We all have gone through a phase where we have wanted to be desired by someone or the other. We’ve been warned that this is a part of growing up. However, ‘desire’ is contextualised differently for different genders. Women’s desire does not matter, while men’s desire is paramount. Women are not taught to say ‘no’, and men are not taught to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Women have been told that being the subject of a man’s desire is a worthy goal, and must increase their “value” to the opposite sex by working on their appearance to reach society’s impossible beauty standards. Men have been programmed to fulfil their emotional, psychological and physical desire by approaching women. However, the problem arises when the woman refuses the man. In such cases, in accordance to the social conditioning, men are supposed to resort to all means which will help them ‘conquer’ the woman. The rest of the story is what is printed all across media platforms almost everyday!
A Proposal is a short film by Pocket Films, featuring Sayani Gupta and Manish Gandhi. The title of the film says ‘When Girls Say NO, It Means NO’, and within its 14 minute duration, it raises important unanswerable questions which globalised India faces at this point of time.
A young woman enters a cafe, where a young man is waiting for her. What steadily follows is a conversation which many of us have observed and even have taken part in – a conversation between a man ‘wooing‘ a woman and the woman being uncomfortable and rejecting his proposal vehemently. Then comes the twist, the man threatens to spray acid on her face, if she rejects his proposal.
The girl still does not back down, but the man keeps insisting, and finally the girl seemingly cowers down and sits. The man keeps on explaining the depth of his love for her, at which the woman suddenly gets up and kisses him. The kiss takes him by surprise, almost as if he couldn’t believe, that ‘ladki pat gayi‘. But little does he know that she was only trying to calm him down so that he confesses that the tiny glass bottle in his hand does not contain acid.
A Proposal‘s main objective is to raise awareness about sexual harassment and acid attacks in particular. While it does discuss these topics quite elaborately, the nuanced script also allows discussion and engagement to a lot of other politically relevant issues which work as a backdrop for the issue at hand. The most important topic that is raised is the question of consent.
The film reflects how, men have been conditioned by society to not accept rejection and keep persisting with their demands. The dynamics of class and gender intermix here, when the man who clearly identifies himself to be a man of lower class, and hence endorses the ideology that fighting for one’s rights is highly important. This argument, although is acceptable for class struggles, yet, it cannot be extended to the matter of consent and sexual harassment of a woman.
However, the film does perpetuate the myth that the men who harass women (read upper-class upper-caste women) are predominantly lower class and lower caste. This only leads to the further marginalization of these already marginalized groups, and hides the reality of sexual violence perpetrators belonging to the same class, caste (and sometimes family) as that of the victim. This leads to further disbelief when women who are harassed by so-called “respectable men” try to speak out about their harassment.
The influence and reach of media in a person’s life is quite vividly portrayed by the film. There are repeated references to Bollywood and how popular media and Hindi films influence individuals to act in a particular manner. The impact of Bollywood is quite huge, films determine what we wear to even what we eat at particular points of time. Indian cinema is well known to glorify male entitlement, stalking, and an inability to respectfully respond to a woman’s refection. This is then gradually internalised by the film-goer, thereby thinking that the scene that is portrayed in a Bollywood movie will unfold quite similarly in real life! This is what A Proposal tries to warn the audiences about, that reality is different from what you see on the silver screen, ‘Ladki ke ha mein uske na chhupi hain!‘ (The girl’s yes is hidden in her no) doesn’t really happen in the real world.
Acid attacks are one of the most common forms of violence that have been meted out towards women over the years, especially in India. Acid attacks do not only physically harm survivors but also mentally impact them, and require a prolonged recovery procedure that needs a lot of support and perseverance.
There is a scene where the man explains to the woman how she should be with him, because if he throws the acid on her face, then ‘Roz yehi dua karegi ki kash mar hi jaati main!‘ (You’ll wish everyday that you were dead!). I found this scene quite problematic, because this scene when taken singularly by itself comes off as trying to reinstate the societal stigma that is already present with regard to acid attack survivors. Acid attack survivors go through a long process of therapy in order to recover, and scenes such as this, when taken out of context, only reinforce their stigma in society.
As captured quite correctly by the film, cases of acid attacks often originate from cases of stalking and harassment. Stalking and harassment on the streets is a reality which women are quite consciously taught to accept and live with by their families and peers. ‘Just avoid them‘ is a phrase that has been often used by our parents and friends, asking us to internalise that stalking is acceptable behaviour from men. The man in the film explains how he wants to take the woman to ‘Malshej Ghat‘, because that is where he had seen her for the first time, and follows that with a detailed account of the woman’s activities from different places, her most intimate and vulnerable moments which have been observed by a stranger. The narration almost makes you cringe with fear, and you realise, how vulnerable you are to an invasion of privacy.
Why I think you should watch A Proposal is because unlike all other proposals and persuasions, the woman doesn’t back down. Women should follow suit and not give in to blackmail but fight back. Because as according to the film, society still believes that “Tu police ke paas is liye nahi jayegi kyunki…ekbar main jail chala gaya to…wapas aake kya hal karunga tera soch le…yehi waja hai ladkiya kyun nahi report karti rape ko!” (You won’t report to the police because you know once I am released I will destroy you and that is the reason why most women don’t report rape!).
A Proposal is a short film, raising a lot of questions and hence initiating discussion on a lot of issues. Even though there aren’t comprehensive answers to all the questions raised, the film should be viewed in order to understand the dynamics of power in a situation where a man is refused by a woman and also to create general awareness on sexual harassment.