The new Netflix film directed by Ruchi Narain tells the story of a college campus rape.

Guilty review A poor attempt to reckon with MeToo on college campusesFacebook
Flix Review Saturday, March 07, 2020 - 14:20

If I have to sum it up in a sentence, Guilty is what would happen if Anurag Kashyap directed Student of the Year. A college campus story where youngsters drink, smoke, party and aspire for Rhodes scholarships but seldom study is all straight out of the Dharma textbook. Only by virtue of being made for the internet (through Netflix), director Ruchi Narain and her co-writer Kanika Dhillon create a darker, grungier space where students also do drugs, wear goth-inspired torn clothing and sport tattoos while likening friends to penises and pubic hair. So far, so bold. 

Guilty is set in St Martins College, Delhi University where Tanu (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor) accuses VJ aka the college heartthrob (Gurfateh Pirzada) of raping her on Valentine’s Day, and uses the hashtag #MeToo in her tweet that sends shockwaves on the college campus. Her declaration puts his songwriter girlfriend Nanki (Kiara Advani), who is channelling Lisbeth Salander and sports multiple tattoos, in a conflicted state of mind — whom does she believe? Did her otherwise charming boyfriend rape a girl she rather conveniently dislikes? Or does Nanki know more than she is letting on?

The story begins with VJ’s lawyer Danish (Taher Shabbir) interviewing VJ, Nanki and their group of friends whose characters are less than one dimensional. Like most people did when the movement broke out, the kids on the campus and the professors all doubt the victim. Why didn’t she say something immediately? Was she asking for trouble by flirting with the guy, by drinking, by wearing revealing clothes, by not concealing her interest in having sex with him? While it deals with all the relevant issues— consent, slut-shaming, labelling women as crazy or trouble makers, the film offers no new insight or perspective into the power dynamics or the complex psychological challenges that prevent victims from speaking out immediately after the crime.

 The film uses witness testimonials, interviews, and multiple points of view that manipulate us into questioning Tanu's credibility while also revealing Nanki's own hypocrisy and sense of denial. While this is an interesting twist on storytelling that demands outright sympathy for the rape victim, the writers drag the he-said-she-said line of storytelling for too long. Additionally, by making Nanki the protagonist and almost sidelining VJ, who is the accused, the story denies itself an opportunity to examine how victims of sexual assault are silenced and shamed by powerful and wealthy perpetrators.

In addition, the writers also undermine both their central female characters by diluting their accusations and reliability. Nanki is shown to have, from what I understand is, an anxiety disorder and she is prone to panic attacks and delusions. The victim Tanu, it is revealed, has accepted money for silence and not filed a police complaint after the attack. We never actually see Tanu being threatened, bullied or let down by her own family, and apart from a few minutes of authority figures ganging up against her, we are never allowed to feel her pain, confusion or the emotional repercussions of not being allowed to speak up. Though she is the victim, the film is more about the impact of the accusation on her supposed rapist, his friends and his girlfriend. Which ironically was one of the main issues of the #MeToo movement itself; people seemed more concerned about what would happen to the accused and how his life was effectively ruined.

 Also why the writers choose to make the victim a girl from a small town is a mystery. Perhaps the writers felt that being a wannabe girl from a small town would make it harder for her as a victim to get sympathy, but sadly victim-blaming and slut-shaming are class agnostic. It doesn’t help that Akansha isn’t the best of actors, bringing little nuance or intrigue to Tanu’s character. The climactic scene, where the truth is finally revealed, plays out like a badly-written stage production, where the women offer teary monologues and the man gets shoved around and roughed up to shamelessly copied chants of ‘Shame Shame.’

The absolute deal-breaker for me was the protagonist asking a man to speak up and validate her claims because in her own words, “No one will believe me, but if you say it they will.” Isn’t that going against everything the #MeToo movement was trying to do? It demanded that women be believed and heard for their story, without needing anyone else’s testimony, especially a man.

While Kiara gets a chance to finally speak and manages to carry the film almost entirely on her shoulders, she gets little or no support from her fellow actors who are, in turn, let down by poor writing. Also, can we please stop giving women with mental health issues or an active sex life weird coloured hair or tattoos and other such markers to show that they are different? It’s as bad as stereotyping women in saris as sanskaari. I should be able to wear a sari and have casual sex after a cocktail without audiences getting confused about my ‘type.’

As a final note, when the #MeToo movement happened and temporarily took the film industry by storm, several powerful producers and directors sat back and did nothing except just say how shocked they were in interviews or temporarily end collaborations with men who were accused. Perhaps this film is a way of making amends, and acknowledging that not enough was done to make sure the women who spoke up received justice. Unfortunately, while the intent of this film is good, it is guilty of not forcing us to care about the truth.

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