*Some spoilers ahead. Do not read if you haven't watched the film and do not like spoilers.
A man, believed to be a police officer, recruits a woman colleague because "she looks pretty". When they meet at a crime scene, he pretends that he needs help to climb over a wall and declines the assistance offered by his male colleagues. Instead, he deliberately asks the woman to give her hand so he can pull himself over.
In real life, this would easily qualify as sexual harassment at the workplace. But in Prabhas’s Saaho, which released on August 30, it is what constitutes romance. It is immaterial that it is later revealed that Prabhas’s character, Ashok Chakravarthy, is not actually a cop – his colleagues believe him to be one and do not find his behaviour to be inappropriate, least of all the woman police officer, Amritha Nair (Shraddha Kapoor), at whom this is directed.
Ashok only looks at Amritha as an object of desire right from the beginning, not as a colleague. Every time he throws a glance at her, the camera turns Amritha into an "exotic" Malayali beauty, the background score going "thithithara thithithai". All this when they’re in the middle of investigating a serious crime and are holding discussions in their office space. Ashok also constantly undermines Amritha’s work though he acts sympathetic when others (men) do the same. For instance, when she is speaking about the case at hand, he starts reading cheesy lines from a romance novel loudly. At one point, he even asks her how someone who looks so beautiful ended up in the police force (and the film actually serves up a sob story as an answer). In another scene, the cops go undercover and enter a club. Amritha is shown in a short, shimmery dress and Ashok ogles her, as is only expected. And then, he manages to get hold of her badge, which she has hidden in her dress somewhere near the thigh, without her knowledge to supposedly help her pass through the metal detector.
Their male colleagues encourage Ashok’s behaviour, either looking amused by it or actively encouraging him to pursue her. And predictably, Amritha never takes offence and instead falls in love with Ashok, validating his behaviour thus far.
Much noise was made over sexual harassment at the workplace after several women outed their predators during the #MeToo movement that hit the entertainment and media industries in October 2018. In the Telugu film industry, following actor Sri Reddy’s protests and allegations, the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce made it mandatory for production houses to set up ICs (Internal Committee) to address sexual harassment at the workplace. A body called Voice of Women (VoW) was also set up as a collective for women in the industry to have a common platform to discuss issues that affect them, including sexual harassment.
However, fundamentally, we seem to be very far from understanding what workplace sexual harassment actually is. Made on a lavish budget of Rs 350 crore, Saaho is a pan-Indian film that has released in multiple languages – Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam. Its 29-year-old director, who is also the film’s writer, appears to still believe that a man making such advances towards his woman colleague is acceptable and will be considered welcome by the woman. One can argue that this is just a film and it shouldn’t be subjected to such scrutiny. A lot of scenes in Saaho don’t have a tinge to realism to them – but equating an over-the-top VFX enhanced action sequence to such a problematic depiction of romance is false equivalence.
We live in a patriarchal society where sexual violence against women is extremely high and more often than not, women are held responsible for what has happened to them. Most survivors are pushed into silence because they know that they will receive little to no support. In such a scenario, glorifying workplace sexual harassment as romance and justifying it in the narrative only adds to an already toxic culture.
It’s not as if Saaho is the only film to have such scenes. Not so long ago, the Malayalam industry was rocked by the Kasaba controversy when actor Parvathy called out the sexual harassment and misogyny in the Mammootty film that glorified a male police officer passing crass comments at his woman colleague. But this precisely is the problem – it’s not just one film here or there which attempts to normalise these ideas, it’s most of them. The reach of such cinema is immense, and when the voices of women survivors continue to be muffled, it is only fair that these films are criticised for persisting with such insensitive portrayals.