Mapping the Depiction of Sexual Assault Trials in Bollywood

Updated: Oct 19

- Ayushi Agarwal*



Introduction

Cinema is a social phenomenon[1] in that it is at once a mirror of society’s practices, aspirations and beliefs, and at the same time a catalyst for the formation of new ideas and narratives.[2] The Hindi film industry, also known as Bollywood, is renowned as one of the most commercially successful in the world.[3] More than 2.7 billion tickets were sold for Bollywood at theatres alone.[4] Given this, it is important to analyse how Bollywood incorporates and propagates some of the problematic practices in society. In this paper, I aim to map and analyse the depiction of sexual assault trials in Bollywood, with the objective of unravelling how it directly or indirectly reinforces gendered prejudices and stereotypes. For this purpose, I selected films that involve an incident of sexual assault and a consequent trial. The only relevant films that fell into this defined scope were Damini (1993), Aitraz (2004) and Pink (2016). I have mapped the trials in each of these films with the following research questions as a reference point:


First, does Bollywood propagate defined gender roles through sexual assault trials? While analysing this question, I undertake two enquiries—first, what kind of questions are posed to the victim and witnesses and what is their response; and second, who is responsible for securing a favourable verdict? Second, what are the important symbols in the film and what message do they convey? Third, what is the role of the police, the media and the judge and what impact does it have in the film? And finally, is sexual assault the main narrative or the main focus of the film?


Through my analysis of each of the selected films in successive chapters, I argue that sexual assault trials in Damini and Aitraz reinforce defined gender roles, and the trial itself is a way to send across a larger message that takes the focus away from sexual assault. Though also guilty of abiding by gender norms to an extent, Pink breaks this pattern by retaining its focus on sexual assault.


I. Damini- the “Ideal Indian Woman” as a living example of Gandhi’s Teachings

Many have argued that rape-revenge films such as Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighat (1987) and Damini (1993) were a response to the controversial Mathura case,[5] which began in 1974 and led to public frustration with the prevalent social malaise of eve-teasing and rape.[6] In that context, it is important to see how Damini portrays a sexual assault trial. No viewer can underestimate the fact that for its own time, Damini was indeed a revolutionary step for the portrayal of women in Indian cinema,[7] given that in the Indian cinema of 1960s and 1970s, women’s response to the trauma of rape was limited to passive disobedience, silent protest or internalisation of shame.[8] Though steeped in some of the gender stereotypes discussed below, the central character Damini was still portrayed as a strong and independent woman who stands up to her father with respect to the accepted norms about dowry, questions the lack of education of her village children and draws attention to the malpractices by the sweets vendor. Despite being a traditional homemaker and dutifully going about the household chores, she opposes her own family as well as her in-laws when it comes to the issue of voicing the truth and bringing the perpetrators of a heinous crime to justice. However, the focus on the sexual assault of the housemaid, which is the turning point in the relationship between most characters, is lost in the film’s attempt to idolise Damini for being the ideal Indian woman and exemplifying Gandhi’s teachings.


Synopsis

Shekhar, the son of an industrialist falls in love with Damini, a poor postman’s daughter and marries her. At the family’s Holi celebrations, she witnesses the housemaid, Urmi, being raped by her brother-in-law and his three friends, and calls Shekhar. When Damini and Shekhar attempt to stop them, the perpetrators take Urmi and dump her near a railway station. The police finds her and starts investigating. The family tells Damini to protect the family honour and lie about the episode and deny having seen it. She does so, after being told Urmi is fine and is being taken care of in her village. However, she eventually finds out that Urmi is in the hospital and is fighting for her life. She goes and gives her testimony to the police, seeing it as her duty towards Urmi. It is then revealed that the police was pursuing the case in such a diligent manner only to extort money from Shekhar’s family at a later stage. Shekhar’s family hires the top criminal lawyer in the city to defend their second son and the trial begins.


Shekhar’s entire family (excluding Shekhar) as well as Damini’s father testify against Damini. They say that she loses her mental balance when she sees colours, which led her to concoct the story of rape. The judge rules that Damini should be kept in a mental asylum for two weeks and then the next hearing will be held. In the middle of this period, Damini escapes and is saved by a stranger, Govind, as she is being pursued by Shekhar’s family’s gundas. When she finds out that Govind is a barrister, she extorts him to represent her. He enters the scene and brings light to all the false evidence presented in court. In the midst of all this, Urmi passes away, in what is termed as a suicide. Before the last hearing, attempts are made to kill Damini, Govind as well as Shekhar who has finally decided to give his eye witness account against his brother. However, they all reach Court. Damini gives an emotional speech in front of the Court about the futility of institutions of justice and how she was shamed openly when she tried to protect another woman’s honour. Shekhar finally gives his eye-witness account and his brother and the other three perpetrators are convicted.


