Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak famously wrote: “ . . . if the subaltern is to be taught to speak, as I believe she must be, humanitarian efforts (would-be quick fixes) won’t cut it . . . The subaltern cannot speak . . . because her speech falls short of fully authorized, political speech. Too much gets in the way of her message’s being heard, socially and politically.” Spivak’s theory focused on the inability of European classics and scholars to address the non-white woman’s problems and issues; she believed that “white men cannot save brown women from brown men.” Writers, scholars and most certainly filmmakers of India have hardly ever tried to render speech to the “brown woman”; they have rarely departed from the depiction of unequal gender relations in their work. Bollywood directors have, by and large, naturalized unequal gender relations in their films. Meghna Gulzar’s Chappak and Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad deconstruct traditional Bollywood formulaic cinema in a way that is challenging and subversive.
One of the reasons that Spivak was unhappy with the umbrella narrative of Western feminism was that it did not encompass the local and regional discriminations that women have to deal with in third world countries. Meghna Gulzar’s Chappak brutally exposes the harsh realities of heinous acid attacks on women from marginalized classes in India. Chappak fictionalizes the life of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor who is today a prime advocate of banning the sale of acid in the country. The film, featuring Deepika Padukone in the central character of Malthi, follows a non-linear narration: it begins with Malthi, already having endured the attack, looking for a job to support her family and heal herself emotionally. We follow Malthi across the streets of Delhi, as she seeks jobs, first at a beauty parlor (where she is blithely dismissed as not being the “beauty needed in a beauty parlor”) then at a newspaper office where she goes to give an interview and finally to the NGO office where she is tasked with helping acid attack victims like herself.
From the very start, Chappak stands out as a film that does not indulge in melodrama or tears; We meet Malthi as a powerful protagonist whose pain is visible in her expressive eyes but whose spirit is indomitable. We rarely see Malthi without a smile or a laugh; she dances at parties, cracks jokes with her co-survivors and believes that life can be optimistic despite all that has happened. What is also very heartening is the depiction of strong women characters in the film; it is Malthi’s lawyer Archana and her team who file the PIL and launch the campaign for the ban on acid and for stringent laws to punish acid attackers. Chappak reveals the impunity of gender discrimination not only in Indian society but in the Indian legal system; When Malthi (and her real life counterpart Laxmi) is attacked in the year 2005, there is no act that punishes acid attackers; Malthi has to struggle not only to identify and convict the people who have scarred her so heinously but also to ensure that their sentence is a long and just one. (Today there is the Acid Attack Act under section 326A which punishes acid throwing with a maximum sentence of ten years but one wonders whether that is enough for literally and metaphorically burning a girl).
Spivak was certain that white men would never free brown subaltern women; Chappak depicts the gulf that Spivak wrote about. Western countries rarely witness crimes like acid attack; this kind of vitriolic crime is typical in sub-continental countries where it is believed that a girl’s identity resides in her ‘beautiful’ body. By attacking the girl’s ‘beauty’ the acid thrower strives to destroy her sense of selfhood; it is also significant, as Archana in the film points out, that most acid attacks have occurred on women who were subverting their class or caste norms, either by their academic abilities or their wish to overcome social barriers like marriage. Research papers on acid attacks show that while acid throwing on men and women occur across the world occasionally, in India, Taiwan and Bangladesh, women are the most common victims of acid throwing. The National Crime Records data shows that over 249 cases of acid attacks occurred in India in 2015-16. The data further shows that maximum number of attacks occur on women in the age group of 20-30; 30% of the attacks were motivated by marital dispute, unrequited love and to perpetuate ‘honor killing’.
Chappak shows how in India the acid thrower alone does not scar the girl; there are so many others: there is the policewoman who searches Malthi’s phone to see how may texts from boys are there in the phone, there is the friend of Malthi’s brother who cackles with laughter at the ‘ghost’ his friend’s sister has been transformed into, there are the relentless people on the streets who scorch Malthi with their pitying gaze, believing that if a girl’s ‘beautiful’ face is disfigured, she is better off dead. Gulzar never lets her audience forget the suffering of Malthi or her overcoming of it; but, at the same time, she explores the biases against women to the fullest, trying hard to make the audience question as to why one human being would commit such a terrible attack on another. Chappak does not make you weep or cry and it certainly cannot entertain you; it makes you scream silently against a society that refuses to grant a woman her right to live on her own terms; it makes you punch the air silently in victory as Malthi moves on in life, not as victim but survivor, winning her case as well as her convictions.
