To set the stage for the film, a scene from Hum TV’s popular drama serial Gul-e-Rana comes to mind: Adeel’s friend Mona asks him for help as two men have been stalking her. Adeel offers that she stays in his house. At night, when Mona (expectedly clad in pajamas and a t-shirt) is preparing for bed, Adeel comes to her room and attempts to sexually assault her. Mona resists, and at that point, Adeel’s wife Gul-e-Rana walks in. Gul-e-Rana, who before this is depicted as the epitome of morality and piety, responds with a judgment-laden retort, directed not at Adeel, but at Mona:
“Libaas dekha hai tumne apna? Tum toh khud logoN ko daawat-e-aam de rahi ho!” (Have you seen your dress? You are openly inviting men to do this to you!)
Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Shoojit Sircar’s Pink deals with these very questions: how should “consent” be defined in cases of sexual violence? Should this definition change based on the woman’s perceived ‘character’ and sexual history?
The film’s protagonists are three ‘independent, working women’ -Meenal (Tapsee Pannu), Falak (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang) – who share a flat in Delhi. They accept a dinner invitation from a group of men at a rock concert in the outskirts of Delhi. One of the men, Rajvir (Angad Bedi), attempts to sexually assault Meenal and she responds by smashing a glass bottle on his face.
Pink is a radical departure from how victims of sexual violence are portrayed on screen
The men, it turns out, belong to a powerful political family. Their entitlement and privilege is visibly shaken by the women’s resistance, and they stalk, threaten and harass them to ‘teach them a lesson’. When Meenal registers a criminal complaint against them, they abduct her, once again sexually assault her and file a case against her for attempted murder, extortion and solicitation for sex.
The film is about the trial that follows, raising (and challenging) the many stereotypes about women and morality that continue to define societal attitudes and also the criminal justice system in cases of sexual violence.
This is not the first Bollywood film that depicts the difficulties women face in seeking accountability for sexual offences – Zeenat Aman’s Insaaf ka Tarazu and Meenakshi Sheshadri’s Damini, for example, also center on rape trials. The narrative in both, however, is heavily couched in language of morality. In the former, women’s bodies are equated with ‘temples’ and sexual assault is considered ‘desecration of temples’ and in the latter, Damini’s struggle for justice relies heavily on her carefully constructed character as a loyal and devoted wife.
The protagonists in Pink conform to no such stereotypes. They are unapologetic about their choices and are clear that rape and sexual violence are defined by absence of ‘consent’, not their sexual histories. In one powerful scene, after a particularly odious line of questioning by the prosecution, a distraught Falak retorts that even if they were sex workers like the prosecution was trying to prove, they were still entitled to withdraw consent at any time. Meenal, too, talks about her sexual history and responds to questions about her virginity candidly, again stressing that her past sexual relationships were by ‘choice’. These scenes are, in many ways, a radical departure from how victims of sexual violence are portrayed on screen and in the media.
The men, too, are not the conventional rapists of Bollywood films: Rajvir, for example, is a rich, articulate and good-looking graduate from Kings College who Meenal says ‘looked safe’ – an important departure from the disproportionate and misleading representation of working-class men as the ‘rapists’ in mainstream cinema.
The men are not the conventional rapists of Bollywood: Rajvir is a rich, articulate and good-looking graduate from Kings College
Films of this genre risk sensationalising the act of sexual violence, but not Pink. The night of the incident only comes up as flashbacks in the closing credits, just one example of Aniruddha Roy’s considerate handling of the subject.
For me, the weak link in the film is the character of Deepak Sehgal, their neighbour and lawyer, played by Amitabh Bachchan. His courtroom monologues (“Rules of Girl’s Safety Manuals”, as he calls them) could have been stirring calls for reflection, but sound preachy and seem out of place in a narrative that otherwise flows naturally and effortlessly.
For the most part, Pink stays clear of the need for male saviours. But towards the end, that too changes. The focus on Sehgal’s receding frame as he walks out of the courtroom during the final scene leaves little doubt that he – not the women – is the ‘hero’ of the film.
These issues notwithstanding, Pink is an important film that is particularly timely – following some recent high-profile sexual assault cases where the victims’ character defined public reaction and the trial.
It also resonates loud and strong in Pakistan’s context: we should recall a gang rape allegation earlier this year in Lahore, for example, where messages exchanged between the complainant and one of the alleged rapists were splashed across television screens, and their prior relationship was considered proof that the gang-rape allegation was fabricated.
Pink is a cinematic success because Meenal, Falak and Andrea could be any of us – every woman who has been told not to laugh too loud, not to be too friendly, not to dress up too much, not to come back home too late, lest they be judged as ‘ghalat tarha ki larki’ (the wrong kind of woman).
And it is not just the usual suspects who hold and perpetuate these pernicious opinions about women’s choices. In one scene in the film, Falak’s ‘progressive’ academic friend, Professor Javed, implies such a thing was expected to happen to a girl like Meenal, and when questioned about this, responds: “I can either be liberal or truthful – what do you want me to be?”
Perhaps films like Pink can even prompt some much-needed legal reform around sexual violence in Pakistan. Even though the sexual history of the victim is irrelevant to whether rape has occurred, Section 151(4) of the Qanun-i-Shahadat Order, 1984, states that the credibility of a witness may be impeached where ‘a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish’ and it is ‘shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character’. And the ‘two-finger test’ to determine a victim’s sexual history is still used as evidence in rape cases.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.