, and are shown that marriages themselves may happen without consent. In real life, all it takes is a cluster of uncles, aunts and parents to consent to a wedding for it to become an inevitability.

On animals, in particular, the case is grim. Only from 2006 were filmmakers in India compelled to get a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to their use of animals onscreen, though laws existed around this since 2001. The law itself is sporadically enforced, and flouting it seems to be a common practice. And in the case of films made before 2006, this requirement might be arriving decades too late.

This popular scene from a 1995 Telugu film has been widely shared. Known as the horse drifting scene, it features various instance where horses might have been injured during production. As action scenes go, it’s pretty intense. Until one considers that the mid-90s wasn’t a period known for photorealistic CGI – making for real horses being used. They fall headfirst into ponds, are tripped by ropes and seen twisting their necks on the hard tarmac, and are even ridden through shattering panes of glass – thrice.

One can be fairly sure that no lead actors were injured during production (barring a painful moment where he is impaled by his crotch onto a lamppost), though the case of stunt doubles and of the actors playing police remains unclear. Stunt doubles are not always eligible to receive insurance for their injuries. To receive coverage, they must be members of the Cine Artists Union, and membership comes with a fee.

But it is important to suspend one’s disbelief. Only then will scenes like this make sense. Without context, Western viewers might find it extremely surreal – perhaps even making them question their own realities (as seen in the linked article). But it is our immediate context that makes it truly a bringer of madness.

The plot pits an Indian colonel against Pakistani Jihadis. The clip depicts the colonel fighting the conveniently green terrorists by invoking ancient Hindu icons and legends. The Indian subcontinent and its history itself must be called upon to fight this enemy. Needless to say, pitting Hindu iconery as the best means of fighting the evil green guys doesn’t exactly help these communally-charged times.

An industry obsession with fairness helps aid the creation of an idealized form for men and women – one that starkly clashes with the many hues and complexions of the Indian people.

But why relate films to reality? The reality is a bummer. It reminds us that we have the highest number of starving children in the world, that up to six women are raped every day, that the total number of people displaced by development since independence crosses 60 million. It reminds us that a fairness cream industry worth $450 million has made our complexions a marketing point.

But then again, when the reality can be so grim, perhaps the film provides a well-timed escape. The problem lies in what escapes from the silver screen, and into our societies.

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