Deconstructing the Film

In analysing whether this film propagates defined gender roles, the first enquiry is regarding the questions asked to the victim or the witnesses during the trial. It is clear that the defense lawyer Chaddha attempted to shame Damini into silence by asking her to name the body parts where the perpetrators touched Urmi as well as the positions they were in.[9] This reflects how an honourable woman in Indian society, keeping with standards of propriety, is expected to be embarrassed to call out the names of private body parts or sexual positions in a public setting. Damini, in keeping with the status of an educated but honourable woman accorded to her in the film, falters and hesitates to confidently describe the entire scene, thus reinforcing the stereotypes associated with the acceptable actions of “proper women.”


It is also interesting to note that in the last scene before the verdict is given, Damini shames Chaddha by referring to his attempts to quieten her by asking her to name the body parts. However, she names them not as body parts themselves but by alluding to the value they have in a woman’s body. For instance, she draws attention to the nurturing value of breasts and describes them as crucial to a mother’s rile and therefore essential to every human being’s identity.[10] This reinforces the stereotype that such body parts, instead of being seen independently as a part of a woman’s sexuality, can only be talked about in open spaces in an “honourable way.” To talk about women’s right to claim female sexual pleasure would have been to transgress the boundaries of what was considered socially acceptable at the time.[11] She also asks Chaddha if he would have dared to ask his mother or sister the same questions that he asked her, which again reinforces that a familial relationship must be assumed between a man and a woman in order for her to be seen as worthy of his respect, and not just by virtue of the fact that she is a woman.


The second enquiry is with regards to who is responsible for securing a favourable verdict under my analysis of propagation of defined gender roles. It is notable that even though Damini is the central character of the film and is the one who begins the fight for justice for Urmi, ultimately it is Govind, an embittered ex-lawyer who finally comes to her rescue when all else fails, and saves the day. This affirms the stereotype that at the end of the day, irrespective of the struggle for a noble cause by a woman, the fight is won only when she is joined by a noble man.[12] In fact, the portrayal of Govind’s anger at the state of affairs in the institutions of justice, his deep commitment to Urmi’s case wherein he even risks his life and his depiction as a “macho man” who physically fights the gundas[13], further develops the contours of who the audience may consider to be a “noble” man, someone who can save the honour of women. Further, Govind is also responsible for drawing attention to the failure of the criminal justice system given the fact that instead of giving justice, it only gives the next date, and the misery continues for the victim.[14] Thus, it is this new Indian male who sanctions the avenging action of the new Indian female—a sanctioning that is necessitated in a society that disallows legal and social autonomy to women.[15]


Second, on the question of the role of the police, the media and the judge, it was seen in the film that while the police was portrayed as self-interested, corrupt and at the beck and call of the rich, the judge was portrayed as a mute spectator who could be easily manipulated, making citizens struggle to get justice.[16] The defense lawyer, Chaddha, is portrayed as a vile and unscrupulous individual, who employs all kinds of unfair means to succeed. In fact, the interaction between the bad lawyer and the good lawyer is designed as a face-off to have maximum appeal to the audience.[17] The media was portrayed as insensitive, as seen in the scene where several reporters come to interview Urmi in the hospital and want her to reveal her scars for the camera. Damini also delivers a powerful and emotionally charged speech at the end of the film where she describes how everyone involved, from the media, to the police, to the doctor, made a business out of Urmi’s rape as a result of which she was raped again and again in an open Court. Such portrayal of actors within the criminal justice system heightens the focus on the hero as the “saviour” and reduces the role of the State in securing justice for victims.


