Unjust films on justice
IMAGINE that you had been brutally gang-raped. Imagine that the justice system was so heavily weighed against you that the perpetrators of the crime went scot free. Imagine the humiliation, hurt, anger that you have to live with for the rest of your life. Imagine what it would be like if your story is made into a film - without your consent. Would you feel angry, sad, defeated, insulted? Or would you shrug your shoulders and hope that someone will learn something from the story shown in the film?
We are familiar with these questions because of the heated debates and legal battles that followed the making of Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen", the story of Phoolan Devi. In the end who won and who lost is not entirely clear. Shekhar Kapoor has become a big name in cinema; Phoolan Devi has established herself as a politician and MP.
But the recent film by Mr. Jagmohan Mundra, better known for his failed film "Monsoon", on the life of Bhanwari Devi has so far not encountered too many questions or controversies. Mr. Mundra probably hopes he will get around this by stating that although his film is based on a true story, it is fiction. Thus, by changing the name Bhanwari to Sanwari and her husband's name Mohan to Sohan, he thinks the problem is solved.
Unfortunately, it is not. Bhanwari Devi is an incredibly brave woman. As a saathin, part of the now virtually defunct but once path-breaking Women's Development Programme (WDP) in Rajasthan, she bravely stood up to the dominant Gujjar caste in her village and challenged traditions like child marriage. For this she was punished - by being gang-raped by four men of the village, including the village priest. Her story has been written about in the media in India and abroad. She has received awards for her courage in speaking out and taking the case to court.
After all that, Bhanwari quietly continues to work as a saathin. She has to face the taunts of people in the village who often call her a whore to her face and in front of her children. She has little money; her award money has been spent in fighting her case which is now in the High Court. And she is deeply worried about the impact of Mr. Mundra's film "Bawandar" (Sandstorm) on her life, on the life of her children and on the on-going battle in court.
The film, of course, is not as bad as it could have been. Nor is it a particularly good film. The real problem with it lies in the ethics of making films based on people who are still alive without getting their informed consent. The script writer apparently met Bhanwari and even has a photograph to prove that he did. But the very fact that neither Bhanwari, nor the women's groups who have supported her, are acknowledged in the film proves that the film-maker did not consult them fully.
While Bhanwari Devi's case drew together a wide coalition of women's and human rights groups across the country, the film depicts women's groups as superficial, society women for whom travel on work is coterminus with shopping expeditions. Why should a film-maker, who claims he wants to show the "real" struggle of a "real" woman portray women activists in this unreal light? While it is true that these days, well-funded NGOs are giving the general public the impression that working with an NGO is as good as being a part of the corporate sector, the majority of activists still struggle against the state and other entrenched groups. There is little glamour in the work they do. Was the director attempting to "balance" the male villains in the film with some female villains?
Even if such pointless stereotyping could be overlooked, Mr. Mundra has committed a far more serious crime. In a scene in which these Delhi-based society types, in their silk sarees and shawls, visit Sanwari in her village to extend their support, one of them asks for the blouse that Sanwari had worn on the day she was raped, inspects it and asks, "Why is it in one piece?" She then proceeds to tear it and to virtually manufacture evidence.
While doing so, she states that the end is what is important and not the means. Given that the case is still in court, such a depiction is the height of irresponsibility by a person who claims that he is truly concerned about Bhanwari Devi's future.
But having said all this, the film is tolerable because of Nandita Das. This talented young actress has given a superb, controlled performance in the lead role. She has put a great deal of sincerity and conviction into the role, something that clearly comes from within as Nandita is a feminist and has openly associated with groups fighting for women's rights and social justice. Supporting her is Raghubir Yadav, another remarkable actor who is not seen often enough in films.
Also to his credit, Mr. Mundra has not exploited the rape scene as would most Bollywood directors. He has also not stinted in exposing the political-caste nexus that led to Bhanwari Devi losing her case in the lower court. For this he might have to face the wrath of powerful caste groups in Rajasthan.
"Bawandar" is unlikely to be a box office hit. It might just slip away without creating too many ripples. On the other hand, despite its shortcomings, it might move people, open their eyes to the reality of our unjust justice system that traumatises the victims rather than giving them solace and justice.
But sadly, for the woman on whose life the film is based, none of this will be of much comfort if in the end the distortions of her story work against her as she continues her battle through the courts.