Whataboutery. The Internet trolls’ favourite tool. When you earnestly question a film and its problematic portrayal of a character, hoping to have a meaningful conversation, you are welcomed with this: “What about that other film? Why are you not talking about it?”
Why do people think a bad film can redeem another bad film? It doesn’t. Another says, "If feminists are okay with GoT’s nudity and female disenfranchisement, why are they not okay with this?" For what it's worth, GoT has always been clear on abuse. It shows sexual abuse and calls it abuse, it portrays the person committing the abuse as a morally questionable man. But, Indian filmmakers call it romance and add a background score and song, in case it’s already not manipulative enough. While GoT represents misogyny and abuse, our films glorify it. That is exactly why it's problematic. Not because it's shown, but because it is shown as the ideal/reasonable thing to do.
Let's talk about flaws
By all means, create a character, a man or a woman, who is flawed or has flawed motives, but use a framing device to implicitly talk about their shortcomings. Mahesh Babu’s character in Spyder is an intelligence officer who illegally wiretaps people's phones. How is it okay, in the current political climate, to have a hero who invades citizens’ privacy? How are we asked to root for this man who eavesdrops on a woman's personal conversation with her friend, and tries to use that information to get her into bed?
A hero, by default, is worshipped and followed. So, if you want a hero who is flawed, make sure that his flaws are underlined. Use the art of unsubtlety where it matters, unlike Arjun Reddy where the irony is lost on most viewers. And when I say flaws, I mean character traits.
Mental illness isn't a character flaw, nor is it a quirk. Marathi’s Mahanubavudu has Sharwanandh struggling with OCD—which is questionable in its own right, as it seems like he is merely germaphobic—and the way the heroine tries to deal with this is appalling. Don't ever blame the patient for something that's beyond their control. Same applies for Sukumar’s One where the hero has PTSD and his journalist girlfriend tries to emotionally blackmail him towards a cure. Portray a violation or a mental illness on screen, if and only if you can handle it in a responsible and informative way because ignorance is still better than false knowledge.
Representing the ugly side
Representation matters. Abusive behaviour, misogyny, transphobia, casteism, and homophobia exist in our society. So, they need to exist in films as well. As long as you are calling out such troubling behaviour for what it is, why not? Films should have characters that are misogynistic and abusive because that is how the real world is. It is filled with family members, friends, and strangers who are beacons of casual sexism and verbal/sexual abuse. People need to be made familiar with the ways in which emotional abuse works. Portray abuse and all its shades in such a way that it helps the real victims gain perspective and strength.
One of the most obvious solutions to the lack of proper representation is to encourage and bring in women creators and writers. Adding a woman’s perspective to a male-dominated industry is bound to create fresh content. And it would be easier for a woman to understand that all women deserve freedom and opportunity, not just the ones that are strong and promising. That said, a male director, Shekar Kammula, got it right in Godavari where his Sita is an independent woman who runs an unsuccessful business. Women in cinema are rarely allowed to fail unapologetically, so it was exhilarating to watch her shout at her father who blames her for the creepy guy who breaks her bangles.