I had been hearing great things about Kahaani 2, mainly for taking up tabooed issues heads-on. I had however not read any review or watched the trailer to guess what it could be. Having booked the tickets with my younger brother and parents, I was looking forward to it. An interesting thing happened right before we were leaving. My mom recalled how one of my relatives told her, “This isn’t a movie you should watch with kids. It talks about child sexual abuse.” I chuckled at the irony and tried to make her realise the same. But honestly, since that point, the thought of a mainstream Hindi movie talking about child sexual abuse made me even more intrigued and eager to watch it.
Kahaani 2 (2016)
Cast: Vidya Balan, Arjun Rampal
Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Kahaani 2 is a brilliant attempt at handling the issue of child sexual abuse, understanding its nuances from how it is silently aided by the various institutions around us, that is, the family, (in this and most other cases) and to a great extent, the school and the police, in how it deals with cases involving rich and influential families.
The movie opens by showing the life of Vidya Sinha (Vidya Balan) as a single-working mother and her struggles while navigating between her daughter (who is shown to be paralysed), her everyday expenses and her job. This portrayal is well balanced; without touching the polarities of either epitomising her character or victimising it. The ‘thrill’ begins when her daughter goes missing from her house, post which she gets a call to reach a given address to see her. In a haste, she runs on the silent and dark streets of Chandan Nagar and meets with an accident.
This sets the stage for a lot of dark revelations about the lives of various characters, and with it, the ugly and oft-silenced side of the Indian society. It has layers of stories running parallel to each other and cutting across each other at various points, which unravel only as the movie progresses (even though, a lot of viewers could predict it well in advance.)
It goes into a flashback as Inderjeet (Arjun Rampal) is assigned as the investigating officer for the “accident case.” He finds a diary at Vidya Balan’s house (I would like to pause here and mention that the diary is lying under a drawer which has a packet of sanitary napkins and some bras lying in it. It is shown without any awkwardness, and is in fact, given more screen time than is usually assigned to “women’s products”), in which he reads about her life and the viewers get to watch her story as he reads.
Vidya Sinha is eerily drawn towards a child (Minni) studying in the school she works in. She often sees that child being brought to the Principal’s room for indiscipline, for example sleeping during classes. This is shown to continue till quite long, until Sinha actually brings out the reason behind it. However, Minni’s treatment at the hands of the school authorities struck me and reminded me of how most schools are mechanical in their dealing with children and rarely concern themselves with their growth. A six-year old student being extremely silent, under-whelmed and often sleeping off in classrooms isn’t the kind of behaviour that should invite reproach, instead the child’s reasons for doing the same should be looked into. And this gets clearer when Minni tells Vidya the reason for sleeping off during the classes, “wo mujhe raat bhar sone nahin dete.”
Due to the failure of the authorities, Sinha who is perhaps just a receptionist at the school, takes charge and goes on to find out the story behind. This is when you are thankful for this thing called empathy!
This leads her to Minni’s house, which from the beginning, has quite a morbid air to it; the walls, the extremely tidy cupboards, the very mechanical grandma, and the intimidating Chachu. Thus unfolds Vidya Sinha’s struggle to get a six-year old girl to talk about her constant and ongoing abuse at the hands of her family.
Jumping straight to the question, she scares Minni away and later realises how a survivor just can not talk until and unless they are themselves comfortable enough to talk about it. This resonated with me on various levels because of how it did not happen to become just another portrayal of someone wanting to ‘help’ or ‘rescue’ a survivor, but not giving a flying fuck about their comfort, space and mental well-being. This sensitivity and understanding is a must and I am glad the writers did their homework in bringing about this nuance.
What follows is Vidya’s attempts at trust building with Minni so that she is comfortable enough to speak. Another interesting thing happens here. It is praise-worthy how art (in Minni’s case, painting) was shown as an outlet for Minni and, because of the conclusion that Vidya eventually comes to draw from it reminds you of that time your therapist asked you to create the first thing that comes to your mind and how, most often, it had all the hidden answers lying beneath it no matter how random it seemed at first. Considering the general skeptical attitude of most people towards art by just passing it off as a ‘hobby’ and how most people still don’t understand how art therapy has great potential for survivors, I was delighted to see this.
Another thing that deserves a mention is how she finally manages to make her talk by kindling a conversation about her own experience. The way she constantly points towards her vagina and breasts while indicating that those are ‘private parts’ was an unbelievable thing to watch on the big screen, with my family beside me. Constantly being indulged with kids in such conversations through various ways, I have often seen such videos about educating children but I could never imagine the likes of it being mentioned in a mainstream Hindi movie.
That being said, I am sure it is going to take us some more time until we are actually able to tell kids that they are body parts just like all others and have names, rather than using euphemisms like “yahaan” aur “yahaan.” Additionally, any sort of touch anywhere (and not just on ‘private parts’) that makes one uncomfortable is abuse. But again, that’s probably being too ambitious for now.
