Jyotika’s Pon Magal Vandhal Asks Hard Questions About How Our Justice System Fails Rape Survivors

Pon Magal Vandhal, a courtroom drama starring Jyotika, takes up the important issue of child sexual abuse and points out that the law needs to evolve to address the needs of survivors.

With the threat of COVID looming, theatres are unlikely to open soon. Many movies have thus chosen to release directly on OTT platforms.

The much awaited Jyotika starrer Pon Magal Vandhal (The Precious Girl Has Arrived), is one such movie that dropped on Amazon Prime on the 29th of May.

A fantastic performance by Jyotika, and important messages that need to be heard make the movie worth a watch. The movie is also worth watching because it raises some important questions that we need to ask ourselves as a society, most of them via a powerful monologue delivered by Jyotika towards the end of the movie.

A thriller dealing with child sexual abuse

Like Kahaani 2, this movie too, takes a spotlight to the issue of child sexual abuse, but unlike the former, which was a thriller, this movie is a courtroom drama, which allows it to raise questions about how the law can better serve survivors.

The movie begins with a mystery, that slowly unravels as the movie progresses. At the beginning, we are told that a woman, “psycho Jyothi,” has been kidnapping and torturing girls. When two boys attempted to save one such girl, she shot and killed them. Raiding her house, the police dig up bodies of girls that have been reported as missing. We are also told, that she tried to escape, and was shot by the police in an encounter.

Open and shut case. Justice served. Apparently.

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Until, a man famous for filing PILs (‘Petition’ Pethuraj, played by Bhagyaraj), causes the case to be reopened 15 years later. Fighting the case on behalf of the now deceased, Jyothi, is his daughter Venba, played by Jyotika.

Why Venba wants to fight for such a ‘villainous’ woman, and how the mystery around incidents from 15 years ago gets solved makes up the rest of the story.

*Spoilers Alert Ahead

Are encounters = justice?

The movie doesn’t spend much time on this issue, but it does cleverly make the audience think about whether a police encounter should be accepted as justice enough for the survivor. What if the ‘accused’ who has been killed, isn’t even the real culprit?

It points out that whenever a sensational case that rouses public sentiment comes to the fore, it is usually conveniently wrapped up with an encounter, after which the questions stop and the police gets to be the ‘hero.’ Or a mob takes it upon itself to deliver ‘justice’ by lynching the suspect. No one ever questions the ‘evidence’ which is just as easily manufactured, usually to point the finger at someone who does not have the power or privilege to defend themselves.

While the movie does not mention the rape and murder of the young vet in Hyderabad, where the accused were ‘encountered’ by the police, I could not help but think of it.

I’m glad that the movie stresses the importance of such cases coming to court.

Courts need to evolve

Even as the movie points out why encounters and mob justice are inadequate, and why courtroom procedures are essential, it also questions the shortcomings of the system.

For instance, it raises the point that in cases of sexual abuse and harassment, it is very difficult to provide proof or evidence, because of the nature of the crime. It is something that has happened in private, and especially when the survivor is a child who may not even fully understand what has happened to them, where will the proof come from?

“I have nothing to submit as evidence except truth and tears, Your Honour,” Venba says at one point, before continuing, “I stand here today not as an advocate, but as a girl who has been brutalized, and who believes that the truth will triumph. Because throughout the world, many who have been traumatized by sexual abuse and violence, don’t have any evidence other than the truth.”

Yes, courts need evidence. No innocent person should be punished for something they didn’t do. So there is no easy answer to this question. But like the Netflix series, Unbelievable, it urges us about the need to think more deeply about these issues.

Believe survivors

Perhaps, believing survivors is a good starting point. Far too often, the police and judicial systems fail to support survivors because even before a case begins, survivors, especially women, are branded as liars.

In a particularly powerful scene, when it is suggested that her need to support Jyothi may be indicative of a mental illness, she questions, “How is it, sir, that if women fight for justice with courage and conviction, it is labelled as madness? If we speak out aloud about our issues, we it is termed as ‘drama.’ If we share our tears, it is called ‘acting.’ Why is the pain behind our truths always seen as fake or false?”

Talk to your children

The movie invokes the names of Asifa, Hasini and Nandhini, and goes on to point out that while these names on the news may seem like exceptional cases, they are not. It stresses on the fact that while we would like to assume that our children are always safe, that may not be true. Parents need to have these difficult conversations with their children. So, a loving home environment must be created where children will not hesitate to speak about what is happening with them.

What could have been better

As a courtroom drama, it disappoints

Where the trailer and even the beginning of the movie promised a chilling, even nail biting courtroom drama, the actual movie falls a little flat.

An alert and intelligent audience can spot the ‘twists’ coming from a mile away, and so when they do come, they don’t really thrill. The questioning and cross questioning, on which courtroom dramas rely to keep the viewer interested and on their toes, try too hard to be clever, but eventually come off as amateurish. Some of the ways in which the plot unfolds are simply unrealistic, and the motivations that drive some characters are inexplicable.

A large number of child sexual abusers are NOT strangers

While the movie does raise the important issue of child sexual abuse, it chooses to accept the popular imagination of it, which is that child rapists are monsters that are strangers to the children. That the danger is outside the home.

However, it is important to note, that in 50% child abuse cases, the abusers are known to the child, and are often in a position of trust and responsibility. The movie chooses to mention this only in passing, even as it focusses on children being kidnapped and raped by strangers.

Could have avoided disturbing visuals

The director has also chosen to use some disturbing visuals, of a child trembling in fear as a man unbuckles his belt. That, in my opinion, was entirely unnecessary, as it is made very clear to the audience long before that scene, as to what has happened to the child exactly.

One wishes that film makers would be less ‘realistic’ for such things, and more cognizant of the fact that these visuals could be extremely triggering.

Say survivors. Not victims

The movie does tend towards portraying those who have been raped as victims rather than survivors. While no one denies that the scars of such an experience are lifelong, they are not the only reality in the life of someone who has been raped.

Survivors can and do, have lives beyond the trauma. The movie however suggests subtly, at many points, and explicitly, through a dialogue, that being raped is a fate worse than death.

Bhagyaraj a misfit after his victim blaming comments earlier

A particular point that really irked me, was the presence of Bhagyaraj in this movie, and his portrayal as a sensitive father and a man who is supportive of survivors. As, his victim blaming comments during the music launch of the film Karuthukalai Pathivu Sei, amply proved, in real life, he is anything but that. One really wishes that a bit more attention had been paid to this casting choice.

Fantastic performance by Jyotika

As a courtroom drama, the movie disappoints.

It is worth watching however, for a fabulous performance by Jyotika. She beautifully captures the silent agony of a child sexual abuse survivor who has still not been able to reveal her truth, and who bears the scars of what has happened even as an adult. She somehow even manages to pull off those eyes we see in real survivor – eyes that carry pain, even when they are otherwise living a ‘normal’ life. And even during the most melodramatic scenes, she comes off as restrained.

On the whole, even though Pon Magal Vandhal is a flawed and less than thrilling viewing experience, it does open up discussions we need to have.

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