‘Provoked’ To ‘Thappad’: Cinema’s Approach To Domestic Violence Over The Years

The year 2005, I was invited to shoot the ‘on the sets’ of Aishwarya Rai’s film Provoked, inspired by the life and times of an Indian housewife Kiranjit Alhuwalia, who had changed the course of British Law.

I was intrigued by this woman, who had decided to stand up for herself as she suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. Her story was like that of many others, from Punjab to United Kingdom – married off to a man she hardly knew, promised a better life, little realising the road ahead would be thorny, violent and very abusive.

As I sat on the sets, watching the camera zoom into Aishwarya’s teary face in the courtroom scene, I decided to find out a bit about Kiranjit Alhuwalia myself.

I travelled to Southall, to the office of the Southall Black Sisters which was set up to the meet the needs of Asian and Black Carribean women and met Rahila Gupta. Gupta, a journalist, writer and long standing member of the Southall Black Sister and co writer of Provoked, the true story of Kiranjit Alhuwalia.

Rahila Gupta narrated Kiranjit’s story to me, a victim of domestic abuse since the day she married Deepak Alhuwalia, it had already been a decade of being battered, any slight provocation would turn him violent. Abuses, threats and beatings that would leave her black and blue. Deepak even raped her as is the case in many such instances where the man feels it’s his right to demand sex from his wife even if she didn’t give her consent.

Whenever she tried to leave him, he would get her back, beat her again, take her savings and flaunt his many extra marital affairs. But Kiranjit, like many women like her, could do precious little. She was under pressure to have children – “a child would change him”, was what she had been fed by her relatives. Things only got worse, as her two sons silently witnessed the violence, till one day in the spring of 1989. Deepak got violent again yanking her hair and pressed a burning iron to her face, which scalded her and burnt a part of her face.

Soon after her husband went to sleep, Kiranjit poured a can of petrol on his feet and set them alight. She fled the house along with her sons. “I couldn’t see the end to the violence, and wanted him to feel the pain that I went through time and time again”, is what Kiranjit Alhuwalia told me when I met her few months later.

However, Deepak succumbed to his injuries and Kiranjit was charged with murder. She pleaded not guilty and the defence made little of the violence she had endured. She was given a life sentence, but as her story unfolded, popular opinion went in her favour, saying the judiciary had not treated her fairly. Since many women before her had, in self-defence and provocation, killed their abusers and were given a similar punishment. But did criminal law take into consideration their state of mind during the act caused by years of relentless abuse and why the common law definitions of provocation and self defence could not be used in such cases? So as the Southhall Black sisters along with many other women –  some activists and many in a show of solidarity – launched a movement to free Kiranjit.

As Rahila Gupta showed me many pictures from their campaign, I applauded these many women, who in a show of sisterhood, had come together.

In 1992, a retrial was ordered and it was declared Kiranjit’s conviction was unsatisfactory and the court was ordered to look into the history of abuse and its psychological impact which culminated in the act of her killing her abuser. Kiranjit – who was soon freed after three and half years in prison – her case became the moot point for redefining the legal concepts of self-defence, provocation and diminished responsibility when a battered woman takes recourse to such an action.

Though the film disappointed with its treatment, but it did champion the recognition of the ‘battered woman syndrome’ and how many women across race, ethnicity and socio-economic groups often suffer the abuse in silence.

When we see these stories unfolding on screen, the question that comes to mind is ‘how dare he?’ Why is she taking this? Why does she not leave him’, little do we realise these stories could be unfolding around us. Reel often draws from real, many women continue to take the beatings and abuse, be it family pressure “It will bring a bad name, let things stay within the four walls”, some are uncomfortable in exposing the truth, whilst others are too scared to try, and in rare cases, extreme steps are taken to only harm the self which comes with an “it’s your fault mentality”, which is drilled into the victim by not only the man, but many within the clan who support it with “his right his might”, there are horror stories from affluent families where mother-in-laws have applauded their sons with “aur zor se mar”, as the helpless daughter-in-law has taken the beating, or have been silent spectators.

In Bollywood’s narrative, domestic violence and its scenes have been class specific, it’s usually the household help and lower income group for which, due to socio economic frustrations, violence is inevitable. Or there have been movies like Agnisakshi and Daraar wherein the protagonists have run away from their violent relationships and finally meet their saviour who helps them get justice.

In between, of course, you had movies like Damini, where a woman stands up against her family to bring justice to another, Arth, where she rediscovers herself, the character of Shabana Azmi’s Pooja walks out of her marriage and adopts her house help’s daughter after her mother has been charged for killing her abusive husband, then there was a Mrityudand, where a woman stands up against patriarchy and a Parched, where four women liberate themselves from a life of abuse and tyranny.

But in a day and age when violence against women, minors included becomes rampant, Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad starring Taapsee Pannu resonates, there are no histrionics or theatrics, or violent scenes. A happily married couple who have everything going, until one day as the husband, frustrated with his ambitious plans falling apart, plants a slap across his wife’s face, little realising that it would change the course of their lives and those of other’s involved.

It’s just a slap one would say, why is she ending her marriage? But as Pannu’s character Amrita says, “it’s not okay”. Why should he slap me? What gives him the right to do so? And as she walks out of her marriage, one realises this is a silent smack to years of patriarchal conditioning, a slap against misogyny, the maryada and sabhyata which allows it to prevail. No one needs to know how you feel, keep your opinions to yourself, women should be seen and not heard, it’s a “thappad” at all that and much more. As women themselves have been complicit in adhering to patriarchal rules, maybe it’s time to take a stand.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich may have written “well behaved women seldom make history”, a quote that’s been misinterpreted over the years, you don’t need to be loud, aggressive or bold to be noticed. The quiet and compliant rarely get attention, but little does one realise – all it takes is one wave for the calm seas to turn turbulent, as women stand up for themselves, maybe it’s time to applaud your tribe.

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