Getting back to the movie, Vidya Balan’s character (as Durga) as a divorced, single, independent working woman is powerful. Her own experiences of abuse as a child are shown to have lasting impacts in her life even as an adult (which is almost always the case) and how she eventually reclaims her willingness to desire a man; both sexually and emotionally, marks a shift from the notion that deems the case of survivors as hopeless. While constantly trying to come around this, she is once again conflated with the issue of child sexual abuse through Minni and when it is time to choose between the two, she firmly chooses the latter. Even though there were no doubts before, this is the moment you know for sure that there is no going back for her.
When she finally manages to identify Minni’s abuser, who is her Chachu, she tries to tell Minni’s grandmom about it who pretends to have understood it. However, when Vidya is fired from her job at school for “destroying the school’s image,” because well, the Principal knows the “Dewan’s” and they can’t do any harm, she realises there is something more to it. So do the viewers. And this is another way the school partakes in Minni’s abuse.
Because of that highly problematic idea of someone being a “good person” and thus the impossibility of them being an abuser, nobody seems to trust Vidya. She then goes to report it to the police, who (very surprisingly, almost seemed dramatic honestly) actually agree at one go to accompany her and investigate. Although, this doesn’t last long as she is in turn charged for lying to the family and “stealing” things from their house. And it doesn’t take the officer too long to dismiss it and go away. Yes, that’s more like reality!
A mechanism that is essentially put into place to ‘help’ people, goes against some people to ‘help’ only a certain kind of people. And, no cookies for guessing who is who! A fight which was so far against the abusers is now also a fight against the police. So much so that even after the abusers are dead, Vidya’s fight with the police doesn’t end because of the unlawful means she had to resort to in order to protect herself and her daughter. Because of course, the police just won’t act in time!
Just like reporting cases of abuse eventually ends in victim blaming for most women, the movie didn’t shy away from showing how the same can happen even with survivors of child abuse. The grandma manages to gaslight Minni into believing “it was her fault” , “it would have been better had she not been there” and that “nobody will love her anymore.” Due to this, she ends up jumping from her house’s roof and becomes paralysed. This scene is powerful in showing how rampant the culture of victim blaming is and often ends up in self-harm/punishment.
Kahaani 2 manages to incorporate so many things that most mainstream movies miss. The backstory of Arjun Rampal and Vidya Balan as a married couple at a young age and Vidya Balan’s recounting of her abuse at the hands of her then ‘husband’ brings in the issues of marital rape and consent; all at one go. It is only when Arjun Rampal reads her experiences in her diary that he realises it was abuse and tells her, “but why didn’t you tell me then?” This is what happens when we understand consent just as the absence of a NO.
However, the various ways in which Arjun Rampal’s character; a former abuser, current police officer and dad, and now an investigating officer on this case, is complicated in its own might. His moments of reading the diary and in the process, coming around himself as an abuser in the past are gripping. No wonder, he had to come out as a good samaritan towards the end!
In addition to that, Minni’s abuse isn’t portrayed simplistically by just tagging her abuser as a cunning man. Instead, the detail with which the movie shows how the grandma (among other people) was a constant enabler in the entire thing and almost kills Minni for talking about it, despite giving her “gifts and toys” is remarkable.
This brings me to our general conception of abusers/criminals and women as polar opposites because of course, our “bharatiya naari” is submissive, quiet and innocent. This thread is constantly touched upon during the second half of the film when, just by looking at Vidya Balan’s picture on a ‘Wanted’ poster, almost everybody dismisses the possibility of her being a prospective criminal. Floating ideas of “isse dekh ke lagta hai ye aisa karegi”, “ye aurat to badi khatarnaak hai par lagti nahin hai” aren’t unusual in common parlance and base themselves on the (often) moralistic dichotomy of a good woman and a bad woman.
Finally, the various police officers shown in the movie and their obsession with either getting a promotion or getting money is infuriating, but not unbelievable. It hits you hard more because you know it is a reality.
In conclusion, when I exited the hall with my family, my parents said, “We liked it. It talked about an issue which has always been there, but was never discussed.” This is when I knew what this movie managed to do.
It is a gut-wrenching portrayal of an issue we still aren’t comfortable to talk about. For once, the issue of child sexual abuse isn’t treated as just one of the many things, rather, it is the central premise of the movie through which a lot of other things are scrutinised. The common notions of fancy and mansion-like houses being free of such evils, and families, schools and the police being the most sanitised and helpful institutions are questioned and go for a toss in the journey of the movie as it lays bare their hypocrisies and hollowness. The fact the writers, director, actors and the entire team is able to pull off a movie on this issue with such nuance and a woman actor in the lead, is laudable.
But, despite all this, when my relative is still unwilling to make her three kids (all under the age of fifteen) watch this movie, does it tell us something? Why exactly are we SO SCARED TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION?!