The rapist is at home: How Lakshmi Manchu's 'W/O Ram' speaks uncomfortable truths

Telugu cinema has romanticised rape and sexual harassment for years, but 'W/O Ram' recognises the truth about sexual violence that we don't acknowledge.
The rapist is at home: How Lakshmi Manchu's 'W/O Ram' speaks uncomfortable truths
The rapist is at home: How Lakshmi Manchu's 'W/O Ram' speaks uncomfortable truths
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*Spoilers ahead

He waves his wife goodbye, a man beyond middle-age, and then opens another door within which an adolescent girl implores him, receding away from him. A couple of seconds later, it dawns on a cringing audience that it is her uncle who rapes her regularly. A few seconds later, he is in the hospital, in a critical condition, asking her for forgiveness.

The adolescent niece reveals to him that it was she who had ensured that he slipped in the bathroom. This dimension in the recently released Telugu film W/O Ram, adds an interesting touch to the story, explaining the characterisation of the lead, Deeksha (Lakshmi Manchu).

In W/O Ram, Deeksha is a seemingly innocent woman, looking for clues behind her husband’s death. But, the reality is much more sinister as it is slowly revealed that it is she who had, in fact, sent him to his death, avenging her friend. The movie, despite an interesting climax and an unexpected twist in the tale, suffered because of a not-so-expertly handled execution, and the absence of a woman star who could have carried the Kahaani-like script on her shoulders elegantly. Nevertheless, the movie does deserve applause for addressing domestic rape, a topic that is taboo even in 2018.

While the country is outraging about the increasing number of reported rapes, an often ignored aspect of this heinous crime is that in a vast majority of cases, the victim knows the perpetrator. Many a time, it is a family member, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour – someone who has access and who misuses it unabashedly. Most such cases are never pursued, because of social stigma and conditioning. That a girl is still held responsible for sexual violence betrays the sad state of affairs that we find ourselves in.

W/O Ram does not flinch from representing this reality. Deeksha’s friend gets into a car with Deeksha’s husband and his friend. She trusts him but she’s in for a rude shock. Deeksha’s spouse, a seemingly well-educated man who is portrayed as a “good” husband, forces himself on the friend even as she lies with her head bleeding, semi-conscious.

Rape in Telugu cinema is seldom portrayed with sensitivity. A lot of movies in the ‘90s had heroes forcing themselves on the heroines as a major plot point. Coolie No.1 and Alluda Majaka come to mind, but they aren’t the only ones with such extreme misogynistic overtures.

An effect of those plot points is the current culture in Telugu cinema where audiences accept heroes stalking, harassing, and at times, molesting heroines on screen. So deeply ingrained is this social conditioning that it makes people believe that it is acceptable for a man to be violent with a woman as long as he's the hero. This is how a character like Arjun Reddy, whose misogynistic behaviour knows no limits, has ended up with a huge female fan following, forget about the movie’s breath-taking critical and box-office receptions.

As late as in 2014, Krishna Vamsi’s Govindudu Andari Vadele, had Srikanth’s character forcing himself on the woman he’s in love with in a bid to marry her. Interestingly, in the same movie, the hero (Ram Charan) sexually harasses the heroine and it’s supposed to be “comedy”.Given this context, despite not being a cinematic gem, W/O Ram needs to be applauded for at least making an effort to bring into social consciousness the issue of rape, especially domestic rape.

Not so long ago, the avantgarde Awe, starring Kajal Aggarwal, threw some much-needed spotlight on the same issue, with one of the characters being a girl who is sexually harassed and abused by her own people. Inhibition to talk about sexual abuse openly is often aided by the attitude of a lot of parents who, even in this day and age, tend to believe that the girl is somehow responsible for the harassment.

In a society where cinema is intertwined with culture and lifestyle, the misogyny in films is going to be hard to eliminate overnight. Movies often document the evolution in society. From sexual abuse as part of a cringeworthy wooing process, to rape, demonstrating the heinousness of a villain or used as a prop for revenge (as in Prasthanam), movies have ‘cashed in’ rather apathetically on this sensitive issue. In such a scenario, films like W/O Ram and Awe should be lauded for at least opening up a dialogue. We could either let our inhibitions pamper our conditioning or start asking some really uncomfortable questions around men in our own families and what they may have gotten away with.

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