Bollywood’s treatment of physical abuse and violence against women has always been questionable. Kabir Singh being the most recent case in point. So when the trailer of Anubhav Sinha’s upcoming film Thappad dropped, it felt like a befitting response to Bollywood’s unflinching misogyny and total disregard for a woman’s agency. Starring Taapsee Pannu, Thappad is the story of a woman who files for divorce after her husband slaps her. Apart from portraying domestic violence in a completely new light, Thappad takes us back to the regressive portrayals of domestic violence and how that has changed over the years.
In 1997, Rani Mukerji made her Bollywood debut with the film Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat. It was her first lead role and one that would subsequently pave the path for her breakout role as Tina in Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Starring Shadab Khan and Gulshan Grover, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat is a simple, on-the-nose story of a rape survivor. Rani Mukerji’s character Mala is, what would be seen as, an angry feminist.
Just like Taapsee’s Amrita in ‘Thappad’, Mala is brave, speaks her mind and is not intimidated by a fight. However, what links the two characters is a single slap and how it changes their lives forever.
Both Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat and Thappad are, in their own ways, stories of empowerment. Women, and the injustice against them, are at the heart of the stories. But the difference between what empowerment looked like in 1997 is vastly different from empowerment today.
In Thappad, Amrita’s husband slaps her. She immediately recognises that it’s wrong and decides to pursue a legal course of action. In Raja Ki Aayegi Baarat, things are quite different as Rani Mukerji’s Mala is raped in vengeance after she slaps a man in public. Clearly, Mala is punished by society for challenging patriarchy. Packed with powerful dialogues about sexist, orthodox Hindu customs and how women are automatically reduced to second-class citizens, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat is progressive. That is until the second half of the film begins.
In the second half, Rani Mukerji declares that by raping her, Raja (Shadab Khan) has not just physically violated her but also destroyed her honour as now, no one will marry her. She demands that the Court restore her honour. Which it does by...asking her rapist to marry her. It’s infuriating to think of how disregarding a woman’s trauma was considered normal at one point. That a woman’s honour was above her emotional well-being.
While Amrita is dissatisfied with the legal remedies provided to her by the court of law, Mala is not. For Mala, a simple prison sentence is not enough. She considers the social stigma to be far greater and more important than the emotional trauma of the incident.
It requires an effort to write a woman’s story without stealing her agency away from her. In whatever little we’ve seen of Thappad, the story is from Amrita’s perspective. She owns her narrative. In Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat, Rani Mukerji has been given plenty of hard-hitting dialogues; she’s unapologetic and displays an unrealistically high level of confidence. Yet, her story does not belong to her. Her story, her body, her life are all traded, weaponised, and objectified repeatedly by men.
We are made to feel, time and again, that her display of strength is no good without a man beside her. And despite the sympathetic approach towards rape survivors, the film leaves you questioning the real takeaway.
Looking back, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat is an interesting case study in the portrayal of women’s empowerment. It managed to be progressive, problematic and powerful all at once - a reflection of what empowerment looked like from the eyes of those who called the shots i.e. men. While Thappad certainly seems like a more evolved, progressive approach to violence against women, it’s still a slippery slope. For now, I’m just glad we’re finally having the conversation about running away from, and not towards, the men who violate us.
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