The majority of the country woke up to the #MeToo movement in late September 2018 when Tanushree Dutta alleged that Nana Patekar sexually harassed her in 2008. It was followed by comedienne Mahima Kukreja outing a fellow stand up artiste Utsav Chakraborty, who was then accused by several other women of harassment and inappropriate behaviour. It gave courage to a lot more women to out their abusers. And the word was out. #MeToo had arrived in India.
Except that it was factually wrong. It was, in fact, Dalit feminist and lawyer Raya Sarkar, who in 2017, exposed sexual predators in Indian academia through a crowdsourced list. She, however, could neither become the face of the movement nor a part of the mainstream discourse because she wasn’t allowed to. The upper caste feminists (many of who are apologetic about it now) refused to rally behind her. And thus, the history of #MeToo in India stands distorted.
I was starkly reminded of this majoritarian entitlement after watching the new Netflix original, Guilty, directed by Ruchi Narain, with a screenplay by Narain herself and Kanika Dhillon, and dialogues penned by Atika Chohan. The film, which is a straight-up commentary on consent and rape culture in a society familiar with the #MeToo movement, is let down by its star-saviour complex.
For two hours, one is made to follow the story of Tanu Kumar, a girl from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, who is raped by the college brat VJ (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada), only to see her upper class, privileged college mate, Kiara Advani’s Nanki Dutta, emerge the star of the story. Tanu (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor) is not only raped but is intimidated, pressured and shamed for speaking up against the boy, who is considered a heartthrob. No one believes her, not even Nanki, until the film’s climax, when she urges Tanu to speak up about the crime at a concert, where her abuser is set to perform.
The film sets itself up for a powerful end as Tanu takes the mic and revisits her trauma and the subsequent shame she was subjected to because of her small city’s roots, her accent and her dress sense. You want to remain with her and listen to how she coped up with the systemic oppression, which didn’t end after the rape. However, the makers decide to pass the mic to Nanki, who they believe should drive the larger point of the film home.
It is revealed that Nanki was sexually abused as a child and much of her present day anxiety, self-loathing and internalised misogyny, which led her to not believe Tanu but side with her rapist boyfriend, is because she was not believed when she opened up about her story at the age of 13. And while one’s heart goes out to the girl, one cannot help but wonder how unfair it is for Nanki to make what happened with Tanu about herself.
The college, which was till then listening to Tanu’s story in her words and voice, was now focussed on the pain Nanki had endured. In a few minutes, it was the anger of the most popular girl in the college that took over the rare space that the Dhanbad girl had earned after experiencing months of trauma and shame.
There is no denying that it is powerful and heartening when a woman’s coming out lends courage to another. This has strengthened the #MeToo movement across the world. However, it is essential to realise that you don’t take someone’s mic to open up about your trauma, especially when the woman in question does not enjoy the same social standing as you do. Women from marginalised communities have been fighting to claim their space and thanks to their persistent efforts in questioning upper class-caste feminists’ privilege, the discourse around #MeToo has beginning to look intersectional, even if online.
As Nanki apologises to Tanu on behalf of the whole college for not believing her in the first place and owns up her role in encouraging the rape culture, everyone present at the concert hangs their head in shame – the crowd quite representative of the society that turns deaf to a woman’s story.
But what’s disturbing is when Tanu breaks her silence on the stage, she is met by snide remarks, taunts and laughs. It’s only when a male friend of VJ corroborates her story, and Nanki picks up the mic to speak in her favour, does Tanu’s story get validation.
It’s important to note that Nanki is sought-after in her college, known as a songwriter and by default enjoys social capital, owing to her closeness to the college principal (he is her guardian and counsellor). So, despite what appears to be an eccentric behaviour, Nanki always finds an audience. And therefore is also the makers’ preferred choice as the point of communication between them and viewers.
But a film, which makes an appeal for a conducive environment for women to name and shame their abusers, defeats its purpose the moment it makes the girl, who has been raped and shamed for it, stand in silence while favouring someone’s voice, who is not the direct affected party, thereby reinforcing the notion that a woman’s story needs the validation from more privileged, a more ‘believable’ woman.
Redefining allyship is the need of the hour. That an ally cannot be the story. That when a woman shares her story, you listen and amplify it without making it about yourself. Your apology is not greater than the courage a woman has shown in speaking up to an audience, which is not only misogynistic but also classist and casteist.
Guilty team’s ignorance could either stem from the fact that Kiara is the film’s biggest star, or like the makers of many other emancipation stories, the writer and the director here also could not let go the upper caste-class saviour complex. Either way, it’s a shame, especially when the film’s story is about a woman owning her agency.
The film ends with Tanu walking up to Nanki and standing next to her holding her hand, as a mark of sisterhood. Except that the image would have been compelling had the mic remained in the hand of the woman, who was never welcomed on the stage.
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