V. Geetha Wants Us To Adopt Historical Thinking | Verve Magazine
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August 19, 2022

V. Geetha Wants Us To Adopt Historical Thinking

Interview by J. Shruti; Illustrations by Mallika Chandra.

The recently released Tamil-language film Gargi featured scenes of sexual assault that raised questions about its sensitive portrayal on-screen. Feminist historian and activist V. Geetha speaks to Verve about the ethics of picturising such violence, the function of trigger warnings, the rape-revenge genre, as well as imagining a visual narrative outside of the criminal justice framework

Content Warning: This interview contains descriptions of sexual and caste violence.

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

J. Shruti (SJ): I watched Gargi not too long ago. In the film, we are led through the perspective of the female protagonist, whose father has been accused in the case of the gang rape of a nine-year-old girl who lives in the building where he works as a security guard. We do not see the act of rape itself, but we are given a glimpse of what is about to happen through an opaque window pane, where we see one of the men take off his shirt. We also see the girl’s hands and how they move in response to this act of violence. The director had chosen to focus — voyeuristically, I would argue — over a sequence of the girl’s trembling fingers, and I was incredibly disturbed after watching this scene. Later in the film, the girl’s injured body is shown, left bleeding on a staircase. The reason I am going into such detail is because I want to understand your perspective on this visualisation. What kind of sensitivity and sensibility are required when a director conceptualises such a scene?

V. Geetha (GV): It’s part of a wider conundrum, I think. How does one represent what one wishes to criticise or condemn? Whether it has to do with sexual violence or abusive language towards women, how does one frame that without censoring anything and, at the same time, make it evident to the reader or viewer that you really have to see this as deeply problematic, if not downright evil?

There are many issues that get conflated here. One is that it’s for the public gaze, so you want to be clear-cut about the intentions of your work. There’s a certain rhetorical overkill that belongs to the general grammar of popular Indian cinema — you explicitly mark the villain as villain, the virtuous hero as virtuous and so on. And what is forgotten is that it [sexual violence] exists on the continuum of various other acts of discrimination, which are also registered [by women]. It’s not that women just silently put up with all this stuff — if they do respond, if they do resist, the questions then become about why the camera is not able to bring in that aspect of resistance, or any other kind of response. You will see this as an exceptional act, which has been marked as exceptional. Therefore, the kinds of things that you just described — the bloodstains, the opaque window pane, the fingers and so on — they’re part of that approach as well. And the third thing is a structural inability to separate feelings of revulsion, anger and critique from being held in thrall to that image; you are enthralled, in a very fundamental sense, because it is a female body that is focused on. And that is a body to which you do not relate in any manner except that of possession and control, generally speaking. I mean, even if we wished to deal with it differently, that is the mode of framing most available to you.

Film-makers, especially if their own experiences are removed from this act of systemic violence, don’t really reckon with feminist thought or practice when they seek to understand it. They’re largely guided by their sense of absolute self-righteousness or angst or revulsion or anger, but nothing that helps them question why they cannot get away from this figure pinned onto the screen.

SJ: But Gargi is trying to engage in many of the conversations that emerged post the MeToo movement. The choice to focus on the girl’s trembling hands is what I am having trouble grappling with because, even though the movie makes its empathies clear, it felt jarring and inconsistent within that framework of empathy. I found myself asking who this visualisation is for and thinking about the director’s assumption about how women would react to that scene, as I felt extremely unsettled and overwhelmed. However, I was willing to try and understand where he was coming from. What do you think of the argument that people need to see the truth of a situation to feel something about it?

GV: You don’t need to remind anyone that women have a bad deal in a generally patriarchal and misogynistic culture. But how we are socialised into gendered beings is seldom part of the way film is structured when it shows an act of sexual violence. What is seen as rightful social and sexual behaviour has been cultivated over millennia — not just months and years — in a familiar social space. We could then ask why film-makers are not telling us that. Why are they so insistent on showing this act of gendered violence? Because one act is ultimately only symptomatic rather than the cause of anything within a complicated social structure. How does one understand that symptom, then? You need to do a better mapping of the larger context to convey how it is normalised by these social structures, especially when the act of violence is directed against social unequals: Dalits, Adivasis, workers in a factory or domestic helpers. There’s an enabling structure, which we’re not shown in all its horror. Or if it is shown, it’s only by way of a plot line.

