“Sir, aapki beti ka rape hua tha. Actually, gangrape.”
This is how the nurse breaks the news of a teenage girl’s rape and murder to her father, in the first 20 minutes of Raveena Tandon-starrer, Maatr. Casual, without skipping a beat – rape nahi sir, (add emphasis) ‘gangrape’.
This is only the beginning of all that is problematic about the depiction of rape and violence against women in Tandon’s comeback movie, which packages itself as a revenge drama.
(Warning: This analysis contains spoilers, but nothing that the trailer hasn’t given away already.)
The film begins with Vidya Chauhan (Raveena Tandon) – a doting mother – at her daughter Tia’s annual day function as Tia’s being awarded by the chief minister of the capital, where the film is also set.
On their way home, the mother and daughter are pursued by the CM’s son (Madhur Mittal) and his friends, who were also present at the programme. Vidya takes a turn on to an isolated highway to avoid traffic, and here’s where the men corner the two, take them back to their farmhouse and rape them.
Tia dies in the incident and what ensues is nearly two hours of cliched theatrics and drama, in a poorly written revenge plot.
Milking the ‘Maa’ Card
The premise that a mother – maatr – is out to take revenge for her daughter has been exploited to the T. The film coerces you to conjure up a maternal instinct or empathy, to feel for Vidya’s circumstances.
In a scene at the police station, Vidya’s friend Ritu (Divya Jagdale) says to the investigating officer:
Aap jaante bhi hai yahan kya hua hai? Ek maa ke aankhon ke saamne uski beti ka rape aur murder kiya gaya hai. (Do you even understand what has happened here? A daughter was raped and murdered in front of her mother’s eyes.)
But here’s the thing. When the film is asking you to root for ek maa ka dard, it vilifies the prospect of a woman being perceived as an individual – and not as someone’s mother, daughter or sister.
Rape is traumatic, no matter who it happens to.
There's No Semblance of a Support System
It’s unfair that this ‘maatr’ has to conjure up the strength to deal with the trauma, all on her own. Perhaps this is a test of how ‘successful’ a mother she really is, but it’s unnecessary nevertheless.
Immediately after Vidya is discharged from hospital, she spends all her time alone. Her husband – who is shown to be estranged to begin with – is hardly ever around.
The film lets go of the opportunity to show any support system (or even female friendship) for Vidya.
Her best friend, Ritu, is around, but seems to offer little support and is rather oblivious to what her friend is up to when she’s trotting about town, plotting revenge.
The only way Vidya is shown coping with the incident is, quite literally, by murderous rage. But an actual coping mechanism, or the idea that life can move on, is completely absent.
Why Are All the Men in This Film Caricatures?
The script spends no time in fleshing out the male characters. The chief minister’s son is a debauched wastrel and nothing else, the police inspector only rattles off terrible dialogues, and the husband is only an unfeeling misogynist.
In an especially terrible sequence, Vidya’s husband (Rushad Rana) casually tells her, during dinner, that he wants out of their marriage as she reminds him of what happened to their daughter... then goes on to say, “Can you pass me the ketchup?”
Naturally then, the woman emerges as (artificially) empowered when the men around her are awkward baboons, with no motivations to their characters.
Must We Show Violence Against Women?
Granted, Maatr is a film about violence against women. But there are ways to convey that violence without actually having to show it.
In Shoojit Sircar’s Pink, for example, the entire premise hinges on an assault on the women, but the film never needs to graphically depict the violence, and the message is still loud and clear.
In a scene where one of the men is slapping Vidya, the entire hall reverberates with the sound of his hands landing painfully on her face and with her piercing screams.
It’s bad enough that she’s being assaulted, but to show that in graphic detail is sensationalist and offensive, to say the least.
Of Course This Film Has a Sad Song!
The only song in this film is one where Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is crooning about how unfair zindagi (life) is. The song is set against a montage of black and white photos of Vidya and her daughter, of her crying alone in the bathroom and tormenting herself by lingering on her daughter’s Facebook profile.
But Maatr is not alone in making victims out of rape survivors. Bollywood’s depiction of a rape survivor coping has always been associated with that of trauma, being ostracised and burdened with guilt.
At least, Maatr didn’t have Vidya ‘cleansing’ herself with a bucket of water after she had been raped!
To be fair, the film has its successes too, albeit small.
Vidya returns to work soon after, is not ostracised by mean neighbourhood cliques and never blames herself for what happened – even though her husband wastes no time in telling her it was her fault.
But despite its victories, the damage the film does is too big and too problematic. Its eagerness to sensationalise rape and its complete misconstruance of feminism simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth.