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Short film The Relationship Manager stresses that we should reach out to domestic abuse survivors instead of being passive bystanders, but also places the onus on them.
Trigger Warning: This post, and also the short film The Relationship Manager, may be triggering for survivors of domestic violence.
Ever since the lockdown began, we, in the feminist circles at least, have been acutely aware of the sharp increase in domestic violence. Women’s organizations, the news media and pop culture have also been playing their role in spreading awareness about domestic abuse, and how we can help to tackle it.
Written and directed by Falguni Thakore, short film The Relationship Manager is one such film.
Set on Day 76 of the lockdown, it stars Anup Soni as a banking relationship manager, who helps people with their financial investments. His clients are affluent people, including businessmen and actors.
As he is calling his clients one day, he overhears one of them hitting his wife (played by Divya Dutta). Shocked, he calls the woman directly. He tells her about his elder sister who died by suicide owing to having to endure an abusive marriage.
As the conversation builds, he encourages her to get out of her own abusive marriage. The film ends with Divya Dutta calling the police for help.
All too often, we prefer to look away and appear ignorant when we suspect that someone we know may be undergoing abused. The film encourages us to not stay passive bystanders, and instead to reach out and offer help.
The film also firmly takes the stand that “No abuse can be a good trade off.”
It is while making this latter point that the film loses its way and ends up victim shaming. Anup’s character says things like, “she wasn’t fair,” when referring to the fact that his sister died by suicide, leaving behind two children. This is the kind of statement that is regularly used to shame those who have died by suicide, or attempted it. It chooses to ignore their psychological pain, and instead loads them with more guilt.
It has a man ‘explaining’ domestic violence to a woman actually living through it, without trying to really listen to or understand her. This makes the film triggering and problematic.
The film also oversimplifies the issue of domestic violence and how bystanders can help. Women don’t simply stay in abusive marriages for the sake of their children. Their reasons are much more complicated than that, and while abuse certainly is never a good trade off, they can’t just pick up and leave either. It’s not “just one step,” as the film insists. It is actually a thousand little steps, none of which can be taken impulsively.
The film brushes off the fact that survivors need real and concrete social support with a statement that, “why did she care about a world that never cared about her pain?” and misses the point that while women certainly don’t need to care about what people think, it does matter when they are denied resources that are needed for basic survival, like a job, or a place to stay, for instance.
Helping a survivor of domestic abuse is a long term commitment, and the focus should be on helping the survivor to build up their resources, which will enable them to leave and not on shaming/guilting them into leaving. The onus for solving the problem of domestic violence lies on the society at large, which must create the infrastructure and resources to help survivors, and NOT on the survivors themselves.
Another annoying thing about the short film The Relationship Manager is that it chooses to portray another one of Anup’s clients, a female actor, as this ditzy airhead, whose ‘problems’ are limited to her lack of social media followers, who insists that she can’t make her financial decisions for herself, and that Anup should make them for her. Ugh!
Perhaps the intention of the makers was to present her as a contrast to a woman like Divya, who has ‘real’ problems. However, I, for one, am firmly against pulling down one woman to empower another. There was no reason for this character to be in this movie, and to be portrayed like this.
Here are 6 things we can do to help survivors of domestic violence.
While the film does have the important message that bystanders should not be passive watchers, and should intervene, it never really addresses how help can be given.
In this regards, Listen To Her, a film by Nandita Das is more successful. It avoids mansplaining and it recognizes that there are no simple solutions to the problem of domestic violence, and instead, focusses on the message that non-judgemental listening can be of great help to survivors.
If we genuinely want to support survivors, instead of asking then why they don’t leave, or pushing them to leave, this is what we need to do.
Abusers isolate their abusees. They force the person they are abusing to cut off communication with family, friends etc, because this makes them easy to control and gaslight.
So, even just making sure that you maintain contact, even when the other person seems to be pulling away, can be a big help because it ensures them that they are not alone. Or even if they cut contact, letting them know that you will be there for them, anytime, without any hard feelings, will enable them to seek help when they need.
Abusers manipulate their partners by making them feel that everything is their fault (‘look what you made me do!’). Which is why further guilting them doesn’t help, and will only push them away more. Instead, reminding them that their abuser’s behaviour is not their fault in any way, is extremely necessary.
Sustained abuse can make a person lose complete confidence in themselves and their abilities. Domestic violence is not only physical abuse as pop culture usually shows us. It is usually accompanied by verbal abuse, or sometimes there is no physical abuse, but the person is subjected to constant verbal abuse (‘you are good for nothing’; ‘you are an idiot’; ‘you can’t do anything right.’ etc.)
Even confident, strong and accomplished women can lose their sense of self esteem and self-worth after receiving such dehumanizing messages on a regular basis. Which is why it is necessary to keep reminding survivors of their talents, abilities and to help them regain their self-esteem.
Ultimately as laypersons, we cannot provide survivors with all the help they need.
Domestic abuse nearly always causes the survivor to develop mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or PTSD. Which is why it is imperative that they seek help from a mental health professional. Helping them find and access such services is something real and concrete that we can do. Nowadays there are even mobile phone apps that can help connect survivors to therapists.
When the person feels ready to quit the abusive relationship (and even before it) they will need many resources and support. We can help by connecting them to people and places where they can find that support. The Saahas app by Kirthi Jayakumar, is one such helpful platform that helps both survivors and bystanders find resources.
Ultimately, to truly help survivors, we must lobby and petition the government to build up the infrastructure on a large scale. This brilliant piece shows how different countries have mobilized resources during the pandemic, to help survivors get the help they need. We must hold our elected officials accountable.
Just good intentions aren’t enough if we victim blame and mansplain to a domestic violence survivor. Thus, it is not only important to intervene when we suspect domestic violence may be happening, but also to do it sensitively and empathetically. Only then, can the demon of domestic violence be exorcized.
Author’s Note: A list of helpline numbers for domestic violence survivors can be found here.
Also thank you to my friends Piyusha Vir, Anjali Gurmukhani Sharma, and Anushree Kulkarni for watching the movie, and sharing their insights with me. It helped me write this piece.
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