Can We Stop Using Rape As A Plot Device?

Posted: January 6, 2016

Rape is a horrendous crime against women. Can we just stop using rape as a plot device to define the good and evil among the men in our movies?

Last night I watched the popular ’90s flick Mohra. I had never watched it as a child, but like every other ’90s kid, Mohra’s iconic songs have been part of all my drunken parties, so when I saw that the film was on, I decided to sit down and watch it, seedy songs and all. As entertaining as the film was, something stood out as a red flag. Some would say I am over-analysing, but I have to put it out there:

In the film, Sunil Shetty’s character is in jail. Why is he in jail? Because he killed four men. Because they drugged and raped his sister-in-law and got away with it. Later, they tried to assault his wife too, but she committed suicide to escape them. Enraged and hopeless, Vishal (Shetty) murdered them.

The flashback shows gruesome details of how the four men drugged the girl and her boyfriend and proceed to attack, disrobe and finally rape her. Pretty routine for that genre of Bollywood films. So what was it that bothered me? The rape existed only as a plot device and only to justify Vishal’s character traits. Nothing more. A woman is drugged and gang-raped and we hardly even know the girl’s name. That entire episode only occurs as a tool to establish Vishal’s character and the pain we see and feel are only his. So even in her worst moments, we only know of the sister-in-law’s pain through the emotions felt by the man (saviour?) around her.

Her experience is never taken up and engaged with in a critical or thoughtful way, she is only important because she is a raped body and Vishal is so enraged that he ends up killing the four men. So now, we know Vishal is a caring, loving brother and husband but also “macho/masculine” and impassioned enough to avenge the attack on the women in his life; he’s not just a random criminal. The women don’t matter here. They function only as victims of violence and to justify the acts of violence committed by Vishal in revenge – no more than a plot device.

This is not all. During a visit to her father’s jail, Roma (Raveena Tandon) is attacked in a similar fashion by a group of convicts only to have Vishal come and save her. Here too, the film doesn’t bother to know whether she is traumatised or at least shaken by this incident, but only that she is extremely thankful to Vishal for saving her and then on makes his release from prison the goal of her life.

But there’s nothing new in this. It is routine. It is just lazy writing. Bollywood has always used rape – a heinous, violent, deplorable crime as an element to justify one of the following: to give the hero a cause to fight for, or to eliminate a character from the plot as the victim almost always commits suicide, or to establish the vile character of the villain.

Examples? Garv-Salman Khan’s sister is gang-raped and he kills the perpetrators for revenge, Koyla-Shahrukh Khan saves Deepshikha from being raped, but she ends up being sold to a brothel anyway, Raavan-Abhishek Bachchan kidnaps Aishwarya Rai to avenge the rape and murder of his sister by the police, Raajneeti-Arjun Rampal rapes Shruti Seth to avenge a false rape accusation – these instances are just off the top of my head. The list is endless.

So what is the problem?

Rape happens. True. But using rape only as a plot device not only contributes to its sensationalisation, but it also functions to desensitise the audience to the issue of violence against women. Rape is a big deal. It is not equal to a theft/kidnapping/smuggling or any other crime that you could use to show a character’s bad trait or the rage felt by a good character. Yet, rape is almost always the go-to. SA Aiyar wrote, “Old-time villain Ranjeet did close to 100 rape scenes, with the audience almost cheering him on.”

Depicting rape in this way desensitises us because it erases the experience of the victim, makes it the background to the hero’s “more important” story and, therefore, ignores the grave reality of rape. We become further desensitised because rape and sexual assault is used in this way in film, television, and literature time and again, and Bollywood is not the only one doing this.

Take the storyline of Game of Thrones, for instance. That very controversial scene of Sansa Stark being raped on her wedding night by Ramsay Bolton in season 5. Of course it wasn’t required, and we have seen enough violence and sadistic behaviour in Game of Thrones, and we know the show runners only added that scene for the ratings. But that scene was made even worse because at the time of being raped, the camera went from Sansa’s scared and shocked face to focus instead on Theon Greyjoy’s. So we were instead made to see what Theon went through rather than what happened to Sansa. Once more, rape was only a plot tool in Theon Greyjoy’s story. (Theon, however, enjoyed complete screen time while he was being sadistically tortured and castrated by Bolton.)

So what did I expect?

Exactly. What DID I expect? In an industry where almost every film is about male lead characters and where mainstream, big-budget “modern, progressive” films don’t even bother to delve into the character traits of the lead female character (I’m looking at you, Tamasha), it is not surprising that the films ignore the story of the character who was raped. Films are written for men, by men, about men and the women in these films only exist in relation to these men and the little amount that we know about them is to somehow establish the male characters. Think Bechdel test and how almost every film you have seen in the past year fails miserably.

Why is this dangerous?

Using rape again and again as nothing but a plot device causes the audience to forget what rape really is: a traumatic and violent event perpetrated against an individual as a result of a variety of intersecting and oppressive factors such as gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability. NCRB recorded that 36,975 women were raped in 2014. When broken down, it means that one woman was raped every 14 minutes, last year. And the actual number is bound to be bigger, as a lot of rape cases are not even reported. When we use rape and sexual violence as only a storytelling device, and fail to engage with the character’s experience, we negate the experiences of the thousands of people for whom rape is a reality and not just something that happens in the background of someone else’s story on screen, stage, and in books.

It is lazy writing and exploitation of the trauma and violence for plot progression and entertainment value. It furthers our existing rape culture, oppression, objectification and degradation of women. And provides more fodder to our existing patriarchal set-up. And I am not even going into how it feeds into rape fantasy and fetish here.

Image source:woman terrorised by Shutterstock.

Bookworm, feminist, foodie--not particularly in that order. Twitter: @sweta_pal89

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Comments

2 Comments


  1. Sonia Chaavara -

    I completely agree with every single thought the author has so succinctly highlighted. It is absurd that in India almost all commercial films for decades have used the rape plot device in such a twisted and perverse manner. Like she rightly points out -it is sensationalism of deviant behaviour and exploitation of actresses and their characters to portray unreal outcomes for victims of rape. Rape happens because there has been no clear and early sensitisation on the matter for the masses especially in terms of the gendered stereotype violence it reinforces in patriarchal societies. In addition the deserving punishment for the act of raping is also trivialised by the hero gaining centre stage in that scene and even further disheartening is that not a moment is dwelt on the victim’s trauma and ordeal which has actually only just begun, post the incident. Story telling is a lost art in the commercial film world. Most movie makers often masquerade as story tellers but all that they achieve and perhaps are truly aspiring for, is to be celebrities- nothing more!!

  2. You have made a really important observation, Sweta. What this type of lazy story telling does is that it makes the woman invisible, and that just serves to perpetuate the idea that it is the man’s experience which matters. And most importantly, we need to cultivate a frame of mind which makes us recoil in disgust, when we hear of rape – the perpetrators of rape should be made to see and hear what they have done, by listening to the woman’s story as the consequences of this act poison her life henceforth. Instead, as you say, it remains all about ignoring the woman’s side of the story.
    As you say, lazy writing.

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