The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has issued a directive to the regional office of the Central Board of Film Certification asking them to enforce a new rule that movies must display a disclaimer whenever scenes portraying violence against women are shown. The Commission believes that such depictions could influence young people and that they should be warned that such acts are against the law.
The CBFC has said that it agrees with the Commission. However, they are yet to decide what will constitute 'violence against women'. Several people have already slammed the move and rightly so. While there is increasing conversation around the representation of women in cinema, this particular move appears to be poorly conceived.
Representation Vs glorification
Films tell stories. They tell stories of all kinds, about fictional people and real ones, actual incidents and imagined ones. The politics of the filmmakers - their views on gender, sexuality, caste, class, religion, political leanings, and other issues - invariably show up on screen. Sometimes, this is intentional. Other times, the filmmaker does not set out to make a statement but the film communicates their personal beliefs at some level.
When we take the representation of women in cinema, there is much scope for improvement, even in the Malayalam film industry which has generally had better written women characters in comparison to other south Indian film industries. This is, of course, a consequence of most producers, scriptwriters, and directors being men. Most films revolve around the hero and his character arc, rather than the women characters. And like all other industries, Malayalam cinema, too, has had its share of sexist and misogynistic representations.
However, forcing filmmakers to issue a warning will not only interfere with the viewer experience, it will also prove to be futile when there is a lack of understanding on what constitutes violence against women. Currently, among filmmakers and fans alike, the general perception seems to be that violence against a woman is wrong when it's committed by the villain and funny or romantic when the perpetrator is the hero.
For example, if the villain ogles the heroine or stalks her, he is reprimanded in some way through the course of the film. When it's the hero doing this, on the other hand, we're supposed to think of it as harmless. If the villain slaps a woman, he is bad. But if the hero does it, he slaps her for her "own good".
The recent controversy over the Mammootty film Kasaba is ample proof of how widespread such notions are. When actor Parvathy pointed out the misogyny in the film, which is glorified as heroism, she was widely criticised and abused for speaking out against a Mammootty film. Parvathy repeatedly said that she was not against portraying any kind of reality but that she was only criticising the glorification of misogynistic behaviour. This point was lost on most people who relentlessly attacked the actor.
The Prithviraj film Amar Akbar Anthony, which is about a child rapist, saw three young men take on a dangerous criminal. However, though the film outwardly takes a stance on such acts of violence, the three young men indulge in misogynistic acts throughout the film. These are, however, supposed to be their "antics".
And it's not even always the hero who gets away with it. In Pulimurugan, the first Malayalam film to earn a whopping Rs 100 crore at the box-office, there is a running "joke" about a character played by Suraj Venjaramoodu trying to see women naked when they are taking a bath. This is supposed to be comedy and the character receives a sympathetic treatment in the film.
In the recently released campus film Queen, the characters fight for a gangrape victim. However, throughout the film, patriarchal attitudes towards women and sexist and misogynistic behaviours are normalised as "fun".
In which of these scenes will the CBFC issue disclaimers? The audience doesn't need to be told that rape or child sexual abuse is a crime and is punishable under the law. The conditioning which happens with the normalisation of violence against women through characters we're meant to like on screen, however, is a lot more difficult to break.
We live in a highly patriarchal society and there is no running away from it. Cinema, if it is to be realistic, will inevitably reflect the social prejudices and biases around us. However, filmmakers always have the choice of either reiterating these biases or questioning them.
Take Mayaanadhi, a romance between a criminal on the run and an aspiring actor. The young woman, Aparna (Aishwarya Lekshmi), ultimately betrays her lover Mathen (Tovino Thomas) to the police because of circumstances. One of the cops harbours intense hatred towards women because of his own past and he tries to make Mathen believe that Aparna betrayed him because of her gender. Though the cop utters misogynistic lines, the film does not justify them in any way. In fact, two characters question the cop for his belief and his line of thought does not receive validation.
Similarly, in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu) behaves in a moralistic manner towards Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan) before the two of them strike up a relationship. However, this is balanced by Sreeja's own voice and behaviour. Prasad is not allowed to get away with his judgmental views towards her.
Sudani from Nigeria has Soubin Shahir behaving rudely and dismissively towards his mother. But we know what the mother (Savithri Sreedharan) thinks about it, too. We hear her perspective on what's happening. In this way, the audience is able to work it out that the son's behaviour is not desirable and cannot be excused.
Ottamuri Velicham is about marital rape, one of the few Indian films that have sensitively handled the subject. Ironically, marital rape is not a crime in India. So, what would the disclaimer say? Will the CBFC recognise that this is a form of violence at all?
The presence of perspectives from women characters, an adequate representation of their views and voices, not only balances out the equation, it also makes for a more wholesome film. Representing violence against women is not the problem, it's the glorification of it and the silencing of women characters on screen which needs to change.
The way ahead
So, should the CBFC then start including disclaimers for all such scenes, including the ones that feature the hero? This would be a pity and only succeed in irritating the audience, which already has to put up with warnings about smoking and riding two-wheelers without a helmet.
The way ahead is to establish a dialogue with filmmakers and actors. In neighboring Tamil Nadu, actor Sivakarthikeyan recently said that he will not promote stalking in his future films. The actor has been consistently criticised for glorifying stalking as "romance" in his films, although he continues to enjoy a wide fanbase. Actor Dhanush, who has also been slammed for misogynistic depictions, has said that he will be more conscious of how attitudes towards women are represented in his films.
In the Malayalam industry, actor Prithviraj asserted that he will no longer play roles that encourage misogyny. His statement came in the aftermath of the brutal assault on his woman colleague.
These changes come about when the audience and the media alike question filmmakers and stars for how they tell their stories. They happen through consistent engagement, debate, and the growing voices from within the industry which question such portrayals, not through overnight cosmetic rule changes. The stars are already aware of the power they hold over their fans and are careful about their image. When that image starts to lose its shine because of what they are promoting, they will be forced to sit up and take notice.