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Rekha’s Ghar (1978) Dares To Question The Safety Of A Sanskaari ‘Good’ Wife From Rape

Posted: June 28, 2021

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This is what makes Ghar such a surprising film, that it questions the safety of a person who is considered the most secure and protected by virtue of being a good woman, married to a good man.

Trigger Warning: This speaks of rape and it’s fallout, as well as depression, and may be triggering for survivors.

If you were to search for the word Ghar on any of the OTT platforms, you would get suggestions of dozens of films with the word Ghar in it and all of them about marriage and setting up a home, the building, breaking, remaking of it. Central to most of them is the role of the housewife, her behaviour, the choices she makes or is allowed to make.

In 1978, there released a film with just Ghar as its title. Nothing about it suggested that this was going to be about anything else other than the trials and tribulations of a married couple.

What is Ghar (1978) about?

Aarti (Rekha) and Vikas (Vinod Mehra) are a young couple, very much in love, who against the wishes of Vikas’s father get married.

They sing beautiful songs, find a sunny apartment to move into and are just about settling into domesticity when with little or no warning the film explodes into completely unchartered territory.

One evening, while returning from a late night Bollywood film, some men kidnap Aarti after beating Vikas to a pulp. When she is found a few days later, we learn that the perpetrators had gang-raped her and dumped her on the streets.

Ghar (1978) was unusual about many things

Remember the year was 1978. Heros were angry young men and heroines were blushing damsels in distress waiting to be saved. Astonishingly, the film isn’t about the heroics of the conquering hero avenging the ‘honour of his precious possession’ or rescuing her in the nick of time, just as the criminals were about to disrobe her. No, there is no Krishna here with the uninterrupted saree stream. The brutal rape does happen and the hero is unable to the save the heroine.

If this was not unusual enough, Ghar dares to examine the aftermath of the rape on the lives and marriage of the young couple.

With great care and sensitivity, the film unwraps nuances that even today, nearly 4.5 decades later, we would not find many films attempting. There is little or no voyeurism in the rape itself, which is never shown. Every time the rape is revisited, we only see the lasciviously contorted faces of the rapists (who unfortunately though, are stereotyped as dark-skinned and poor), placing the blame where it belongs.

Aarti craves understanding, not brushing off the past

Post the incident, Aarti who is torn up both within and without becomes depressed and suicidal. She is unable to have sex with her ever-patient husband and she wonders if he is with her out of pity rather than love.

Her woundedness deeply craves Vikas’s patience and understanding and yet when he offers it in the only way he knows, through platitudinous positivity and cheerful good humour, Aarti finds it short of comforting and she pushes him away.

Both partners are desperate to reconnect but let alone the same page, Aarti and Vikas are not even reading the same book. Aarti has understood that there will be no going back to the ‘before’ and Vikas is eager to brush everything off and go back to the normal he knew.

Earlier in the film we see that Vikas prefers English cinema and Aarti has to constantly coax him to take her to see a Bollywood film. In a heartrending scene post the rape, Aarti asks of him a favour and Vikas thoughtlessly, out of habit, tells her she can have anything except a Bollywood film. Aarti blanches, her face completely drained of colour. Contrite and horrified at himself, Vikas apologises profusely, but that one moment that could have been a ‘normal’ conversation between a ‘normal’ couple is lost forever.

Vikas while struggling with the social implications of his wife being a rape victim/survivor, is eager to sweep it all away, eager to have his bubbly, vibrant wife back.

Of course, there’s a female friend who does the emotional labour of ‘understanding’

Interestingly, Vikas doesn’t find any male friend to discuss the growing distance between him and Aarti, he uses the emotional labour of his office colleague, a single woman (Prema Narayan), who drinks and is free in her ways and therefore a conveniently available constant. She at one time was interested in Vikas, but post his marriage has become a sanskari naari and is equally friendly with both him and Aarti.

There is no personhood to her, except as Vikas’s ever-available confidante. It’s interesting that this trope is still very much a part of our consciousness, that single women don’t have much of a life anyway and should always be available to us as our support system.

It is nice that Vikas had a female friend to whom he could confide in, one who is not constantly sexualised. But it is also annoying that Vikas needed a woman’s sensitivity to understand his wife’s precarious health. Prema Narayan tells him she understands Aarti’s pain because she’s a woman Insert eyeroll emoji.

How long have we told men not to stretch their imaginations to find empathy for the suffering of a fellow human? How long have we been infantalsing men? Why should only a woman understand the implications of rape? Why can’t a man friend tell Vikas to grow up and understand that there is no avoiding dealing with the crisis, there is no other choice than to accept that both he and his partner and their relationship have been irrevocably altered by this event?

The final showdown of toxic masculinity

One night, Vikas’s dam of false cheer and positivity bursts and he slaps Aarti across her face.

It is tragic that we have so many violent expressions of masculinity and hardly any that are compassionate and forbearing. Aarti decides to leave home, but in true Bollwood tradition Vikas fetches her home from the railway station. It is a convenient ending.

And we are left wondering if they would bridge the distances, the different takeaways from the shared trauma. Or would the Ghar then become the prison they are unable to live within or leave?

A sanskaari housewife should have been safe, right? But…

I will never forget erstwhile CM Sheila Dikshit’s words when the brutal Nirbhaya rape occurred, “Girls should not be adventurous”. Meaning that it was extremely risky behaviour for Nirbhaya to go out for a film with her friend. The corollary being, staying within the confines of a home, as a housewife is one of the safest and most respectable of all professions.

Which then makes you examine the meaning of the title of the film. Ghar.

India is one of the few countries in the world where marital rape is still not a criminal offence. And it being a housewife within the four walls of a house is considered the most respectable and secure of all positions. Parents to-date literally would rather their daughters die than be divorced.

Aarti, unlike her real life counterpart Nirbhaya, wasn’t being ‘adventurous’. She was perfectly respectable in going out with her husband. This is what makes Ghar such a surprising film, that it questions the safety of a person who is considered the most secure and protected by virtue of being a good woman, married to a good man.

Written so sensitively by Dinesh Thakur and directed equally sensitively by Manik Chatterjee, Ghar denies us that sense of safety, and questions if women can ever be safe.

Ghar (1978) is Rekha’s film all the way

As a young girl and later as a young woman, I often found the films Rekha acted in seem like a feminist films, never mind the subject. Perhaps that is because Rekha herself is a symbol of dissent in the uber patriarchal, incestuous world of Hindi Film Industry. Her very existence is a rebellion. Always ahead of her times, always quietly subversive and always solitary.

Tomes can be written on all the characters played by Bhanurekha Ganesan in her vast and varied cinematic history, and this is without even touching upon the mythologies surrounding her.

It’s almost impossible to pick out a film where she doesn’t shine, her luminous screen presence elevating even the most mediocre of films. And it is because of her complete submission to the character of Aarti, that elevates Ghar to a film worth revisiting. The music of course is an added bonus.

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