Third, on the question of the symbols in the film and the message conveyed by them, it was notable that the perpetrators were explicitly shown with a bottle of alcohol in their hand right before they raped Urmi, and then again a bottle of alcohol was shown while the rape was being committed. Colouring the heinous crime of rape with the presence of alcohol introduces a bias in our society as well as in the criminal justice system that rape is caused only by alcohol-consumption and diminishes the focus on premeditation in a sober state. This turns out to be crucial in cases where the victim has also consumed alcohol at the time of the offence, and reduces the veracity of her claims or the perceived gravity of the offence.[18]


Further, it hides from view the social, economic and gender power dynamics that play out, especially in this particular instance of rape, where Urmi is the housemaid and the accused are in a position of power over her.


The symbol of the goddess Durga is also seen throughout the film. When Damini is kicked out of the house by her in-laws for having testified against their son, she is seen leaving only with an idol of Durga in her hand. When Damini is in the mental asylum, she sees a procession carrying idols of Durga and feels energised by it, after which she is able to escape. The film also carries an entire song sequence “Tandav” in the midst of the trial, wherein Damini takes on the role of Durga. This repeated symbolism and its association with Damini is intended to convey to the audience both the source of inspiration for Damini, a woman fighting demons for justice, as well as the consequent merging of the idol and the human, implying that Damini achieves the goddess status because of her deeds.


Finally, on the question of whether sexual assault is the main narrative in the film, the observation is that indeed it is not. The entire story line on the rape of a housemaid and the daughter-in-law’s struggle for justice ultimately ties back to affirming the image of the “ideal Indian woman” who proves to be a living example of “Gandhi’s ideals”. By beginning with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi,[19]at the very outset, the film sets a context for its ending, where the judge repeats this quote and holds the accused guilty. The judge also pronounces that since Damini has made Mahatma’s teaching come true, the decision in the case will be known as Damini’s decision. This sends across the message to the audience that story of rape was only a means to an end. The end objective of the movie was to focus on drawing up an image of the Indian woman with the highest values, who stands up to injustice like the Mahatma did while at the same time conforming with notions of propriety, and therefore deserves to be idolised just as we idolise the father of the nation. This has the effect of defining for the audience what kind of woman is worthy, and as a corollary, what kind of a woman is unworthy. It must be noted that the narrative that interlocks rape and revenge does not sufficiently dislodge conventional representation of women in Indian cinema.[20] Indeed, casting women as embodiments of tradition only recycles old stereotypes.[21]


In light of the above, Damini may be seen as a film that was successful in marking a step forward for the portrayal of Indian women and according them agency, as well as drawing attention to the apathy and insensitivity of the criminal justice system towards victims of sexual assault. At the same time, it must be remembered that it did so within the larger bounds of defined gender roles, and affirmed several gender stereotypes through the portrayal of its characters, such as the shame associated with naming intimate body parts in a public setting as well as the necessity of having a man finally save the day. Ultimately, by having Gandhi’s ideals as the larger message, it also diluted the message against sexual assault.

II. Aitraz- Pitting the Ambitious Modern Woman against the Devoted Traditional Wife

Aitraz, a copy of the 1994 Hollywood movie Disclosure, released in 2004, more than a decade after Damini.[22] Yet, it is an important successor in terms of continuing the conversation on sexual assault. If Damini were to be seen as a step forward in bringing attention to the plight of victims of sexual assault in the criminal justice system, Aitraz must be seen as a step backward. In what comes across as a male apologist narrative,[23] the movie attempts to take the conversation on sexual assault, in an entirely different direction. At the same time, it increases the emphasis placed on defined gender identities by pitting the ambitious modern woman against the devoted traditional wife, using a sexual assault trial only as a means to declare the victory of the latter over the former.


Synopsis

Raj and Priya are leading a very happy life as a married couple, and are about to have a baby. Sonia enters the frame, as Managing Director and the wife of the owner of the company in which Raj works. It is revealed that many years ago, Raj and Sonia had met when she modelled for a company in which he worked and had started dating. Soon they find out that Sonia is pregnant. However, Sonia tells Raj that she is getting an abortion because she doesn’t want a baby at this stage of her career. After having a disagreement over this and expressing his discontent over how ambitious and career-obsessed she is, Raj breaks up with Sonia.


