The impact of movies on real-life violence against women has come into sharp focus once again, due to the views aired by Justice Kirubakaran in Madras High Court, along with the police statement that Infosys techie Swathi’s murder-accused Ramkumar seems to have been “carried away” by movies which “highlight stalking.” Over the last month, there have been several arguments made both for and against movies and the debate seems endless.
As a last ditch effort to defend movies, the lack of statistics on demonstrable causal links between cinema and crime has been made. Admitting the paucity of documented research, I think it is fair to begin with first-person anecdotes that can be substantiated, added to, or refuted by the experience of others. (Given the occasion, I am narrating here my experience with a group of boys belonging to the same geographical area as the accused, but this does not mean men of other age groups, social classes or geographical distribution are automatically better. Patriarchy is everywhere and misogyny is common among all people including women.)
With respect to the influence of cinema on crimes, let me start with a few obvious disclaimers: It’s a truism to say that all people who watched ‘Agneepath’, ‘Nooravathu Naal’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ did not look upon the onscreen events as a model to emulate in real life, and that only clearly deranged individuals did. Further, I am not in favour of the government, or worse, fringe bodies policing the content of movies and creating an unwanted ruckus before/after the release of films and so on. (We witnessed enough ugliness before the release of Udta Punjab and Vishwaroopam.) If there has to be any form of censorship at all, it is only the censorship that the filmmaker’s own scruples might dictate. All that said, I think Swathi’s murder has given occasion for some serious introspection on the part of filmmakers to stop and reflect on what tropes they wish to celebrate in cinema.
I do not suggest that otherwise well-behaved boys are corrupted by films into committing crimes. There are complex factors at work in creating a potential stalker-killer (as the accused Ramkumar is believed to be). As an educator of sorts, I have interacted for several months with precisely this kind of impressionable small town teenage boys studying mechanical engineering in regressive gender-segregated colleges in interior Tamil Nadu. (Let me add that I am not at all stereotyping everybody belonging to this demographic, but the section I am talking about does exist in large numbers.) I am also aware that these boys come under a host of influences other than cinema that make them sympathetic to stalker behaviour.
First of all, there is the familial reinforcement of patriarchal thinking and unchecked male privilege that makes them bristle at the very suggestion that the world and its goods (including women) do not exist solely to satisfy their desires. There is also the closed peer group influence that discourages them from having open conversations with womenfolk, including fellow girl students, which may lead them to see that women have minds of their own, aspirations, plans, and even the right to say “No.” This fencing-off behaviour is vigorously supported by college managements and parents themselves. The bro-code that operates among these boys, especially in all-male departments such as Mechanical or Automobile engineering, would provide material for interesting case studies on gender awareness.
As a part of training sessions, I have thrown open discussions for these boys to talk about their future plans and goals, both personal and professional. This is when I could see how, unfortunately, cinema becomes an influence that fuels their fantasies and solidifies their nascent misogynistic tendencies. The ideal wife many of these boys want is the sort of pretty and docile doormat that Samantha plays in Thanga Magan. (An equivalent sanskari-bahu in recent Hindi movies is very hard to find, though one may perhaps think of the wives in Sooraj Barjatya’s ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’.) When their eyes are opened to the rude fact that a staggering number of them are going to be unemployable once they pass out of college and that industries would absorb only the best, that too on a pay scale much lower than what they dream of, they feel terribly insecure. Despite that, some of them insist that they will somehow manage to ‘get’ a good-looking, educated, well-employed woman by the time they are 26 or 28. There is the other smaller percentage of boys who go the whole hog with that movie and insist that the said good-looking, educated young woman be an uncomplaining housewife too, living in peace with the boy and his parents on whatever meagre income he is able to make.
When I am incredulous at how such a girl would first agree to marry them, many have their sickeningly predictable recipe for “making the girl fall in love” inspired by the movies. The degree to which they idolise a wastrel-hero pestering a girl into submitting to his advances onscreen is disturbing to say the least. Of course, all these boys do not actively turn stalkers. But their sympathy with and tacit endorsement of such behaviour is unmistakable. This is further evidenced in the sweepingly misogynistic rants that some of them unleash in class, couched in the language of familiar movie quotes. The notion of a woman’s consent is mostly alien to them and their refrain goes, as this article notes, “Kaadhalichu yemaathitaa, machi” (She cheated me after luring me with love, bro).
A particularly heart-wrenching occasion was when I asked one of these batches of boys about the amount of violence perpetrated against women for apparently spurning the advances of men. I wondered aloud why acid attack victims tended to be invariably female, while perpetrators always male. In other words, when a breakup happens, why is it that a ‘heartbroken’ man feels justified in resorting to physical violence but girls who have been dumped have to simply live down with the memories. One boy flippantly said, “Avanga thaan enga manasuliye acid oothiduraangaley, madam! (But girls end up throwing acid on our very hearts, madam!)” amid the loud cheers and applause of his classmates.
He claimed that boys were interested only in ‘pure love’ and it was only girls who ditched them for the sake of money. He ended his little speech, of course, by citing Devathaiyai Kanden (where the tea-selling hero sues his rich ex-girlfriend for preferring a doctor over him as her bridegroom). It is important to remember here that an overwhelming majority of pro-stalker films in Tamil carry a ‘U’ certificate and are watched by impressionable children and teenagers who are the most vulnerable to such misleading messages. In the absence of any healthy male-female interaction, these movies supply them with a default cultural narrative on how boys and girls ought to behave, apart from equipping them with ‘eve-teasing’ songs and ‘killer pickup lines’ (read: dialogues of explicit harassment) which catch on everywhere like memes. (Remember “Kolaveri”?)
So, instead of trying to find a one-to-one correspondence between the scenes in a movie and the actions of any particular individual, it is more useful to think of the cultural matrix that is created by the society and perpetuated by movies that embody and glorify misogyny in general. No one movie might have made a Ramkumar, but as a body, these movies have created a festering ground that allows some men to think that Ramkumar’s behaviour must have had some kind of justification. They have normalised a culture of gender-based violence that reinforces male entitlement, takes away a woman’s voice, and trivialises the dangers of stalking and the resultant psychological harm to the woman.
Disclaimer: A smaller, early version of this write-up appeared in the comments section of a personal blog.
Featured Image Credit: The Quint