Dropping by at a police station with a friend who wanted to report the theft of her bag, one ran into a woman who was weeping about her husband beating her. The cop on duty offered her tea and told her to go home. On being asked why he wasn’t registering her complaint, he said that she was a frequent ‘guest’ at the station; she didn’t really want to file a report or have her husband arrested, she just wanted someone to listen to her and once in a while, go and ‘dhamkao’ (reprimand) him. We do that, he explained, it makes little difference, and she is back here crying after a few days. Which woman can go through court-kacheri rounds? If the beating is particularly severe, we lock the man up for a night, warn him and release him.
She and the many women like her—if they left their husbands, where would they go? Even if they did find paid work, where would they live, how would they look after their children? In many cases, they were the ones working and still putting up with their alcoholic husband’s brutality.
In the recent, much-talked about film Darlings, there is a scene in a police station that is depressingly similar. Women suffering from domestic abuse seldom seek any real help from the police. All they want is maybe someone with a bit of power to give their husbands a talking to. In India (and other conservative cultures), a broken marriage is tough on the woman, so she puts up with violence, because there is no escape, unless she is able to get support from society—be it family, friends or the law.
In Darlings, Badru (Alia Bhatt), does have her mother (Shefali Shah) watching her back, but she believes her husband Hamza (Vijay Varma) loves her, and will reform. The thrashing comes for the smallest things--like grit in the rice.The downstairs neighbour who hears the screams and thuds, simply looks up and sighs. In their working class chawl, wife-beating is a common phenomenon, and women who complained, would probably be told to suck it up and stop whining over a slap or two. It is a man’s prerogative and sadly, the first question asked of a bruised or bleeding woman is: what did you do to deserve it?
Darlings, directed by a woman, Jasmeet K Reen, is a surprisingly light film for the serious subject it has picked. It is devoid of melodrama, and takes a look at what could happen if a line is crossed, and the battered wife says: Enough! Badru does not want her husband arrested or jailed, all she wants is respect. Hamza’s excuse is work frustration that leads to alcoholism and he takes it out on his wife. When he is sober, he apologises profusely, flatters her and buys her gifts. This circle repeats itself and is hard to break, unless there is determination on both sides to put a stop to it.
Another recent film, Kung Fu Zohra, set in a different country, is like Darlings in spirit. In this French movie directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, an Algerian woman, Zohra (Sabrina Ouazani) moves to a Parisian suburb after marriage to Omar (Ramzy Bedia). She finds a job as a cashier in a supermarket and is happy, till the beatings start. Binta, the driver of the bus she takes to work, sighs when Zohra turns up wearing oversized sunglasses and says she has conjunctivitis. She learns up an encyclopedia list of eye ailments to explain the sunglasses. Binta dealt with her violent husband by getting him beaten up by male relatives, but Zohra is stuck, first because of immigration rules—she has a spouse visa, not an independent residence permit—and later because she is afraid Omar will take away their daughter if she dares to leave.
Omar is a wonderful father, and because he is frequently unemployed, he finds time to play with the child and do fun things, while Zohra slogs to bring in money and does the housework. Omar’s excuse is workplace racism that an Arab would routinely face at the hands of a white boss and co-workers. He wants to be the head of the family and make decisions, so resents his wife for no fault of hers. In real life, if a man forced his wife to quit her job and stay indoors, the lack of options would force her to comply.
Zohra takes up a cleaning job in a gym, and after work, expels her anger by working out and using her fists on a boxers’ punching bag, by watching self defence videos. A Chinese guard, Chang (Tien Shue) silently sees her struggle, and one day just says the word “kitchen.” Zohra is outraged that he is telling her that her place is in the kitchen, but he does not speak French and she does not speak his language; finally she understands that he wants her to draw her kitchen, which she does, though she is baffled by the request.
Using her drawing of the kitchen, Chang constructs a mock-up of the space in a storage area and in the spirit of “If you live in a jar, fight in a jar,” teaches her Kung Fu moves for that space and to use her feet, legs and arms to fight back.
All this is obviously building up to a climax in which Zohra will confront Omar in their home; he is initially amused that she is even thinking of defending herself, but she gives him a sound thrashing. This time, it is he who wears sunglasses when he goes outside.
This story has a positive ending, Zohra leaves Omar, gets joint custody of the daughter; after that defeat he turns out to be surprisingly pliant in accepting Zohra’s conditions. In real life, there is a very great possibility of the wife being killed, maimed or attacked with acid and a patriarchal system closing ranks in support of the husband.
There have been several films and books about domestic violence, but these two use humour to highlight the issue and show female protagonists who get out of victim mode. However, neither addresses the real crisis of social conditioning that allows men to get away with abuse—that needs not be just physical but also mental, where the scars are not visible, but destroy the victim’s psyche. It affects families and if normalised passes on into the DNA of the next generation.
Darlings ends with a cigarette-packet-like statutory warning about violence against women being injurious to health. Slogans have not stopped people from smoking and they won’t stop men from beating their wives. A wife learning kung fu and defending herself is all very well, but tackling violence with more violence does not solve the problem. It needs more stringent safeguards to be put in place, and the first one is to see it as a social evil, not just a personal matter between husband and wife that needs no outside interference.
The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author