The issue of sexual harassment is not confined to North India, but going by news reports coming out regularly, it is not for nothing that Delhi is known as the rape capital of the country.
Women living in Delhi and the outlying National Capital Region (NCR), have to put up with not just catcalling and groping, but the “incessant fear of rape.”
This is the tagline of Aditya Kripalani’s film, Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal; the title made up of the words men use to harass women. Men easily get away with rowdy behaviour, but women are told to be careful — not stay out after dark, wear decent clothes, have a male escorting them and so on.
The four women in this film who decide that a strong message must go out to society, have all suffered at the hands of men — Chitra (Chitrangada Chakraborty), a karate instructor, wears her hair in a crew cut, and pushes her body with greater intensity, remembering with a simmering rage the time her fighting skills did not help her fend off rape, but actually provided more enjoyment to the men.
Chitra and social media professional Vibha (Shalini Vatsa) meet a cop Shagun (Sonal Joshi) in the car of a women’s cab service owned and run by Shaila (Kritika Pande).
In Delhi, such women-only taxis have become a necessity, after drivers off app-based cabs started assaulting female passengers. Since they are caught in a rush-hour jam, the four decide to have a drink and a bite at a dhaba, and not surprisingly, a man swaggers up to them to ogle and later follows their car on his bike.
Deciding that enough is enough, and that they need to teach a lesson in respecting boundaries to him in particular and men in general, the four knock out the man — Mahendra (Vinay Sharma) — lock him up in the cupboard of an abandoned office, and resolve to first break him physically and mentally, put the fear of rape into his head, make a video and post it on social media.
Even in captivity, the Haryanvi Mahendra is abusive and keeps threatening them with rape. At first, Chitra gets provoked until Shagun explains that every time she reacts to his taunts, she gives him power over her.
Mahendra believes that women are meant for cooking, cleaning and sex. So over the next few days, the women dress him in skimpy women’s clothes, force him to cook and clean and hold the terror of rape over his head if he does not comply.
When he is unable to escape and finds that his shouting and cursing does not affect, Mahendra calms down and does as he is told. He goes through the terror and humiliation that has been inflicted on women almost daily.
Lest a viewer feels sorry for him as his entitled ego is crushed, Kripalani reveals the anguish, rage and regret these women have to live with. Vibha believes that women are capable of making as much brutality as men, but choose not to take that path. That choice should not be mistaken for weakness.
The video on social media quickly goes viral, and gets the support of women, who feel that it is a feminist revolution whose time has come; if men just understood the fear of rape, they would probably treat women better. It may be a naïve view to take since rape has very different personal and social connotations for men and women.
This film (screened on Netflix, a streaming platform) has been made in a realistic mode without stars, but in spirit is reminiscent of Avtar Bhogal’s Zakhmi Aurat (1988), in which a female cop (played by Dimple Kapadia) is raped, and forms a group of vigilantes, who castrate rapists.
In mainstream cinema, most films about rape have been about the woman — or a man connected with her — hunting down and killing rapists, because the judicial system has constantly failed women.
Kripalani’s film goes a step ahead. It is not just a personal revenge drama but advocates where-the-shoe-pinches approach. Unless men like Mahendra are made aware that their treatment of women is unacceptable, they will never alter their behaviour.
However, it is also equally true that the Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal method of vigilante justice is not practical; it is one man they make an example of, but this solution to women’s “incessant fear of rape” is hardly replicable.
Still, like his earlier film, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, this one, too, questions the existing gender power structure; it makes viewers think and takes them into a zone of discomfort.
Have some men driven women over the edge? Can violence only be fought with more violence? Should women be taught to become more brutal, or men be conditioned to be more gentle? That last would, of course, be ideal, but then the question would be where to begin and how.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.