Back to the present, it is evident that all of Sonia’s advances are being rejected by Raj. She calls him in the evening to her house saying that they can discuss the pending work there. She makes advances there and Raj opposes it. She proceeds nonetheless, and Raj eventually appears to be slowly giving in. However, his locket opens and he sees his wife’s picture inside. He tells her that he cannot cheat on his wife. She gets very angry and says she got him promoted so that he would be close to her.[24] The next day, Raj is told to sign his resignation letter by the Chairman, who alleges that he tried to rape his wife. When Raj shares all of this with Priya, she expresses her faith in him and tells him to fight a case of sexual harassment against Sonia as a counter to Sonia’s case against him alleging rape. As the case proceeds, a tape of the conversation between Raj and Sonia emerges, and Raj’s lawyer is killed while the tape is destroyed. At this point, Priya, who has studied law, decided to become her husband’s counsel. She turns the case around by exposing the past affair of Raj and Sonia and playing a taped conversation on the evening of the incident. Raj and Priya win the case. Humiliated, Sonia commits suicide.


Deconstructing the Film

First, in analysing whether the film propagates defined gender roles, my first enquiry is into the questions posed to the victim and the witnesses during the trial. Though questions pertaining to private body parts are posed to Raj multiple times, his confidence remains unshaken and he answers each question without hesitation. He says “kiss” multiple times, and even describes how Sonia’s hands were on his back or chest. However, when Raj’s secretary, Jenny is called as a witness and asked where Raj used to pat her with a newspaper in the morning, she hesitates and hangs her head in shame before meekly uttering “bum”. This is consistent with the shame Indian women, but not men, are expected to demonstrate when speaking of sexual matters.


Continuing with the analysis of propagation of defined gender roles, my second enquiry is regarding who was responsible for securing a favourable verdict. While on the face of it, it may appear that gendered assumptions are thwarted since it is a woman, Priya, who secures a favourable verdict, a deeper analysis is required to uncover the real “hero”. In fact, it isn’t any woman, but a devoted traditional wife, who appears in the Court wearing a mangalsutra each time, who is able to save her husband from doom. Two dialogues in the film are specifically aimed at highlighting such a characterisation.[25] In doing so, the film reinforces the benevolent role associated with devoted wives who can even snatch them from death, instead of celebrating it as a victory of a woman who fought her first case and won it due to her diligence.


Second, on the question of the role of the actors within the criminal justice system, the police is non-existent, the media coverage is negligible while the judge once again is nothing more than a mute spectator as the drama unfolds between a theatrical lawyer (representing Sonia), an earnest lawyer (Raj’s counsel) and later a mangalsutra-wearing devoted wife. Once again, this shifts the focus away from the role of the State in securing justice for the victim and heightens the appreciation of the hero, in this case, Raj’s wife—Priya.


Third, on the question of symbols and their meaning in the film, it is notable that every step is taken to portray Priya as the ultimate Indian wife. She is on great terms with her in-laws, dutifully touching their feet and cooking for them; she explicitly expresses her commitment to her husband’s well-being;[26] and wears her mangalsutra in every scene, irrespective of whether she’s dressed in Indian or western attire. This merges very well with Raj’s lawyer’s reference at the beginning of the trail that women must stay in their boundaries.[27] All these symbols ultimately work to reinforce the image of the perfect Indian woman and set a mirror in which Sonia’s contrasting traits get reflected as unworthy.


Finally, on the question of whether sexual assault is the main narrative in the film, the conclusion once again is that it is not. Indeed, while the narrative of male power on the female is challenged by reversing the victim-perpetrator roles, it is still done within the confines of a story that ultimately seeks to prove that the traditional Indian wife would always win over the modern independent Indian woman. Several dialogues said by Priya during the trial also demonstrate this opposition between the traditional and the modern woman.[28] The sexual assault trial therefore is used once again as a means to portray the battle between these two women, thereby, implying that the traits of independence and ambition are not suited to a “good Indian woman”, or that imbibing these traits would ultimately lead a woman into gloom and loneliness.[29]


This has the effect of reinforcing the patriarchal stereotype that women must stay within the bounds of the home in order to be truly happy, and could influence the audience to believe that chasing professional success will only lead girls to regret.


In light of the above, it is evident that the film Aitraz marks a definite step backward not just in terms of diluting the focus on the problems within the criminal justice system in dealing with victims of sexual assault, but also by pigeonholing the modern and independent woman as a vamp who always loses to the traditional Indian woman. Further, it is worth noting that the rape trial itself is displayed as a tool in the hands of an evil woman to wreak havoc in the life of an upright man-a trope that very much reaffirms the bias against victims of sexual assault as “liars” or ‘attention seekers.’

