The recent murder of 18-year-old Ashwini at the hands of a stalker has prompted a call to action yet again – to not represent stalking as ‘love’ in films, and to stop the glorification of villainous behaviour in the name of romance
When Gautham Menon’s Vinnaithandi Varuvaya released, I was 16 – and quite bowled over by the songs that became popular in my co-ed school. The boys were too, it seemed. They would use ‘Hosaana’ and ‘Omanna Penne’ on the girls they liked, and more often than not, were met with reciprocal gestures.
Naturally, all their hearts went out to STR’s Karthik, the hapless lover who didn’t get the girl he wanted.
To the wide-eyed teenager that I was, VTV had the strangest impact. There he was, the unemployed hero with nothing but “pure intentions”. All he wanted was Jessie; for her to love him back, because the minute he set his eyes on her, she became his. So he followed her to her workplace; to Kerala, and to god knows where, with ‘love’ in mind. When she told him to leave her alone, he argued. “I don’t want to be your brother, Jessie,” his voice boomed against the now familiar background music.
It was ‘Hosaana’, a romantic song set to AR Rahman’s catchy music. It dominated the airwaves for quite some time when it released, and whenever it was played, the boys cheered and the girls blushed.
While 2010’s VTV became known for ‘taming’ the wild, wild STR, it also normalised a love story that began with a whole lot of stalking and creepiness; the woman seemed to have little or no agency in all of this.
Within my world, on campus, it influenced a boy well enough to stalk a friend of mine, gifting her teddy bears, and all things cheesy which he felt would help win her over. She despised the attention, even though some deemed it necessary to point out that he was just a ‘harmless boy who loved her’. Complaining to anyone would be futile, she knew. Teachers would blame her for ‘enticing’ him, friends would tell her that she ought to feel flattered, while the other boys would ask her to ‘take it easy’.
In the 90s, such films were called ‘love stories’. Over the years though, even as some in the audience hooted at such behaviour, the others implored filmmakers to be more responsible. It seemed to have worked, for a few directors responded to the call with films like Anaarkali of Arrah, Aruvi, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and Pink that featured powerful women in their own right. These women weren’t warriors of any kind, but everyday people you’d meet on the road, who were fighting their own demons and battles. The difference was the way in which they were treated, the way their characters were treated; they were victims, but the films stood by them – solidly – and allowed them to retaliate against abuse.
But for every film like Lipstick.., two films like Remo and Badrinath Ki Dulhania were released – stories borne out of stalking and deceit. They performed well at the box-office, which just served to remind us that somehow, but unsurprisingly, stalking had come to represent love.
When Sivakarthikeyan, who starred in Remo, was asked about playing such a role, he told Silverscreen:
“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.”
While it can be argued that films may or may not have had a role to play in murders such as these, given socio-economic conditions of the perpetrators, and also the kind of exposure to media that they have had, it’s hard to deny their influence especially when stalking and love have been co-represented on screen – as some kind of a rite of passage to a relationship.
Indian cinema in general, has a reputation for depicting violence, sexism, stereotypes, and even racism in its films. In Sethu (1999), Vikram’s character is the quintessential bad boy with a heart of gold. He harasses Abitha, a timid girl whom he has set his eyes on. She rejects him, but he kidnaps her and later, she somehow sees the *real him* – the poor, misunderstood boy who simply wanted to be loved back. Kidnapping, threatening, and harassing are traits that movies bestow on their villains, to evoke revulsion, and also, on their heroes, to evoke love.
Sethu later won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil, while also emerging victorious in the Best Film category at the Filmfare Awards and the Cinema Express Awards.
Anand L Rai’s 2013 film, Raanjhanaa, had its pitiful hero, Kundan, follow Zoya around from the time they were kids. When she asks to be left alone, he relentlessly pursues her in a bid to win her over. In the end, he dies, and is treated like a martyr.
The recently-released Toilet: Ek Prem Katha too, featured some creepy stalking. The song, ‘Hans Mat Pagli‘, has Akshay Kumar follow Bhumi Pednekar through college, on a train, and take photos of her without permission. But when Bhumi comes to know what he’s been up to, she ‘realises’ she’s in love with him. When the song was called out for glorifying stalking, Kumar said that cinema cannot be made of everything good. “It is just a character, and that’s it. In films there are many things that are shown, and here, my character, Keshav, was trying to take a photo of Bhumi’s character, Jaya. This is wrong, but I can’t show just the good things, right?”
Meanwhile, Bhumi Pednekar, the female lead, said that it wasn’t stalking unless someone objected to it.
When I asked a few male friends of mine about Indians films that propagated stalking, which in turn may have had an impact on them, most had nothing to say. They didn’t seem to find it as unsettling as some of my female peers, and some even admitted to being unperturbed when witnessing “eve-teasing” in everyday life – a term that normalises sexual harassment in India. They did, however, think that some Hollywood films portrayed female stalkers with more viciousness; Fatal Attraction, Misery etc where the women were seen as evil and ‘not right in the head’ and didn’t quite receive the validation that heroes who indulged in similar behaviour in Indian films, get. But, that’s a story for another day.