By Reina Gattuso
Sometimes, you just want to clock a man on the head with a beer bottle. This, at least, is the lesson I draw from Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink. And boy, is it true.
The past few weeks have been one of those times. It’s the beginning of cooler weather in Delhi, and as the monsoon semester slides the long slope to winter, a rape case against a senior left activist has rocked Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I am a student. Discussion around the case has shaken into view the broader problem of pervasive sexual harassment and assault at JNU and beyond. Meanwhile, conservative commentators and right-wing politicians continue to sing gleefully about how giving women too much freedom — rather than teaching men sexist bullshit — is the reason for sexual assault.
In this climate I hear of Pink, a feminist courtroom drama whose poster features three young women lorded over by a god-like photo of Amitabh Bachchan. So I and a classmate set out for a showing at Amba Cinema, at Delhi University North Campus. It’s 5.30 in the evening when I step onto the metro, wary of men’s roving eyes and hands. After a month of intense campus debate about sexual assault, my patience level for male bullshit is zero.
Anyone on this train gropes me, I think to myself as I quick-walk to the women’s compartment, and I’ll motherfucking punch them.
At North Campus, the cinema has a decent beginning-of-the weekend crowd. The audience is approximately 70/30 men/women. I wonder how this will affect their reactions to film, but as far as I can tell, this mostly means lots of hooting at every new appearance of Bachchan.
We munch 40-rupee popcorn as the lights dim.
Here’s a plot summary: Edgy-sexy relative newcomers Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, and Andrea Tariang play three “normal working women” — Minal, Falak, and Andrea respectively — who, after an all-too-recognisable “bad night” at a rock concert, end up being relentlessly stalked by a convincingly creepy Rajveer (Angad Bedi) and his Posse of Horrible Men.
Rajveer is the archetypal South Delhi rich boy rapist, a be-blazered douchebag whose brief stint at Oxford was funded by daddy’s pocketbook and whose “youthful indiscretions” (read: likely history of committing sexual assault) are brushed under the rug by daddy’s political cronies.
For most of the film — the first half of which details the stalking; the second half of which is a courtroom drama — we are left in suspense as to what, exactly, happened at the rock concert that caused Minal to smash the fatal beer bottle on Rajveer’s head. But even without knowing the exact sequence of events, sexual violence is everywhere in the film, from the plot to the very atmosphere of South Delhi.
Delhi is portrayed as a city of anxiety, its cloudy skies and smoggy highways creating suspense and a sense of pervasive corruption. The foggy, oxygen-less ambience evokes both Delhi’s signature bad air quality and near-constant gender-based violence.
Meanwhile, posh South Delhi is represented through a series of claustrophobic shots of bunker-like house exteriors, interiors like forts against the world. The women are shown scrambling to open the heavy gate in front of their house at night; we are not sure whether it locks rapists out, or locks the women in. Rather than cutting conveniently from location to location, the film frequently shows the women anxiously awaiting cabs. Their curtailed mobility also constrains us as viewers in the small, paranoid world of the Amar Colony elite.
The women are hemmed-in not just by gates, but by gaze, as the residents of the colony constantly surveil them through open windows. A neighbourhood uncle even goes so far as to testify against the women’s characters in court. It’s a nightmare made into reality: an actual panel of prying, probably perverted old men testifying that we should go to jail for our sexual profligacy.
Two thirds through the film, we shift from the confines of the colony to the confines of the court. In an act of typically entitled revenge, Rajveer and Horrible Rich Boy Posse have pulled strings in order to charge Minal with attempted murder (and therefore get out of having attempted to rape Minal) and all three of the women with soliciting.
At first, chances for the women look bleak. Rajveer and Co’s ruthless lawyer is a slut-shamer extraordinaire, and he does a stunning job wallowing in the depths of gendered contradiction inherent to Rajveer and Co’s — and much of the court’s — patriarchal mindset.