III. Pink—No Means No, Especially when a Patriarch says so

Pink, which released in 2016, and won critical acclaim, is the final film in my enquiry into the depiction of sexual assault trials in Bollywood. It followed Aitraz by more than a decade, and like Damini, should be seen as a major victory for the proponents of the movement against sexual assault, despite its flaws which will be discussed below. Most significantly, despite the film’s director Shoojit Sircar’s express declaration that the film is not inspired by the Nirbhaya gangrape in Delhi in December 2012,[30] it simply cannot be forgotten that this film belongs in the post-Nirbhaya age—a new age for India and how it looks at the sexual assault of independent working women who are trying to achieve their dreams.[31] While the film emphasises on just the right things and draws attention to the problematic assumptions against victims of sexual assault, it still retains the “male as saviour” paradigm and therefore misses the bus, albeit narrowly.


Synopsis

The film begins by creating an impression that a group of girls (Minal, Falak and Andrea) have just escaped from a troublesome incident, while a group of boys, who have brought a friend (Rajvir) to the hospital have been involved in a violent incident. Once Rajvir has recovered, the boys threaten the landlord of the girls to kick them out and also threaten the three girls individually. One of Rajvir’s friends meets Falak and tells her to compromise by saying sorry. Falak decides to compromise but while on the phone when Rajvir calls Minal degrading names, she gives him a piece of her mind. Indecent images of hers emerge and she is made to leave her job. Next, Minal is abducted and sexually assaulted in a car by Rajvir and his friends. Following this, the girls decide to pursue the matter legally and file a report of molestation in Surajkund. However, the police come to the girls’ house and arrests Minal, and she is put in the lock up.


Sehgal, who is the girls’ elderly neighbour, comes to the girls’ house and asks to see the complaint paper and tells them how to go about the bail procedure. That night the girls find out that Sehgal was once a renowned lawyer and called it quits. While Minal is still in the lock up, Andrea and Falak visit Sehgal and request him to help. He agrees, and manages to get Minal out. The trial against Minal for attempt to murder Rajvir begins, wherein Minal counter-alleges outraging her modesty and attempt to rape. It emerges that Minal, Falak and Andrea had voluntarily accompanied Rajvir and his friends to a resort to drink with them. The prosecution alleges that they solicited sex at the resort and when Rajvir refused to pay a higher price, Minal attacked him and escaped. As the trial progresses, Sehgal is able to discredit the false evidence presented by the prosecution, and draws attention to the extremely sexist assumptions made by Rajvir as well as his lawyer. Ultimately, the judge pronounces a verdict declaring Minal innocent and convicts Rajvir and his friends, noting that “a beginning has been made in this case”.


Deconstructing the Film

First, in analysing whether the film propagates defined gender roles through questions posed to the victim and the witnesses during the trial, it is found that unlike Damini and Aitraz where the opposing side’s lawyer asks personal questions or questions about private body parts, in Pink, it is Minal’s own lawyer who asks her whether she is a virgin and when did she lose her virginity. Although Minal does feel embarrassed and hesitates to answer this personal question, this nonetheless turns the narrative against victims of sexual assault on its head. Sehgal demonstrates that Minal’s virginity or lack thereof is not only inconsequential to the ongoing trial, but it also shows that she has participated in sexual acts with her free will which was absent in the present case. By doing so, defined gender roles and gendered assumptions in rape trials about the enunciation of private body parts and past sexual history is sought to be broken down.


Continuing with the analysis of propagation of defined gender roles, my second enquiry is with regards to the individual/entity responsible for securing a favourable verdict. Here, Pink falters. Instead of the victory being accorded to the strength and determination of the girls to not bow before the system, it is accorded to Sehgal, their neighbour and an ex-lawyer who comes to the girls’ rescue in their darkest hour.[32] What is more interesting to note, however, is the fact that Sehgal is not just a male figure but he can also be seen as a patriarch who not only warns the girls to be careful multiple times at the beginning of the film,[33] but can also be seen setting the new rules for the society through his “Girls’ Safety Manual”.[34] Perhaps this is an inescapable import of the apparent age difference between the young girls and the old ex-lawyer, or the fact that this persona has been associated with Amitabh Bhachan, who plays the role of Sehgal, for a very long time through his successive films. What remains, nonetheless, is the fact that in making Sehgal the “hero” who saves the honour of Minal, Falak and Andrea and brings about a change in how the legal system perceives them, Pink invariably abides by the gender relations where the man is the ultimate saviour.