SJ: What is your point of view on and approach to trigger warnings as someone who has written extensively about sexual violence? In the last 2–3 years, more critical approaches, which include writings in both the digital as well as academic space that challenge the practice of adding that kind of disclaimer have emerged. Jeanine Suk Gersen wrote in The New Yorker about how warnings about content do not necessarily affect people’s responses, and can sometimes even increase anxiety beforehand.

GV: I came into feminism at a time when we believed or thought that it was important to share experiences of what you have endured. And some of us might have had worse experiences than others, while others might have been through stuff that we couldn’t even begin to understand, so we didn’t experience that kind of…let’s say, anxiety or panic. We were anxious and panic-stricken for other reasons — sharing our stories and realising that “it’s not just me; there is something else that’s systemic and structural that’s going on here”.

In the 1980s and after, when autonomous women’s groups emerged across the country, they became arguably “safe” spaces for women to speak of what they endured and to think through the justice they sought. And in all women’s conferences since 1991, the sessions on violence or atrocities, or any sort of political idea, had women sharing their experiences of terror, assault, their fear of sexual predators… and such speak-outs, if one can call them that, produced a sense of “collective” angst. For various reasons, it’s not been easy for a sustained collective to exist — not that it was easy in the past either. Today, I wonder if young persons have not found such collective spaces enabling. Over time, there has grown a psychological discourse around suffering and trauma, and while it has helped many of us engage with our unexamined fears and sorrow fruitfully, it has also rendered suffering individualised. And it appears that we are somewhat trapped by this discourse. There’s a barrage of information; our sensorium has to deal with a lot in terms of what we see on our screens, what comes to us through our phones. We also know a great deal more about feminism. For people of a certain generation, that wasn’t the case. Some stuff was available, but we made sense of it as we went along and made mistakes, took risks and were unmindful of many things.

In the law, I think the call for a trigger warning is also a call for imagining another space where you can actually speak. You may be able to do other things with that phrase and find other ways in which people can actually listen and speak about what they are going through without being pushed into inaction, paralysis or depression. Even in my time, we realised that experience-sharing can become very routine. And sometimes it’s important to stop and say, “Look, what’s the argument we’re making?”

SJ: Gargi shows you that somebody you love is capable of sexual assault while reinforcing several stereotypes about how sexual violence occurs within a certain milieu. It tells you that someone who commits such an act can be a stranger, but it also tells you that stranger could likely be a person from a marginalised socio-economic background, when there are statistics on how child sexual abuse is very likely to happen within the child’s family or circle their parents move in. What is the responsibility of a film-maker in such cases? How strong should their sense of obligation be to stay close to the truth, according to you?

GV: The film-maker has to reflect on why they are making certain choices for a plot. For instance, the vulnerable middle-class woman who is preyed upon by either “roadside Romeos”, the working-class man or a stranger in the city and so on, why is that a choice? I think it goes back to what we were saying earlier — that we tend to think of these occurrences as one exceptional moment, as a single atrocity.

I mean, look at the reluctance to consider marital rape as a crime in this country. I think that even the Justice Verma Committee, which was so open to suggestions, couldn’t push on this one. And it has to do with our fundamental reluctance to question the basis of the social in our context, which is the caste family; the moment you discuss the caste family, you’re really, really rocking something that’s very constitutive of the social.

So, a question that we might want to ask film-makers and others is why they chose a certain narrative. Because by doing so, they insert it within, as you said, a stereotypical pattern that has very distinctive visual correlations. And then you are trapped by a particular visual logic, of which you need to be very sensitive and visually transgressive to either do away with or transplant the established protocols. And I think that takes a lot of work, not to mention familiarity with feminist criticisms of the case. There’ve been decades of scholarship on how feminists have understood the way a film works on its audience, but women’s studies remains ghettoised. Only some of us end up talking about these things, you know, and that’s part of the problem. There’s a lot of gatekeeping that goes on.

But the larger issue, I think, is that there’s a charge put on the upper-caste girl, that she’d better “stay with her own kind”. And if she doesn’t, she must ask herself what she has done wrong, which makes it as if she’s got to constantly guard herself. And for her, rather than seeing her brother, father, uncle, grandmother or whoever else as restricting her life choices, it’s far easier to see someone from the outside who might look at her in a certain way and want to touch her inappropriately. And he becomes the focus of our critical attention; she becomes complicit in what she actually wants to escape.

This doesn’t mean that the stereotypes are entirely untrue, however. There is also the possibility of stranger violence, which has to do with the city — who lives there, who’s allowed to inhabit what space? One needs to look beyond this encounter between two people. When we talk of stereotyping, or making people “see” things, clearly, we are looking at a set of extremely complex social developments and issues that need to be part of this conversation.