Into this contradictory space, Sehgal/Bachchan (let’s be honest, he’s not anything but Bachchan) goes for the long-strategy for the women’s defense, choosing to prove not that they are “good girls,” chaste girls, girls who do not drink or smoke or laugh with boys or have sex, but that they are — pure and simple — girls who did not consent.
Tension builds until Sehgal cross-examines Minal about the “encounter” with Rajveer.
“What did you say?” Sehgal asks her.
“I said no,” Minal repeats.
“You said no.” Sehgal/Bachchan’s voice fills the space. “She said no.”
And then, in his final courtroom speech, Sehgal/Bachchan hits the high note. Any woman, he says, no matter who she is, what she has done, what her sexual history is, or what she has had to drink, has a fundamental right to consent.
Bachchan’s bass rings over the court: “Na ka matlab nahin hota hai!”
And I’m off: tears, chills, nose dripping snot all over my kurta. Here I am sitting in a single-screen theater in North Campus, surrounding by a bunch of hooting men, and I’m crying because Amitabh Bachchan — of all people — has just affirmed women’s basic right to consent.
Alright: it’s totally didactic. The fact that Bachchan, rather than any of the women, makes the final triumphant speech is male saviour bullshit. And yes, the film reads like Chowdhury decided to make a “Serious Important Film that responds to the Serious Important issue of sexual violence.” Bachchan is transparently employed so the film has a major star seller — and so the message can get through the (often thick) skulls of young men.
But damn, as an educational piece on Consent 101, Pink hits home. I want mandatory screenings for all of my prospective male sexual partners.
Of course, the film is a fantasy. In the actual Indian legal system, one can hardly imagine an old feminist male lawyer patiently and emotionally explaining slut-shaming to an engrossed courtroom and receptive judge. One can hardly imagine the misogynist rich boy going to jail; the independent bourgeoisie girls getting off scot-free; and everyone’s favorite aging action hero thanked by a policewoman in a final nod of gratitude that is frankly classist on the part of the filmmakers — oh thank you for saving little old policewoman me, big fancy lawyer Amitabh Bacchan!
In the actual Indian legal system, the film might well be the subject of court action for inciting women to whack men on the head. But one hopes Amitabh Bachchan’s deep voice and not the threat of errant beer bottles will suffice to beat “na ka matlab nahin hota hai” into young men’s brains.
Meanwhile, I sit on the rattling Delhi metro on the way home from Amba Cinema, glass windows reflecting my skin sallow in the yellow fluorescence of public transit. The long walk between the metro platform and the exit is, as always, choked with the male gaze. Thick as smog, gaze is a presence; it cakes like dust onto your skin. Sometimes walking through it feels physical, like fighting through a flock of birds.
When I emerge from Hauz Khas metro it is a warm evening; the air is thick and sweet — rancid as overboiled chai. An auto ride back to campus in the headlight-heavy night, and on the verge of campus the trees let out their seductive sigh. I am home again, but home for women— as for Falak, Minal, and Andrea, and as we at JNU have recently seen all too well — is never entirely safe.
I think of the last shot of the film as I pull into campus. The shot, brief and sunny, is of the three women on the terrace of their flat, their arms around each other, silhouetted by perfect Instagram sunlight against an open sky. They have been let off and their would-be rapist will go to prison; for a moment, in this whalebone corset of a neighbourhood, they can breathe.
It is a beautiful ending, and I am suspicious of it. On one hand, we know that actually, everything is not okay. Outside the frame, the neighbourhood is still watching. The uncle who testified against them will continue to rub them with his groping gaze. Their parents will hound them. The women will bear their trauma forever; all cannot be purified in the wash of perfectly-filtered sunlight.
Still, stumbling out of the auto in the middle of campus, I want to believe — I do believe — that the final image of female friendship is not total fantasy. I remember when I first moved to Delhi, how it was a city of haze and constant threat of male violence, but also of held hands and ganja, of dusty rutted roads giving way to taupe houses reaching toward a light-smudged night sky.
There is, after all, a transcendence in friendship.