The Portraits of Two Ladies

Apparently, the owners of The Times of India take great pride in the fact that the newspaper hasn’t had to ‘right-size’ so far. The Times of India takes the idea of providing a livelihood seriously, according to the owners, who are supposedly quite aware and serious about the fact that there lives that depend upon the salaries they pay. This respect for the lives of their employees is admirable in times when journalists are being fired left, right and centre. Now if only the newspaper was equally respectful of the lives of those who are featured in it.

On Saturday, The Times of India provided its readers with what it would probably term “in-depth coverage” of a gang rape that took place in Mumbai on Thursday. A young photojournalist and her male colleague were out on a shoot when they encountered two men who pretended to be policemen investigating a murder. They tied up the male colleague and were joined by three other men. All five gang raped the photojournalist. Once they were done, they left, confident that their crime would go unreported. This young woman, however, is of finer mettle than they’d guessed. She untied her colleague and then the two of them went to a nearby hospital. They also reported the gang rape. Within a few hours, she’d given the police enough details to come up with sketches of her rapists. To acquaint yourself more intimately with how disgusting the rapists were, click here and here.

The Times of India‘s idea of coverage of this incident is basically allowing the viewer to be a voyeur. Instead of respecting the rape victim/survivor’s privacy, they’ve written about both the incident and her in such a way that the reader becomes a fly on the wall. It begins with the photograph they carried on the front page.

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That’s the compound where the gang-rape took place. Every publication carried a photo of the place. The Times of India decided to add those two figures — a young man and a young woman with a knapsack that looks like what many photographers carry — in their photo, as though they were re-enacting the rape for their readers. Which is pretty much what they did in their reports. From what injuries she has to where she was penetrated by her rapists to when she drank her first cup of tea to what’s been playing on the television in her room, it’s all in The Times of India.

I don’t know of anyone who read The Times of India and wasn’t nauseated. As one journalist friend of mine put it, “You can almost feel how the person who wrote relished the graphic details when you read it.” She’s right. You can.

Evidently, The Times of India‘s source is one of the medical staff, although the newspaper claims sources close to the family informed them of these details. The newspaper also sent journalists to the raped woman’s residence and then in today’s paper, they’ve done the equivalent of twiddling their thumbs by reporting that the patient’s mother was disturbed by the presence of journalists at their residence.

Everyone’s bemoaning that this gang rape shows how all the hue and cry over the Delhi gang rape from last December has had no impact upon women’s security. For me the real takeaway is what the past incident has taught us. The Times of India‘s ‘report’ shows that it thinks that people aren’t horrified as much as fascinated by rape. So they’re going to provide their readers with what they think the reader wants, which is stuff like descriptions of what kind of sex was inflicted and the resultant injuries.

The Mumbai gang rape also shows how effective the police can be when they’re so inclined. The first of the five suspects was arrested within 24 hours and the others were also scooped up swiftly by the police. The fifth was actually arrested in Delhi. He’d left Mumbai and was planning to flee to Bangladesh. The other noticeable detail is that the Delhi gang rape has popularised the concept of “juvenile” in the legal sense. According to one of the accused’s grandmother, he’s 16 even though the police insist he’s 18.

But coming back to The Times of India‘s report, something else struck me while reading it. Rape is the seventh most popular search term from Indians on pornography sites (see here). There are images of sex and consent that we store in our imagination, and they’re usually drawn from what we see and read. Pornography and films are the obvious sources. In both, the consent of women is a coy, no-means-yes sort of thing. Women are meant to be too shy to articulate their sexual desires. They’re meant to enjoy men who take charge, they supposedly prefer to be ones who are chased and pinned down. The sexual imagery that most of us (particularly men) are provided, whether by the cottage industry of pornography in India or through popular cinema or even in the much-circulated MMS clips, instill the idea that women need men to be sexually forceful. Stories of sex usually don’t allow women the space to articulate their sexuality unless it’s forced out of them by men. Perhaps it’s something close to an explanation for why average, seemingly harmless men undergo a Jekyll to Hyde transformation and become brutal rapists so effortlessly.

