Trigger warning: Violence, abuse, and rape
A middle class Mumbai couple meets up after work. Their date takes them on a walk by the sea, a taxi ride, an Irani cafe, the beach, the movie theatre, and a bedroom. With a summary like that, and a title like Jaoon Kahaan Bata Ae Dil anyone can be fooled into believing the movie tells a love story. But it doesn’t.
The long, wordy, sometimes political and philosophical conversations would serve as a reminder of the Before Sunrise series if it hadn’t been for the emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that make its way onto every inch of the screen, the minute the male lead appears. It is unclear what Jaoon Kahaan Bata Ae Dil, written and directed by Aadish Keluskar, stands for or what it aims to accomplish. And while it is painstakingly long, the perfect shots are an ode to the technical abilities of the director and cinematographer. The film, however, fails to demonstrate any understanding of how power and abuse connect with gender.
One of the first and most striking flaws with the film is the issue of blackfacing. Khushboo Upadhyay, who plays the lead (and is the only female member of the cast and crew) in this movie has wheatish, fair complexion in real life. Her skin is darkened, presumably to either push the outward ‘ugliness’ of her character that the male lead constantly points out, or to show that she belongs to a lower caste, again something her romantic interest makes it a point to highlight in one of his emotionally and verbally abusive rants.
The fact that darker skin needs to be used to show ‘lack of beauty’ is colourist. Even if that colorist choice is excused under the reasoning of realism (colourism still exists in all South Asian countries), choosing a light-skinned woman and using blackface to portray colourism is absolutely inexcusable. Darker-skinned women in Bollywood and other film industries, have struggled with and continue to struggle with getting lead roles or being considered for roles where they are not coming from a lower caste, aren’t poor or aren’t villains. The fact that an entire cast and crew missed on this key issue sets the tone of how little any of them understand feminism or gender issues, especially in the South Asian context.
the female lead occasionally comes back with actually witty lines but only ends up as the butt of another joke at the hands of her lover.
The script is also peppered with harsh and cruel one-liners by the male lead. Every sentence he says tries to portray him as a cynic who has somehow figured out that love is a scam, something that his non-girlfriend girlfriend is apparently in denial of. Each time the woman finds the courage to dump the man, he lures her back into a hypnotic trap with emotionally abusive quips, claiming that she won’t find anyone better than him with her looks, or by lying about how he met someone else so it’s best if they part anyway. What appears as wit is actually verbal abuse. And, in what can only be assumed as an attempt to balance out the power struggle, the female lead occasionally comes back with actually witty lines but only ends up as the butt of another joke at the hands of her lover.
The movie also seemed to want to humanise the abuser. To show that abusive men aren’t all bad, that on some level they are damaged. It wants you to empathise with his objectification of the female lead and his constant dismissal of her humanity by crassly packaging it as fear of commitment and intimacy issues. Keluskar has said it himself, “We relate to him but are also repulsed by him.” But nothing about the character’s approach to sex as an exploitative transaction, or his comparison of the woman to an easily replaceable object like a cell phone, should be relatable.
Keluskar also said that even though the male lead may be “chauvinistic and misanthropic,” occasionally he “makes sense too.” But the only time he makes sense is when he calls out the BJP regime in conversation with the taxi driver. The fact that those political jokes address power structures perfectly makes the insensitivity in the sexist jokes more prominent. Plus, by trying to make an abusive male lead like this seem relatable, the movie attempts to normalise his horrendous actions.
Keluskar has openly voiced out how misogynistic the male lead is before and after the movie’s screening at the film festival. As if, somehow, openly claiming misogyny makes it better. It doesn’t. In an interview with The Quint, Keluskar spoke about the most triggering scene in the movie – the scene where the man is sexually and physically abusive to the woman. The dialogues in the scene make no sense. At one point the woman begs for the man to rape her and make her bleed, but the next moment pushes him away angrily for hurting her.
If the purpose was to realistically portray how abusive romantic relationships work, did we need a portrayal from a male perspective by an all male team?
Keluskar said, “I was clear about my gaze and after that it was very clinical.” And that showed in the final edit that he put out into the world. In the name of art, he attempted to reduce the rape scene and the other abusive scenes to just that – really bad art. But abuse, assault, and rape are not art. In real life they leave victims and survivors with permanent physical and emotional scars. Choosing to execute an enactment of rape clinically is insensitive and erases the experiences of countless survivors around the world.
When the man drops the woman home after brutally raping her and smashing a bottle on her head, the camera shows the expression of both the woman in shock and the man’s guilt. By giving attention to anything beyond the woman’s shock and trauma, Keluskar makes it seem like this kind of behaviour are part and parcel of modern, middle-class relationships. Keluskar fails to recognise that rape and other kinds of violence (physical or verbal) is not a result of men being broken and losing control of themselves. It is a result of a gross abuse of power imbalance and the ‘guilt’ that comes after is just a continued abuse of that power.
It is also important to contextualise the purpose of movies that tackle issues like rape and abuse on-screen to understand if the format works. But in the case of Jaoon Kahaan Bata Ae Dil, nothing is clear. If the purpose of this movie was entertainment, it is outrageous for Keluskar to think that rape and abuse can be portrayed in this format for laughs. If this movie was meant to be an issue-driven one, the lack of understanding of any of the issues it attempts to portray makes it a failure. If the purpose was to realistically portray how abusive romantic relationships work, did we really need a portrayal from a male perspective by an all-male team?
The woman’s inability to leave the man is implied to be a result of her confusion and weakness. But the last scene where she dances sensually after the man gets hit by a vehicle outside her building turns it up a notch. With the bloody bandage still on her head, she dances rigorously with no sign of physical or emotional trauma. It is unclear but it seems like the man is dead, and Keluskar makes it seem like the only way to get over the trauma of assault is if the abuser dies. As if the trauma of abuse dies with the abuser.
In the last frame the man magically appears to hold her up as she bends back, a figment of her imagination, and she playfully tells him to stop filming, alluding to the bit where he was filming them having sex without her consent earlier in the movie. It makes her seem like she lost her mind and her smile makes it seem like she ‘secretly wanted’ the abuse.
Before the movie began, Keluskar came up front for a short word and introduction. He said, presumably jokingly, “Be prepared for a psychological assault,” and went on to say something about it being a free country for anyone to walk out of the theatre if they can’t handle it. That same tone, laden with a oodles of cocky machismo and a tinge of victim-blaming was, unsurprisingly, the theme throughout this trainwreck of a movie.
The world has seen countless examples of why men shouldn’t attempt to tackle feminist issues of rape and abuse of women, and gendered power struggles in daily relationships. And this is yet another one. If there is a list of movies that glorify misogyny under the guise of realistically portraying it, and gaslight by trying to create grey areas with abuser’s intentions and the abusee’s role in their abuse, Jaoon Kahaan Bata Ae Dil needs to sit at the top.
Featured Image Source: Scroll