The film, directed by Gautham Ramachandran, follows the story of Sai Pallavi as Gargi, a schoolteacher.

A close up still of Sai Pallavi from Gargi, she has her wrists on each side of her face and looks serious Screengrab
Flix Film commentary Tuesday, July 19, 2022 - 18:57

This piece is not a review and contains spoilers. If you haven't watched the film and don't like to read spoilers before watching, please don't read ahead.

An endearing, wrinkled face and drooping shoulders on a small frame of a man, whose backstory has enough meat to make you want to root for him. Brahmananda has all the makings of a likeable, kindly old fellow. A father to two young daughters, one of them of school-going age, he works as a security guard at a residential building. It helps that his elder daughter – a schoolteacher named Gargi – is convinced that her father is being wrongly framed in a gang sexual assault of a nine-year-old child at the building, and is doing everything in her power to clear his name. Her agony, complete with flashbacks that show her father is a decent and honest man, and her sense of overwhelm at being thrown into the deep end of a media circus and the criminal justice system are palpable; and make a strong case for Brahmananda’s possible innocence in the crime. After all, we are shown that it was he who found the little girl after she was sexually assaulted by four men, and carried her home “as any father would have done,” Brahmananda says.

In his latest film, Gargi (the eponymous protagonist is played by a brilliant Sai Pallavi), Gautham Ramachandran builds this narrative skilfully and effectively to a shocking climax. We find that the child was telling the truth all along – Brahmananda did rape her after he found her left behind by the other four accused. He has no known history of committing sexual offences, seems keen to do his work – despite it being exploitative and backbreaking – with sincerity, and the entire film sets up to prove his innocence. When his crime is finally revealed, as a viewer, you are forced to confront your own biases. Gargi’s biggest achievement perhaps is that it lays painfully bare a truth that is so fundamental, but incredibly hard to digest – that people who commit child sexual abuse aren’t necessarily already criminals with chequered histories, uncouth appearances, and cruel demeanours. They walk among us, could be people like us, and could even be people we know and love.

World over, a majority of child sexual abuse (93% according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) is committed by persons known to the victims. India is no different – year after year, the National Crime Statistics Bureau reveals that in over 90% of the cases, the perpetrator was someone the victim knew. Compare this to statistic that the disclosure of child sexual abuse, world over, is only between 12-24% – meaning, we do not even get to know of a majority of the cases, and there could potentially be many more people walking among us who have sexually abused a child. And yet, the perception that continues to prevail is the one that gives disproportionate prominence to “stranger danger”, because the reality that someone who is a protector to us could be a perpetrator for another is much harder to come to terms with – just like it was for Gargi. In fact, at one point, the film almost convinces us of Brahmananda’s innocence with the revelation that it was he who prevented Gargi’s tuition teacher from sexually abusing her when she was a child.

Even as she is initially convinced of her father’s innocence, we see a glimpse of doubt in our heroine’s mind. In a scene where she is finally allowed to see her father after he is arrested, she refuses to look at him. Brahmananda asks her if she isn’t looking at him because she too suspects that he committed the crime. Gargi doesn’t answer, but we see the conflict and pain both on her face and his. It is a moving scene, just one of many that the film is peppered with, which could make the viewer ache for Brahmananda and Gargi’s struggle. It takes a moment to sink in that while Brahmananda may have regretted letting Gargi down ultimately, he did sexually assault a child who was bleeding and vulnerable after being violated by four others. Then, he carried her to her home, washed away the blood and evidence at the spot of the crime, and then lied to his daughter and his family that he did not commit the sexual assault. When the truth is finally revealed, we see realisation dawn on Brahmananda that his gig is up – his face breaks into tears, he folds his hands before Gargi, and says he is sorry.

Brahmananda’s character is complex. Even if you suspect him, he elicits sympathy for a large part of the film, and disbelief and shock by the end. But this arc is also much closer to that of a real-life perpetrator, and that causes us discomfort. It would be easier if every perpetrator could be portrayed like Ram Singh, one of the men who gangraped a physiotherapy student in the 2012 Delhi gangrape. His interviews revealed that he showed “no remorse”, and said objectionable things like a ‘decent girl’ wouldn’t roam around at night or wear the ‘wrong clothes’, and that people had the right to teach them a lesson. Ram Singh allegedly died by suicide in Tihar jail later, but stories of perpetrators like this make it easier to demarcate abusers as good or evil neatly. However, this is far from most realities.

There are several films – like Monsoon Wedding and Kahaani 2 – which depict how insidious child sexual abuse is, and how perpetrators can be family or friends, known faces, people who are loving and helpful, who also groom children to ultimately sexually abuse them. These very factors make it difficult to disclose abuse too. Alia Bhatt’s outburst in Highway, for instance, is a powerful scene, revealing how she was groomed by her older male relative who would compliment her, praise her, buy her presents, and ultimately, sexualised their relationship. There are many real-life examples too: the 2017 rape and murder of a six-year-old girl in Chennai by her young 23-year-old techie neighbour, Dhasvanth. He and his family had a dog, seemed “normal” for most intents and purposes, and he even pretended to look for the child when her family realised she was missing, not knowing she had been burnt to death by Dhasvanth. In another case from Coimbatore in November 2021, a Class 12 student died by suicide after her school teacher sexually abused her. He also tried to gaslight and victim-shame her into silence, by telling her that he was “pained” by her decision to call him out on the abuse. He reportedly told the 17-year-old that it's "not only girls who have virginity". The accused, a teacher named Mithun Chakravarthy, was a married man, appearing ‘ordinary’ by society’s standards. In fact, there have been documented cases of people who travel and even take up professions with the sole purpose of sexually abusing vulnerable children – and they often do so in the guise of taking up altruistic work, like charity, teaching, and volunteering, to get access to children.

One of the key aspects of tackling child sexual abuse as a systemic problem is to realise that an abuser could be anyone. And as bitter a pill it is to swallow, it could be someone we know and love. There are no easy answers for what you can do if you find yourself in Gargi’s position, knowing that someone whom you love dearly has also sexually abused a child. But to truly do justice by our children and prevent sexual violence, we have to acknowledge that sexual abuse does not happen only in dark alleys, empty and unfamiliar rooms, to others by people we don’t know.

“Acceptance of the possibility of abuse is the first step,” Vidya Reddy of Tulir, Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, had told TNM. Sexual abuse can happen in spaces we consider safe, it can be done by people who have kind eyes, warm smiles, and love for life and their families. It can be done by people who fit seamlessly into society due to their sincerity, respect, or stature. The idea is not to look at everyone with suspicion but to not give someone a free pass simply because they don’t conform to our ideas of who a criminal is. Once she learns the truth, Gargi makes this incredibly difficult choice. On one of the visits to the police station with Brahmananda, where he is supposed to report routinely as per the condition of his bail, she turns him in.

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