In Q’s Tasher Desh — possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, despite some interesting ideas, lovely cinematography and an absolutely glorious soundtrack — there are scenes in which the actress Rii is shown having sex. This is not unusual as far as either Rii or Q’s filmmaking is concerned. But watching Rii in Tasher Desh while the idea of rape haunted my mind, it was an interesting experience.

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Q’s film is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s musical of the same name (it translates to “Land of Cards”). Tagore’s work was about a totalitarian regime organised like a pack of playing cards that is dismantled by one revolutionary concept: ichchha, or desire. The women rally together and dismantle a social order that has been considered unchangeable for generations, when the Queen of Hearts falls in love with a prince who is shipwrecked upon this Land of Cards.

In Bengali, the word ichchha is pivoted more upon free will than erotic desire. When you say, “I feel like eating a sandwich”, you’re feeling ichchha for a sandwich. It’s simpler, more basic and consequently more powerful than erotic desire. Q, however, makes Tasher Desh a story about how a sexual revolution brings down a rigid world order. If the almost nonsensical flow of images is anything to go by, it’s also a film about ping pong, drug use, cheap plastic toys, alcoholic mothers and publicising Sri Lanka’s beaches. The narrative barely holds together and the acting is as bad as the script, which is punctured by repeated attempts to be cool, anti-narrative and is determined to not explore the more interesting ideas nestled in the chaos of Tasher Desh‘s beautiful imagery. For instance, I thought it was really interesting to have the king of the land of cards be revealed at the end as a vagabond in our world, carrying a tattered copy of Tagore’s published Tasher Desh all around Kolkata, which is now a city destroyed by the equivalent of a mad queen.

But that’s not the point. In Tasher Desh, Q shows a number of seductions and one of them involves Rii riding Imaad Shah, and having an orgasmically good time while she’s at it. She also has a wet-sari moment. For all the indulgent surrealism and laboured coolness of Tasher Desh, the warmth and sensuality with which Rii’s sex scenes are shot made me wish more films showed women and feminine sexuality this way. Rii enjoys displaying her body and her sexuality; Q enjoys viewing and filming her. I love this frankness, but it unsettles many. I’m not sure if it’s Q being unperturbed by his partner being ogled at by audiences or Rii’s delight at her own sensual appeal, but the pair of them succeed in rattling audiences. Curiously enough, the fact that Rii is so unabashed about her desire seems to make some men coy about their own sexual responses. Two male friends of mine told me they didn’t find her hot and I, for one, could see they were flatly lying. “She’s a bit in your face,” one of them said in explanation when I pushed them to explain why they didn’t think she was hot.

When someone presents you with their desire, it comes with a responsibility: to meet and fulfill their expectations. A passive, coy woman makes no demands of a man sexually; she’ll take whatever he chooses to give her — foreplay, no foreplay, penetration, abuse, whatever. Not so for a woman who knows what turns her on. A woman who comes up and chooses you as the one who’s going to make her come, she places upon you the expectation that you will not fail her. Then, a man’s got to measure up (no pun intended) and perhaps that’s daunting for men who belong to a culture that suggests masculinity comes with automatic privileges and superiority. As a man in a patriarchy like the one embedded in India, you don’t have to meet someone’s needs and you have few responsibilities towards anyone but yourself. Everything is arranged around you to ensure your needs are met, sometimes without needing you to articulate them.

And so, despite being a truly awful film, Tasher Desh manages in a small way to take what happens in the film and make it happen in the real world through the act of watching it — it unsettles this system in which men think they can get away with raping a woman because they’re in a secluded area with the idea of a woman who is an equal partner in the power politics of sex.

2 thoughts on “The Portraits of Two Ladies

  1. A couple of disturbing thoughts related to this. First of all, I think the police were effective in this case only because they put in so many resources, because it was so high profile. Same thing with the Delhi case. There’s no way the country can afford to prosecute every sexual assault case this extensively. In the vast majority of cases, I don’t think the police are effective (as you’re saying too), but I’m convinced that even worse, people are falsely implicated and thrown into jail to make the case go away.

    Second, this seems to imply the first case has not been much of a deterrent. The behaviour of the culprits seems to indicate this is something they did with no fear of getting caught, though they must have heard of the Delhi case. The questions are: why isn’t it a deterrent? (Have they or people they know been doing this sort of thing with impunity?) And how do we make it a deterrent?

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