SJ: I want to talk about the idea of closure and justice, specifically how it is portrayed in film. The revenge genre is very prominent when it comes to the subject of sexual assault. When you have male protagonists, like in Simmba and Khuda Haafiz 2, rape functions as a plot point for them to exact revenge — but let’s keep the focus on female-led narratives. In Mardaani, Rani Mukerji’s character hands over the main villain to the girls he trafficked, who fatally beat him up, and in 22 Female Kottayam, Rima Kallingal’s character castrates her rapist. There is an argument that films like these do not address the conditions within which gendered violence emerges but are masculinist endeavours instead. Depending on the movie and how the violence is framed, this perspective seems valid to an extent, but I also think they hold more nuance, where this urge to hurt something, break something, comes from a place of helplessness.

GV: This makes me think about the story of someone like Phoolan Devi, which is both tragic yet logical, and heroic in many ways. But I wouldn’t say that she conforms to a masculine aesthetic; she was part of a social milieu that provided her very few options to resist, and she made the most of whichever she had. She also paid for it — she was arrested and imprisoned, and many other bad things happened to her. So, I wouldn’t essentialise this as a masculinised response, as that’s just one aspect.

And let’s not forget the number of vengeful devis [goddesses] we have in this country — women with spears, sitting on all kinds of ferocious animals and drinking human blood. There’s also the tradition of the angry “empowered goddess” who crosses all limits. The goddesses that are worshipped across the Deccan and South India are the iconised forms of women who have died under what today’s criminal justice system would term “suspicious” circumstances, or in sad contexts. Assault and death, death during childbirth, virgin deaths that appear unnatural — all these instantiate a “fear” of the spirit that might prevail even if the body of the individual has left this earth. And the person thus comes to be worshipped. A brilliant redeployment of this icon is to be had in Mari Selvaraj’s film Karnan, where a child that dies on a highway becomes a guiding spirit for those fighting caste injustice. So, the vengeful goddess comes in more than one guise: she can haunt you, or she is waiting to have her say in how justice will be done. There’s a sense of a compensatory mechanism that has to be put in place.

There are ways in which resisting and fighting back have also been part of histories of female resistance, even if only in the imaginative sense of wanting to use the master’s weapons to bring down the master’s house — though we do tell ourselves that it won’t help us build a new house.

SJ: In her book The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan writes about how the way we think about accountability in the cases of sexual violation and harassment is tied to a very carceral idea of punishment and consequences, and how we do not couple this discourse of gendered violence with a critical look at the current criminal justice system. In Gargi, Guilty and Pink, we see the accused arrested and jailed for their crimes, and that is supposed to convey a sense of justice to the audiences. Lately, this kind of resolution has been more difficult because of how our legal system often does not come through for women who are seeking accountability for a crime. Why do you think it is so hard to imagine accountability and/or restorative justice for those who commit rape outside of our existing criminal justice framework?

GV: I think in public portrayals of violence in cinema, at least in the Indian context, the courtroom stands for the final resolution. It’s also part of the trope of how we imagined ourselves as a nation state — that the courts of justice are very central to the making of the modern nation state, that modernity has to do with the witness box, truth-telling, rationality and all of that. That none of these courtroom scenes are rational is another matter altogether; they are occasions for speech-making rather than showing you people pursuing an evidentiary argument.

So, we’re seeing a conflation of two very common tendencies in our public lives. One is the courtroom, which is constructed to be the space where a resolution might be handed in a narrative. And second is the public sphere, where you can make speeches and argue and get people’s attention. The courtroom serves both purposes. And the criminal justice system is inevitably part of this genre of film-making, which started out in the shadow of the Indian nation state and continues to stay there.

Nowhere is the criminal justice system itself in question; it’s never brought to book as such. For example, in the more recent Jai Bhim, from Tamil Nadu, lawyers investigate the inquiry into the killing of a man from a scheduled tribe. The film points to several kinds of fudging that happen in the criminal justice system. But then the way you get back at it is again by using the court of law. One would imagine that no conversations are possible in the social or cultural spheres, or that people don’t settle issues on their own, but I believe it happens all the time.

There’s also the everyday material exercise of power. We all occupy hierarchical and unequal spaces, and even among so-called equals, not everything truly is equal, as we know. Therefore, questions of dignity and consent and equality become central in both a legal sense as well as an everyday social and intimate sense. There’s a consensus amongst us as a society that “if this is actually not problematic for me, then it might be okay”.

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