Bollywood films are seldom known for their subtility; most of the times, everything is in excess, be it tears, laughter or anger. If Chappak breaks that trend then Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad dismantles it completely. Thappad, as a film, celebrates protest against patriarchy, but it does so silently, without yells of rage. The plot revolves around Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) who is a devoted wife, committed to furthering her husband’s prospects and career, till one fateful night at a party when she is publicly slapped by him. While the story is overtly a straightforward one, the layers are multiple. We have all heard of the term “domestic violence”; Thappad asks the question: what encompasses domestic violence? Does a single slap constitute violence? Or does domestic violence go beyond the slap and beyond the physical? Perhaps, violence constitutes all the silent abuses that patriarchy heaps on women, especially in India; every time a woman is asked to choose between her career or her home, when she runs after her husband to ensure he eats his breakfast before heading to work and when a man becomes entitled enough to vent his pent up frustrations on his wife by slapping her. Sinha’s 2 hour 21 minute film delves into the rarely spoken of and accepted gender discriminations in our society; an impulsive slap at a party becomes a metaphor for all the unspoken ways in which women are marginalized in Indian society. We see how Amrita is interpellated into the norms of her traditional marriage, giving up her passion for dance, taking over the household management, doing everything she can to support Vikram, her husband. Amrita’s mother-in-law constantly reminds her of a ‘woman’s responsibility towards her home’. We rarely see Amrita questioning this skewed division of responsibilities.
However, when Vikram, in his fuming temper, slaps her, Amrita is jarred awake. She resolves to end the marriage and from hereon begins her struggle. We meet a lawyer who cannot comprehend any wife leaving a marriage just because of one slap. Amrita is repeatedly told that a ‘slap does not constitute violence’. But what Amrita and Sinha want everyone to realize is that the slap is part of the larger pattern of discrimination; the slap is a symptom of gender bias rather than a cause. Sinha poses the larger question of what empowers a man to physically abuse a woman in our society, just as Gulzar tries to explore the reason for a man believing that he is entitled to throw acid on a woman simply because she spurns his offer of marriage. Both Chappak and Thappad question male empowerment in Indian society; Malthi and Amrita, through their silent protest and courage, challenge and overturn patriarchal supremacy. While the plot of Thappad may seem repetitive of feminist woes and a rant against patriarchy, the sensitive and layered direction makes the film expose much more than domestic abuse; it shows the years of conditioning that a woman undergoes to become a slave to male domination. Gender Studies revolves around the axiom that gender is social rather than biological; Thappad proves that again and again through its trio of women characters.
Other than Amrita, we meet her maid who is regularly beaten by her alcoholic husband. Then there is Amrita’s neighbor (Dia Mirza) who strives to succeed as a single woman. Sinha intertwines all of their stories to evoke empathy for the struggles of women trying to overcome patriarchy in a society that does not allow them to do so. Like the character of Malthi, Amrita is restrained and quiet; she rarely rages and screams but her anger and disillusionment shine through for the audience. Sinha makes it very clear that abuse is abuse, whether it is committed by a serial offender like Amrita’s maid’s drunken husband or it is a solitary episode of a ‘slap’ by an otherwise ‘good’ husband like Vikram. Vikram is not a villainous monster; he is simply blinded by male privilege. Thappad beautifully depicts various kinds of men, from the misogynistic Vikram to the very lovable father of Amrita, who roots for his daughter all through the film. Sinha does not demonize men; he simply projects the many facets of the Indian male: we have our share of understanding and caring men who help women achieve success or happiness.
Sinha’s Thappad is flawless cinema; its awareness of gender bias goes beyond the overt and the obvious. Indian cinema has for far too long catered to patriarchal clichés. It has appeased the male ego far too many times to count. However, Thappad and Chappak are path breaking in their ‘slap’ to patriarchy; they are buckets of ice hurled on the sleeping audience to jar them from their stupor. In the words of Simon de Beauvoir, both these films tear themselves away from “the safe comfort of certainties” and get “rewarded with truth”.