My domestic help came to my home the other day with a big bruise on the side of her cheek. She covered her face with her dupatta and quietly started cleaning the house. Every time she bent down to broom the floor, she was wincing. I stopped her immediately and asked her what happened and how she hurt herself. “Same story madam, husband got drunk and beat me when I refused to give him more money for alcohol”. We’ve all heard different versions of this story before. With our house help, domestic violence case becomes matter of fact. We give them money to see a doctor but it’s back to the same equation another week when she comes to your home in tears. We dismiss these incidents often in our privileged stances as financial dependence due to which these woman choose to stay, and such incidents seem to be a common reality but the truth is that, abuse is a much more complicated issue. We cannot allow ourselves to become invisible to abuse when it happens to people of different classes, and react so strongly when it happens to a prominent upper class woman like Tapsee’s character, Amrita Sandhu in Thappad.
Although Thappad revolves around Amrita’s character and the one public slap that made her file for divorce, the film subtly depicts the other prominent forms of patriarchy. Thappad does a beautiful job of representing some of the complexities of abusive or toxic relationships: the successful lawyer who is subjected to marital rape, and despite a bad marriage and an affair within her marriage, the lawyer played by Netra Jaisingh asks Amrita to compromise and continue to stay in the marriage, or the emotional blackmail the mother-in-law, Sulakshana, played by Tanvi Azmi resorts to by falling sick and blaming Amrita for her illness and the gaslighting husband Vikram, played by Pavail Gulati who justifies his act of violence as a necessity at the moment because he was stressed by office work.
Talking about domestic violence on a national, mass platform is a very powerful statement to make by the director, Anubhav Sinha. In a country that has reported a swell of domestic violence cases during the quarantine/lockdown, a country whose patriarchal culture values ‘log kya kahenge’ over the safety of a woman, this movie brings forth an important dialogue. In the month of April alone, there were 315 cases of domestic violence reported during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown which gives us a clear indication of how widespread the problem of domestic violence is. Yet, for most of these women, getting justice like Amrita did is an almost impossible route. I was one of the women who couldn’t get justice despite my privilege and even public support. So for me, that bit was glorified in the movie to give the protagonist a ‘happy ending’.
I am a survivor of intimate partner violence myself, and Thappad was an extremely triggering film for me. After watching the film, I wept because I recognised the signs of abuse and society’s hypocritical and gendered reaction to survivors of abuse. I needed an emergency session with my psychiatrist because I immediately experienced post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. My body felt unsafe, like I was immediately back in the violent atmosphere and under my abuser’s thumb.
When I watched Thappad, for me, the most powerful part of the film was the transformation of the attitude of the house help, Sunita, played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan. Her reality is a more realistic depiction of abuse. A woman stuck in a patriarchal home with a man who thinks he has the right to her body, her behaviour, her lifestyle and her hard-earned money. When the husband hits her in the initial scene of the film, blaming her for being unable to conceive, she has a resigned attitude towards the husband.
The backlash is always verbal, but physically, she has accepted that this is her fate. For her, in her head, the abuser has worn her down and she had no where to turn to. She lost her self-confidence and self-respect, and didn’t look at herself as an emotionally and financially independent woman. When Sunita sees Amrita being slapped, it further re-iterates to her that all women despite caste and class get beaten by their husbands and therefore, she must resign to her fate as well.
The depiction where Sunita fights back her husband after watching Amrita fight back is problematic for me. As a survivor, there comes a point of acceptance and after very long victims may realise that, yes, abuse is happening and this is not normal. This is not okay. But this acceptance cannot be forced or inspired; it only comes from within. The decision to walk out was completely the house help’s, and rather her decision was a lot harder to make than Amrita’s, but there was not enough credit given there. It seemed like a move inspired by Amrita and that’s misrepresentation and even a little bit of the upper caste saviour complex sprinkled in the film. It robs Sunita of her real agency, when she realises that enough is enough, and that she deserves better than an alcoholic abuser and finally walks out of her marriage.
Thappad is an important film for me and other survivors of violence. It finally brings to light an issue that society has all too well learned to brush under the rug. Survivors should rather wear make up and hide their injuries than admit and be shamed for allowing someone to abuse them. But keep in mind, nobody allows abuse. It’s a complicated cycle and by choice, nobody would want their body and mental state violated by anyone, let alone a loved one.
Keep this in mind the next time you come across a survivor of abuse and refrain from asking them why it took so long to leave. Sometimes, leaving can cost them their lives. Sometimes, not everyone gets a victory like Amrita has. But, we need to still do our very best to support survivors and give them a non judgemental space to come forward with their narratives, and most importantly, not gaslight them, but believe them.
Featured Image Source: The Indian Express