You know how people say that everyone experiences the world differently, and that everybody’s reality is different? If you want to see what that looks like on screen, you should watch Section 375, a courtroom thriller about sexual assault in the #MeToo era, a film that supposedly presents a “balanced” perspective, but ultimately sides with the accused.
The Ajay Bahl directed movie starts with a graphic scene of a filmmaker, Rohan Khurana (played by Rahul Bhat) forcing himself on and raping Anjali Damle (Meera Chopra), a junior costume designer working under him. The rest of the film unfolds in the courtroom, in which the passionate but supremely incompetent prosecutor Himal Gandhi (Richa Chaddha) struggles to keep afloat as the slick and confident Tarun Saluja (Akshaye Khanna) breaks down her argument, and debunks it, piece by piece. Eventually, although Khurana is sentenced to jail, the viewer realises that this was a “classic case of a woman misusing the very law designed to protect her” because Damle was an obsessive lover looking for revenge and had thus, falsely accused Khurana.
There are multiple issues with this film, the first being its very premise. Post the #MeToo movement, this is one of the first Hindi films to address sexual assault by powerful men in the film industry and it takes the route of featuring a false rape accusation. While false rape accusations are undeniably a reality, statistic after statistic shows that they are a rarity, and not the norm, meaning that most rape and assault accusations are actually true. But perhaps the decision to choose this topic is unsurprising, given the positionality of the all male team of writers and directors and what I’m guessing are issues they are thinking about: trial by media, women misusing the platform they actually very recently got and so on.
Post the #MeToo movement, this is one of the first Hindi films to address sexual assault by powerful men in the film industry and it takes the route of featuring a false rape accusation.
What’s most shocking about the film, however, is how its filmmakers have a gigantic blind spot past their own experience. They create a fictional world in which women and women’s experiences have as much, if not more power than men’s and a world where the larger public and the media unequivocally take the side of the survivor. The film shows angry mobs of protestors with signs such as “Hang The Rapists”, and, somehow their size and anger continues to increase even as the case drags on for months in the Bombay High Court.
How realistic is that really?
Even in the midst of the MeToo movement, there were many people in mainstream media as well as famous Bollywood personalities who doubted survivors and their stories and publicly supported the accused. Moreover, do Section 375’s filmmakers really believe that today, a singular rape case could manage to sustain the media and citizen attention?
Or rather, is this instead a glaring example of their own worst fears come to life, where they perceive some disjointed protests, primarily on Twitter, as being so immensely threatening and dangerous? (The protestors in this film are furious to the point where they fight with the police and manage to get past the barricades to take over the High Court and ensure that the accused is punished!) The filmmakers have grossly misrepresented anti-sexual assault protests in ‘Section 375’, portraying them as real life militant lynch mobs after blood, rather than the genuine and honestly harmless, primarily online activism, that they really are.
And, I want to believe that they didn’t intentionally do so, rather this is just what happens when a film on sexual assault is written and directed solely by men. Another example of such a dissonance in the movie is in the characterization of Tarun Saluja. Saluja is supposed to be an experienced, brilliant, calm and level-headed lawyer who takes on controversial high profile cases to support his pro-bono work. Crucially, he also respects his wife and only engages in sexual activity if there is consent between them.
The filmmakers have grossly misrepresented anti-sexual assault protests in ‘Section 375’, portraying them as real life militant lynch mobs after blood, rather than the genuine and honestly harmless, primarily online activism, that they really are.
And, I’m sure that many in the audience read him as he was intended to be.
But, I’m also positive that many others, like me, have a completely different perspective on him. Saluja reminded me of those sleazy decorated professors who think that they are geniuses and that gives them the right to say things like, “Law is like a jealous mistress, however much you try, it will disappoint you.” Sometimes, like Saluja, these professors flirt with you here and there, thinking its harmless fun while not realising or conveniently choosing to ignore how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Rather than brilliant or inspirational, Saluja came off as smug and irritating and like the kind of guy who loves to play the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ (in this case quite literally so).
In a parallel feminist universe, Section 375, written with a female gaze, which does not necessarily mean written by women but in a way that treats women as whole beings with emotions and agency, would show the unease that those around Tarun feel. In this parallel universe, Section 375 would represent protests as most unfortunately are, important but ultimately benign. In this parallel universe, Section 375 would also show how many of those accused in the MeToo movement are back to the same positions of power they occupied before.
It seems then, in a parallel feminist universe, Section 375 would be a completely different film.
Featured Image Source: Gulf News