By Tanya Vasundharan
I still remember a conversation that took place at a dinner table more than a decade ago. I was 13 at the time, and had a boyfriend who was five years older, a fact that scandalised many people around me. Years later when I was jokingly called a child bride and he a cradle snatcher, I struggled to articulate that I had complete agency in the relationship — that I was, in fact, in control of my sexuality and desired everything that happened. All I got were looks of utter disbelief; they explained that it was irrelevant whether I thought I wanted it because it was still wrong.
Which is why my initial response to Memories of a Machine, a Malayalam short film by Shailaja Padindala featuring actress Kani Kusruti, was that most people would dismiss instinctively it as unbelievable. In it, a woman narrates her first sexual experience to her husband who is shooting a home video of sorts. She explains that she was eight years old when she was touched on the vagina by an attendant in school, and when her husband asks whether she thinks that it was wrong, she says: “I don’t want to say ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but it’s not wrong.” Because it was reciprocated — she enjoyed being touched and the man stopped when she asked him to.
The film is creating ripples on the internet: it’s gone viral on YouTube, and reportedly received a great response at its premiere at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival this year. But it has also been heavily criticised for ‘normalising child abuse’. Public intellectuals like author NS Madhavan have praised aspects of the film, but say it pardons paedophilia and should be taken off YouTube. Padindala’s response has been to deny that the film romanticises or condones child abuse: that is why in the film the man tells the woman, “Don’t tell this to a paedophile”.
The tricky part, though, is that this statement is presented as a joke in the film (the mood throughout is breezy, bordering on sexual tension) rather than as a disclaimer. Padindala also said in an interview with Narada News: “The movie aims to show how an eight-year-old girl was first introduced to sex and her natural thought towards it was that of pleasure. It is immaterial whether that introduction was by an adult or a peer.”
Is it really immaterial though? The film’s open and unapologetic attitude to confronting sexual experiences is interesting, but it does appear to suggest that if a minor enjoys a sexual experience then there is no problem, similar to the message of “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could”, a section of The Vagina Monologues that came under fire for apparently propagating the sentiment, “If it was a rape, it was a good rape”. While this assumes that pleasure from an act and its ethical standing are two mutually exclusive conversations, the question I found myself and my friends puzzling over is that if this makes the film dangerously slanted, should it have included a caveat? Should it have ended with statistics about how this incident might have been an outlier but child sexual abuse is rampant and victims are frequently denied justice and left confused and floundering in the aftermath of such an incident? Feminist and historian Devika Jayakumari felt that the film could, at the very least, carry a warning for people with disturbing memories of childhood sexual abuse. But does the film undermine the traumatic experiences of people who have been sexually abused as children, or could it be engaging for those who enjoyed an early sexual experience and later felt guilty?
A woman friend mused, “People have probably overreacted because I don’t think the film’s existence means that paedophiles are going to be going ‘oh great, kids like us’. But in general, we value childhood and children, and assign them guardians because we feel that they cannot give consent, and the film’s portrayal of a chilling experience as okay because the woman enjoyed it made me deeply uncomfortable.”
Another was both exasperated and bored by specific props and the set-up of the film: the annoying husband who is egging her on from behind the camera, the Nymphomaniac DVD on the bed (a painfully obvious allusion to Lars von Trier’s film where a woman who claims to be a sex addict recounts her history of abuse to a man), the way the woman is irritatingly sexualised (taking off her bra, constantly fingering her mouth). One friend appreciated the intimacy of the film and found it intriguing to witness a frank conversation without trigger warnings. Another said she was neutral: “It didn’t provoke me at all. If I said it’s perverted if would shower us all in a brahmachari light. It looks at consent differently. From a legal perspective, a minor is considered incapable of making choices but I think this film is just suggesting the exception, the possibility that people can react differently, without saying what happened was okay.”
A Malayali friend wondered what all the fuss was about, “Yeah, it’s a big debate here but nobody cares about this outside of Kerala.” Ultimately, I have to agree: I found no write-home quality to the film. I have watched scores of coming-of-age films which focus on a male child or teenager’s sexuality and in that way this film was an interesting departure, but it was not groundbreaking in any way. While I don’t think it congratulates paedophilia, there is certainly a tricky omission of the immorality of child sexual abuse. But the question (it didn’t captivate me enough to call it a dilemma) it opened up for me was whether I had the right to tell someone that an experience she enjoyed was ethically dubious, especially as someone who once felt insulted when people said my early sexual experiences were disturbing because I did not know what I was doing at the time.
Watch Memories of a Machine here:
Co-published with Firstpost.