I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.
The film Provoked, directed by Jag Mundhra is a good example of how wife abuse in all corners of the world is well-documented but sweeps under the carpet, the truth that it is mostly women who defend it, for the sake of family honour. In Provoked, Deepak’s mother lies under oath when she denies that her son (Naveen Andrews) beat his wife Kiran (Aishwarya Rai).
Provoked is based on the book Circle of Light, the autobiography of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who burned her husband in his sleep after ten years of beatings. She was charged with attempted murder while he was in hospital but the charge was changed to murder when he died. In the movie, Radha (Nandita Das), who works for Southall Black Sister, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps abused women, visits Kiran in prison. She asks her how she is. Kiran replies, “I feel free.”
Men are usually accused of being the architects of culture, especially culture that dances on women’s pain, but the fact of the matter is that it is mostly women who nurture and defend it. They are culture custodians.
It is often assumed that only a woman knows how another woman feels, but that doesn’t hold water if a mother-in-law wants her son’s wife to go through the same abuse she experienced as a young bride. “You’ll get used to it,” young women are told all over the world when they join abusive homes. Another painful response is “You must have done something to make him angry.”
NGO’s in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, and other parts of the world where they are allowed to operate, listen to horror stories about women who don’t see anything wrong with their sons battering other women’s daughters. In Provoked, Radha realises that Deepak’s mother is an abusive mother-in-law. She therefore tricks her into releasing Kiran’s children so that they can visit her in jail. She cannot read English so Radha shows her a court order that was used for somebody else.
Provoked demonstrates that abuse is dangerous for both men and women. While stories about women who die at the hands of their husbands are widely reported, stories about men who are killed by their wives to free themselves from abuse like Kiran, do not make the seven o’clock news.
In Deepa Mehta’s film Heaven on Earth, Chand a young Punjabi woman (Preity Zinta) goes to Canada on an arranged marriage to marry Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj). Her family sends her with a huge dowry. Maji the mother-in-law (Balinder Johal) condones her abuse. There is a scene where a phone call comes in for Chand while Rocky beats her. The little girl in the family takes the call, “She’s busy right now.” Such children grow up thinking that wife abuse is normal because they doesn’t see anybody objecting to it.
The abused wife walks away in Nandita Das’ film Firaaq. There is a scene where her husband (Paresh Rawal) wakes up and reaches out for the tea that is always there when he wakes up. He is shocked that it is not there and that his wife is gone. Khatta Meetha, a film released in July 2010 shows wife abuse which borders to hating women as God’s creation.
Khatta Meetha, directed by Priyadarshan stars Akshay Kumar as Sachin Tichkule, an engineer with and appalling reputation. He doesn’t follow specifications when he builds roads. That is why the city refuses to pay him. Sachin is also not popular with his brothers and brothers-in-law. Two people adore him, his mother and his sister Anjali (Urvashi Sharma).
The men in the family convince her father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to marry her off to their corrupt friend. Anjali commits suicide after a year. Sachin learns after her cremation that her husband used to send his friends to take turns raping her.
I get the impression that male producers shy away from wife abuse. That is why most films about this painful existence are produced and directed by women. They never fail to point out that it is women in abusive families who tell young brides to cry softly, otherwise neighbours will hear.
Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.