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Netflix’s Raat Akeli Hai is a story of a woman’s revenge – a trope that is currently very common. Why do people love the idea of a woman taking revenge?
Trigger warning: This post contains details of sexual assault which may be triggering to survivors
Honey Trehan’s Raat Akeli Hai released on Netflix a few weeks ago to some great reviews. Much has been said about the stunning visuals of suspense in the film. Radhika Apte and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have also been receiving praise for their performances in the fast-paced drama.
Trehan has attempted to travel beyond the classic whodunit to explore patriarchy and masculinity in the story’s multi-character universe. The ending was unpredictable, but equates the film with a particular formula that Bollywood has been using quite a lot – the feminist revenge trope.
I wanted to take a deep dive into the variations of this broad theme. And understand why filmmakers love the story arc of a woman single-handedly getting revenge on the toxic men in her life.
Raat Akeli Hai falls into the category of films where the woman takes law in her own hands to seek revenge on a man who abuses his power over her. In this film, the central theme is the murder of the wealthy and influential Raghubeer Singh.
He is the man of a mansion, where the women associated with him seem to hold their tongue in front of the police inspector Jatil Yadav (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) The women Radha – Raghubeer’s new wife, Vasudha his niece, Pramila his sister, Chunni the housemaid and his pregnant daughter are all silent in front of Yadav.
They all immediately become suspects with the story slowly removing the remaining male family members from suspicion to arrive at its climax. As I watch the story unravel, I am reminded of Netflix’s Bulbbul, which also presented an eerily similar background for murder. A mansion, wealthy patriarchs, aggrieved women and a couple of self-righteous men as machines to drive the plot.
There are a host of other movies which popularised this theme as a mainstay in Bollywood as well as regional cinema. Sridevi’s Mom (2017) and Raveena Tandon’s Maatr (2017) wove the topic of motherly revenge into the thriller format.
T-Series’ Hate Story, an erotic film series, writers used the femme fatale pattern to portray female revenge using sex, corporate power-play and of course, deceit. Malayalam films Puthiya Niyamam (2016) and 22 Female Kottayam (2012) also make use of the theme with a lot of violence and unsettling visuals.
If we have to narrow down on Hindi cinema and the real origin of female revenge stories, I would put a finger on films of the 1980’s. Including the likes of Insaaf (1987), Pratighat (1987) and Zakmi Aurat (1988).
Why are women, especially survivors of sexual assault used as vigilantes who are driven to avenge the crimes against them? More importantly, why is our film industry fascinated with these stories in this era? And is this portrayal problematic?
The way this trope has been dealt with in its early appearances like Insaaf is interesting. Insaaf contained three horrific rape scenes that seem to have been there to ‘balance out’ the other graphic scene. The one where the woman, who has been denied justice by law, guns her rapist down herself. It is also important to note that the film was a fully realised courtroom drama. One that illustrated the bias and inability of the State that failed women who report sexual assault.
Insaaf and a plethora of other similar films hit the theatres after historic 1979 Mathura and Rameeza Bee rape case. The case exposed the legal system for violating the dignity of women. And the cinema of the time reflects the fact that these cases caused a particular kind of outrage among people. These films rejected rape not because it is a violent display of male power, but because women are religious shrines. The ‘Devi’ is evoked to express outrage against rape even now, as seen after the judgement on the Nirbhaya case.
In the #MeToo environment, there is a renewed interest in the woman with a vengeance. The ignition of a similar atmosphere as the background of Insaaf could be one reason why we now have films like Bulbbul and Raat Akeli Hai. These films focus on domestic violence and sexual assault within homes.
What could be more empowering than watching a woman take down her abuser? It is a fantasy that we all want fulfilled on screen regardless of the fact that in real life, women have to live with shame and go through triggering legal processes.
However, the fantasy only works when there is a part of these films that show harrowing details of violent assault on women. They also only seem to resonate with a huge audience when a “not all men” narrative is clearly laid down parallel to the plot for the woman. Even though the men (especially in Raat Akeli Hai) are recognised as beneficiaries of patriarchy, their hero-roles often defeat the purpose of showing their passive role in rape culture.
In conclusion though, I wouldn’t call Raat Akeli Hai a deeply disturbing representation of this trope. But it still uses the woman’s revenge story-line to add shock value and suspense to the drama.
The film really is a great execution of an overused story. Let’s hope Hindi cinema keeps refining this trope and comes up with some better imaginations of vengeful women in the future.
Picture credits: Stills from the Netflix movie Raat Akeli Hai
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Writing intern with a passion for gender justice
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