Second, on the question of the role of the police, judge and the media, it is seen that while the police is portrayed as extremely insensitive and corrupt,[35] the media’s role is negligible. However, in distinction from Damini and Aitraz, the judge is relatively active, and is shown as both attentive and competent, especially in the way he grasps Sehgal’s argument that even if the girls were prostitutes, if they denied consent before the act, it would still be rape. However, as in Damini and Pink, the focus still remains on the hero, in this case Sehgal, as the medium through which justice is achieved, rather than on the State.

Third, on the question of the symbols in the film and their implications, it is crucial that Minal, Falak and Andrea had accompanied Rajvir and his friends to the resort and drank with them voluntarily. This is an important fact for a film that ultimately seeks to espouse that this voluntary act does not reduce the gravity of the consequent attempt to force sex. Further, the character of the girls and the boys is also deliberately developed in a manner that delves straight into the youth’s perception of the opposite sex. While Minal, Falak and Andrea are all portrayed as independent working women who live away from their homes, and have tattoos, piercings, coloured hair and an inclination to “have fun”, the boys are portrayed as indulgent, extremely sexist[36] and aggressive. To an extent, the film also tries to reflect on the feudal mentality in many of the well-to-do families in India, which appear to be modern on the surface but continue to hold extremely orthodox beliefs about women.


Finally, on the question of whether the sexual assault trial is the main narrative in the film, Pink indeed distinguishes itself from both Damini and Aitraaz in that it is able to successfully drive home a very crucial message about sexual assault—that no means no, irrespective of the character of the woman. It emphasises that the focus should be on whether consent was present, instead of looking at many irrelevant gendered assumptions.[37] However, what remains problematic is that this message is received as legitimate because it is voiced by an honourable agent—the Patriarch, played by Sehgal. Though this reduces the strength of the film as truly path-breaking and women-centric, it nonetheless achieves much more than what many other films have only attempted.


In light of the above, Pink marks a break in the pattern that is seen emerging from Damini and Aitraz, in that it truly retains the focus on sexual assault. Like Damini, it is also a coming of age film that cannot be seen without the context created by the Nirbhaya gangrape in 2012, and the uproar of the middle class over the safety of their independent daughters who frequent the streets even at night in pursuance of their dreams. Despite their coloured hair, tattoos, short clothes and promiscuity, Pink sends the message that lack of consent means rape, no matter what.


Conclusion

Some would argue that making a mainstream movie on the theme of gender justice is fraught with the peril of commerical failure.[38] Yet, Damini, Aitraz as well as Pink, all dealing with issues of gender and violence, proved to be commercial successes. However, commercial success must be distinguished from the success that any form of art achieves through spreading a message that helps society progress along the right path. Through this paper, I studied the depiction of sexual assault trials in Bollywood by deconstructing the films Damini, Aitraz and Pink with the objective of unravelling their incorporation and propagation of gendered biases and stereotypes. I concluded first, that these films do propagate defined gender roles by showing how women falter at questions during trial that require them to name private body parts or their sexual history, and also by showing how justice is achieved either by a man coming to the rescue of the woman (Damini and Pink), or a woman steeped in gendered notions coming to the rescue of the man (Aitraz). In doing so, these films reinforce the subordinate position of Indian women, as citizens who are ultimately dependent upon male identity to achieve justice.[39]


Second, it was observed that in each of the films, the role of the police, judge and media was either negative, or absent or at best, negligible, which increased the spotlight on the hero of the film as the ultimate saviour. In contradistinction to movies like Mom (2017) which also deals with sexual assault (albeit without a trial) and takes an explicit anti-State approach, these movies only highlight the apathy of the State and criminal justice system towards victims. Third, regarding the symbolisms in each of the films, while there was no consistent pattern, alcohol emerged as present in both Damini and Pink. Crucially, it has been associated with negative characters or bad deeds for a long time, but it also goes a long way in painting a picture that rape is an act which people commit only in an inebriated state, which reduces the gravity of the offence if the victim is also drunk. However, Pink confronts this very assumption and debunks it. Fourth, on the question of whether the sexual assault is the main narrative in the film, while it was found that both Damini and Aitraz used it as a means to convey a different message that also further entrenches gender stereotypes, Pink kept the focus on sexual assault by having its ultimate message as the fact that lack of consent would amount to rape irrespective of any other factor. To that extent, my thesis stands proved.


