The film industry – largely – hasn’t yet acknowledged the perils of celebrating stalking on screen when the rest of the world has, despite a research paper that lists the kind of “contextual codes” that are embedded in such movies. Clothes, earrings, hair – they all mean something
It’s been three days since Aswini went from being a college student to yet another victim of stalking. On the day of her murder, the stalker Alagesan chased her and slit her throat. All because the 19-year-old did not reciprocate his love. Her gruesome murder once again started the debate around the influence of movies and television on young, impressionable minds. If fashion and friendships shown in movies are imbibed, so are the instances of stalking and shaming women that are so carelessly portrayed.
We have in the past seen movies that showed men forcefully marrying women in anger (Amman Koil Kizhakkaale) or to exact revenge. But, they would not have been made had some thought gone in — from film stars before signing on these movies, from directors who created insensitive content, and from lyricists and writers who lent life to lyrics that celebrated misogyny. The songs shot to impress, and movies designed to work at the box office somehow made the youth feel it was all right to cast aside a girl/woman’s feelings and keep ‘loving’ someone till she reciprocated, like in the movies. What is this new-age love they are in quest of? A love that tempts one to kill another just because she is not as interested?
Years ago, all this was normalised as eve-teasing. Even if it meant girls died because of harassment. Sarika Shah, a student of Ethiraj College, died on her birthday, after a group of youth in an autorickshaw harassed her. It happened in 2001, and the outrage that followed almost made one believe there will never be another Sarika. Her attackers, all nine of them, were sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. On screen, men continued to indulge in such shenanigans.
Did it stop with Sarika? Of course not. Seventeen years later, the number of girls and women who have fallen prey to some boys/men’s misplaced sense of heroism only continues to grow. Everyone who hummed along to songs that blamed women and suggested they be beaten and kicked, probably absorbed the underlying misogynistic philosophy — whatever happens, blame the girl. If she does not love you back, blame her. If she gets molested, blame her sense of dressing. If she does well at work, speak about every other possibility but her ability…
But, change, I would like to believe, is in the air. A composer who has given life to misogynistic lyrics in the past, says on condition of anonymity that he would probably never do so again. Any regret for past songs? “I won’t say so. What’s done is done. There’s no use raking it up. But, henceforth, I will be careful.”
Sivakarthikeyan, who starred in the superhit Remo, which glorified stalking and all things unromantic, also tendered an apology of sorts during promotions for his latest hit Velaikkaran: “Like I’ve told everyone, I did not realise there was anything wrong with the movie or its brand of humour till it was pointed out to me. Then, I understood why some were upset. Henceforth, I will be more careful in choosing roles.”
A paper titled ‘Deification of Stalking Crime (Indian Penal Code – Section 354D) as representation of love in South Indian Film Remo’ recently appeared in the American International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, a refereed, indexed, peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary and open access journal published by International Association of Scientific Innovation and Research (IASIR), USA.
Sree Govind Baratwaj, Doctoral Research Scholar, Dept of Journalism & Mass Communication, Periyar University, Salem, and Ashima Jose, Assistant Professor, Nehru School of Architecture, Coimbatore, TN, India, employ semiotics, pragmatics and iconographic analysis to understand the interpreted contextual codes “stealthily encoded in the film”.
After reading it, and seeing how the researchers have analysed scenes and dialogues that glorify and promote stalking, those who said the critics were making too much of the film might eat humble pie.
Three days after Aswini was killed by Alagesan, television channels continued to blare aloud songs where heroes throw girls around like they were inanimate dolls, only to have them simpering in their arms again.
Breaking the cycle
This cycle shows no sign of stopping unless every agency that has a stake in this takes a call based on logic and emotion, and puts an end to the routine. There are some people who have taken a stand. Lyricist Madhan Karky has a policy not to write songs that demean women or blame them. And so, most ‘love failure’ songs, a term that couches within it deeply offensive lyrics, are out of his ambit. “What I do is offer filmmakers an alternative that conveys the heartbreak but without blaming one for it. For instance, ‘Munnaal Kaadhali’ in Miruthan and the ‘Prayer Song’ in Idharkkuthaane Aasaipattaai Balakumara; I gave the latter a playful tone and it worked well.” He has refused songs where the director expects a typical trend number, but also believes that everything in society, including films, influences a person; “it is unfair to blame only films”.
The lyricist says he sees the winds of change blowing when it comes to characterisation. His wife, sub-title expert Nandini Karky of Subemy, agrees. “When I entered the field, I took a call that I would not sub films that ridiculed women. If at all there is a rare scene which does that in an otherwise great film, I smooth the rough edges and ensure it is not as abrasive as the original.”
Madhan says that while some might argue that such behaviour might curb creative freedom, it is up to the creators to take a call. “There are sensitive directors who take your suggestions into consideration. That said, I believe it is the responsibility of everyone who watches to reflect upon what they watch.”
He is right in a way that it is unfair to blame only films. Society and law enforcement agencies cannot pass the buck. But incidents like this compel one to introspect on the responsibilities of all those creators who influence pop-culture. After the release of Padmaavat, many critics slammed Sanjay Leela Bhansali for glorifying jauhar. While many pointed out that self-immolation was a reality for women in that period, the question was of creative licence.
Vaishna Roy wrote for The Hindu explaining why the outrage against the scene was justified. Giving the example of Auschwitz, she wrote that it’s a fact that in the name of ethnic cleansing, thousands of Jews were killed, but “if audiences cheer during a scene when people are pushed into a gas chamber rather than be stunned by shock or moved by grief, then something is seriously wrong with the film and the filmmaker.” In effect, the film would say, “Sure, we are not endorsing pogroms, but hey, they were okay for those times and those people.”
In the same way, if films and songs show that after relentless stalking and harassment, the hero does end up getting the girl of his dreams, then the filmmaker and everyone associated with the movie are culpable. In a repressed society such as ours, where conversations around sex and relationships are frowned upon, where terms like love jihad become political campaign tools, and where boys and girls are not allowed to freely interact with each other, they tend to look at their screen heroes for inspiration and replicate their actions in real life.
Every time a girl is stalked or killed due to unrequited love, parents work themselves into a frenzy, wondering what they must do right to ensure their child knows ‘consent’, and how to differentiate a mutual relationship from one-sided love. A teenager I spoke to provides an answer that offers some clarity. “I agree that some creators find stalking entertaining. And, the audience does so too. So, we probably should retain those portions. Just turn around the script to show that the boy never gets the girl, the boy gets booked for stalking and goes to prison, that the girl is in control of her life, and that no one blames her for going to the cops.”
Point to ponder, especially the last one. A recent report said that in 2017, only 32 cases of stalking were registered with the Chennai city police. Just 32 in a State that saw Swathi die on a railway platform in 2016, Sonali bludgeoned to death in her classroom and Sasikala who hanged herself unable to handle a stalker.
So, reportage of a crime has to increase too. And, exemplary punishment handed out to ensure that girls can confidently tell boys when they don’t feel like entering into a relationship or don’t feel comfortable in one.
If filmmakers need tips to showcase romance, they don’t have to look out too far in the past. After all, this is a State where men and women on screen have worshipped the ground their love walked on.