After Pink, Taapsee Pannu has become the Bollywood poster girl for women's rights and fighting gender based violence. With the actor's Naam Shabana due for release on Friday, a new promotional video titled Hit Back has been put up on Blush, YouTube.
The video begins with a woman speaking in Hindi and apologising for the night she went for a late night movie with her boyfriend. More voices follow, as women apologise for different things that ‘earned’ them sexual violence - traveling in a crowded bus, wearing a mini skirt to college, dancing in the office party and so on. We see shots of Taapsee in between, sweating, flexing a muscle.
And then we come to the point when a woman says she's sorry because she's taken so long to apologise, "Because I seek this apology not from the world but from myself."
Taapsee looks up straight at the camera at this juncture, and the mood of the video immediately shifts to one of defiance.
The voices then tell us what it was that they were actually apologising for - not knowing how to defend themselves from assault: "For not knowing how to twist his hand in a crowded bus, I am sorry."
The video finally reaches the conclusion: "Forgive me, because screaming is not the solution. You owe your body an apology, for not arming it," and goes on to say that self-defence is no longer just an option.
While the video is inspiring and speaks out against victim blaming, it unfortunately falls back to laying down the responsibility of women's security at their own door. As if all we need to do is learn karate and the world would be a better place.
Earlier, Anurag Kashyap's short film That Day After Everyday, too, put forth the same narrative to end sexual harassment.
The problem with such solutions, however, is that they reduce gender based violence to episodes that can be dealt with through tit-for-tat solutions rather than looking at how systemic a problem it is.
Can we end caste violence or race violence through self-defence? Would we say that the solution to either is for the oppressed to learn kung fu? This is not to equate all forms of violence but to point out that this is a very simplistic way of approaching a problem, without looking at its origins, long history, and trying to understand why it continues to happen.
Worse, it places the onus of women's safety on the victims themselves, absolving society and state of the responsibility. Just another thing women have to do if they're to survive - cooking, cleaning, childcare, and self-defence.
Ironically, while the video questions victim blaming, it doesn't seem to wonder how it's any better to say that you were assaulted because you didn't know self-defence and that's your own fault.
Gender based violence occurs because we live in a culture entrenched in patriarchal values that systematically oppresses women in violent and benevolent ways.
In a patriarchal society, qualities that are associated with the masculine are placed higher than those associated with the feminine - which is why a "powerful" woman in popular imagination is someone who can "fight like a man", imitating and absorbing what society views as "masculine".
Further, in many cases of sexual assault, the victims have fought back, but how much of a fight can it be when you're outnumbered or if the perpetrator(s) is armed? And what about the various power equations that are at play, from the identities of the victim and the perpetrator, to how the justice system operates?
It can only be a good thing for more women to speak up about sexual violence and respond to it in effective ways. However, pop culture narratives like these are dangerous when they promote such simplistic and unfair solutions through impressive packaging.
Naam Shabana may well allow us to live out a fantasy on the big screen, seeing a woman give it back to the men who try to oppress her. Unfortunately, real life is a lot longer than 2.5 hours.