Indeed, Bollywood has the ability to both concretise beliefs and assumptions and also to debunk them. In light of this, a grave responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who make films. Despite the commercial value of Bollywood, filmmakers must also recognise its power as an instrument of social change and deeply examine the implications of what their film portrays, so that Bollywood plays a part in reforming Indian society, rather than exacerbating it.



*Ayushi Agarwal is a BCL candidate at the University of Oxford. She graduated from the National Law School of India University (Batch of 2018) as a gold medallist.


[1] ManaTabatabai Rad, Women and Their Portrayal in Indian Cinema, 2(4), International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies, 1318, 1331 (2016).


[2] Apar Gupta, Tareek Par Tareek: Indian Lawyers in Popular Hindi Cinema, 2(1), Indian Journal of Law and Society, 1, 3 (2010).


[3] Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, 131 (2011).


[4] Niall McCarthy, Bollywood: India’s Film Industry by the Numbers, Forbes (September 3, 2014) available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2014/09/03/bollywood-indias-film-industry-by-the-numbers-infographic/#16f209552488 (last visited on January 28, 2018).


[5] Tukaram and Anr. v. State of Maharashtra 1979 AIR 185 (Supreme Court of India).


[6] Nira Gupta-Cassale, Bearing Witness: Rape, Female Resistance, Male Authority and the Problems of Gender Representation in Popular Indian Cinema, 7(2), Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 235 (2000); An Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, (A. Rajyadhaksha and Paul Willeman eds., 1999).


[7] It is interesting to note that it is cited in almost every paper that has to do with Bollywood and a legal theme. See for instance Apar Gupta, Tareek Par Tareek: Indian Lawyers in Popular Hindi Cinema, 2(1), Indian Journal of Law and Society (2010) and Michael H. Hoffheimer, Bollywood Law: Commercial Hindi Films with Legal Themes, 98, Law Library (2006).


[8] For example, Anokhi Raat and Doosri Sita.


[9] For instance, some of the questions Chaddha poses to Damini were:

“Did she have clothes on her body”

“What exactly were those four boys doing?”

“Where were their hands-on her shoulders or chest”

“Were their hands on her legs or thighs?”

“The fourth boy was lying near her or on top of her?”


[10] Damini says “Every human gets his first identity from the breast of his mother, when she feeds him”.


[11] Nira Gupta-Cassale, Bearing Witness: Rape, Female Resistance, Male Authority and the Problems of Gender Representation in Popular Indian Cinema, 7(2), Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 245 (2000).


[12] For instance, on the final day of the trial, newspapers carry the headline “Will Govind get justice for Damini”.


[13] Clear references to masculinity can be seen in many scenes. For instance, when Chadda comes to meet and his gundas takes out a knife, Govind says “Jab ye dhai kilo ka haath kisi pe padta hai na, toh aadmi uthta nahi, uth jata hai”, which has now become an iconic dialogue associated with male strength.


[14] When Chaddha asks for the next date, Govind thunders the famous dialogue: “tareekh pe tareekh tareekh pe tareekh mili, lekin insaaf nahi mila, mili hai toh sirf ye tareekh”.


[15] Nira Gupta-Cassale, Bearing Witness: Rape, Female Resistance, Male Authority and the Problems of Gender Representation in Popular Indian Cinema, 7(2), Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 232 (2000).


[16] Ram Awtar Yadav, Cinema Serving as Mirror to Society, 1(3), International Journal of Multidisciplinary Approach and Studies, 4 (2014).


[17] Nira Gupta-Cassale, Bearing Witness: Rape, Female Resistance, Male Authority and the Problems of Gender Representation in Popular Indian Cinema, 7(2), Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 244 (2000).


[18] Darlena Cunha, Alcohol Doesn’t Rape People, Time (June 9, 2016), available at http://time.com/4359056/alcohol-doesnt-rape-people/ (last accessed on January 28, 2018).


[19] “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”


[20] Lalitha Gopalan, Avenging Women in Indian Cinema, 38(1), Screen (1997).


[21] Sangeeta Datta, Globalisation and Representations of Women in Indian Cinema, 28(3), Social Scientist, 71, 80 (2000).


[22]The Media Globe: Trends in International Mass Media, 37 (Lee Artz and Yahya R. Kamaliour eds., 2007).


[23] This narrative, which is increasingly becoming more and more popular, claims that not all men rape, and it is not only women who are sexually harassed. While the issue is not to be neglected, it nonetheless takes the focus away from sexual assault of women, which already receives very little attention.


[24] Raj utters, “Do you think I’m a male prostitute that I’ll sleep with you because you promoted me” and leaves.


[25] First, when Sonia calls Raj and asks him to come and meet her alone, Priya goes instead and says that she will be representing her husband now. Sonia tells her to tell Raj to “complete the incomplete act” and become her keep. At this Priya tell Sonia, “Jab pati pe kisi bala ka saaya pad jata hai, tab patni hi uski nazar utarti hai”.

Second, after Priya and Raj win the case, Sonia’s lawyer tells Raj “I’ve won 32 cases of rape/sexual assault. But I lost this one because you were being defended not by an advocate, but by your wife. And when a devoted wife is with her husband she can even bring back his life from Yamraj.”


[26] For instance, she says “I like it only when my husband praises me; I like it when people praise my husband”.


[27] Raj’s lawyer refers to the shastras and says “A woman is like a river—if she stays within her boundaries she brings happiness and prosperity, but if she breaches her limits, she brings destruction. This case is about a woman who has breached her boundaries and exploited an employee under her to satisfy her lust.”


[28] After Priya takes on the role of Raj’s counsel, she asks Priya “Aap ek passing affair mein bhi wo sab kar baithi jise karne ke liye koi ladki hazaar baar sochegi”; “Ek aurat chahe kitni modern kyun na ho jaye, usko itna toh pata hai uske bache ka baap kaun hai” and “inhone apne ambititons ke liye bache ko gira diya”.


[29] Raj’s dialogue when he breaks up with Sonia resounds at this point: “If you’re this ambitious go to the top of the world but when you look down from there, you’ll not find anyone who is your own”. This dialogue is repeated right before Sonia commits suicide.


[30] PTI, Pink not inspired by Nirbhaya case: Shoojit Sircar, Indian Express (August 9, 2016) available at http://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/pink-not-inspired-by-nirbhaya-case-shoojit-sircar-2964084/ (last visited on January 28, 2018).


[31] Gethin Chamberlain and Soudhriti Bahbani, Five years after the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, what has changed for women in India?, The Guardian (December 3, 2017) available at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/03/five-years-after-gang-murder-jyoti-singh-how-has-delhi-changed (last accessed on January 28, 2018).


[32] This is represented most aptly in the last scene where Minal goes down on her knees to thank Sehgal, while a female police constable shakes his hand to thank him.


[33] He collides with Minal in the market, and later with Falak and tells them both to “be careful”.


[34] According to Sehgal’s Girls Safety Manual, which is meant to be a sarcastic take on the gendered assumptions of society, and which he describes as the trial progresses:

Girls shouldn’t go anywhere with a boy alone; Girls shouldn’t smile when they talk to a boy (because it’s a hint that they are interested in sex); Girls shouldn’t live away from their parents; and Girls shouldn’t drink with boys.


[35] When Minal goes to the police station, the policeman says that he can’t register her complaint as he lacks jurisdiction. He then discourages her from filing a complaint at all. He also patronises her by saying a decent girl like her shouldn’t have gone into a room with a boy alone. The lady SHO arrests Minal, and doesn’t treat Falak and Andrea well when they try to meet her. She also tells Minal’s father that she is a prostitute. She had also backdated Rajvir’s complaint so that they could take action against Minal and not Rajvir.


[36] For instance, Rajvir’s friend saysbandiyon ki jitni aukaat hai unko batati rehni padegi”; Rajvir in the midst of the trial says “ache ghar ki ladkiyan sharaab nahi peeti hai. Such girls who sit and drink with anyone are called whores. aisi ladkiyo ke saath aisa hi hona chahiye.”


[37] Sehgal’s final dialogue before the trial concludes is, “No is not a word, it is a sentence. It doesn’t require further explanation. It just simply means no. My client said no, and these boys must realize no means no, irrespective of whether the girl is an acquaintance, friend, sex worker or their own wife. No means no. And when someone says no, you stop.”


[38] Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, 130 (2004).


[39] Nira Gupta-Cassale, Bearing Witness: Rape, Female Resistance, Male Authority and the Problems of Gender Representation in Popular Indian Cinema, 7(2), Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 232 (2000).

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