(The review is rife with spoilers, please do not read if you do not wish to know the plot of the movie.)
One of the protagonists in the movie ‘Section 375’, Akshaye Khanna, said in an interview, that film is a medium different from others as it has a wider reach and is capable of communicating with the audience on a deeper level. He went on to say that he hoped the movie will raise relevant questions that others have not been successful in doing so.
However, that is exactly what is most troubling about the movie, which unfortunately, will discourage women from speaking out about sexual assault.
Ironically, it has received much traction among critics, hailing it as a gripping courtroom drama that deals with a difficult topic in a great manner, when all it has really done is fortify the notion that a scorned woman files false rape cases.
‘Section 375’ revolves around a movie director who has been convicted of raping a junior assistant on the set. He engages a criminal defence lawyer played by Akshaye Khanna to represent him for his appeal before the High Court. He is opposed by Richa Chadha’s character, who plays the public prosecutor.
The defence, after claiming at first that there was no sexual intercourse at all, later changes its version, arguing that it was simply an affair gone sour and that the woman filed a false case of rape for revenge after being spurned by the man. It is eventually revealed that the rape case was indeed false, but the man is convicted nonetheless.
Perpetration of Negative Stereotypes
All that one has heard from the makers and cast of the movie is that it is ‘balanced’ and does not try to veer the audience either way. However, let us be clear – that’s simply not true.
The fact that Chadha’s character states things in court such as ‘consent has to be given before each sexual act’ or that ‘an affair between the man and the woman is irrelevant to a rape charge’ does not negate the general tenor of the movie, which reinforces damaging stereotypes about the supposed prevalence of false rape cases.
Given the prevalence of that discourse, of all the choices one could have made in directing a movie about a rape case, portraying a case where the woman admits to her lawyer of having filed a false rape case will invariably ensure that people leave the theatre not with a ‘balanced’ view but with a reinforcement of the deeply entrenched belief that of all the rape cases filed, most are false.
When the narrative of sexual violence is already skewed against women, the movie serves its purpose by buttressing the impediments a rape survivor already faces.
There is no doubt that there are false cases that are foisted on men. However, what the movie does is not raise questions about a relevant issue as the makers claim but reinforce the idea that women lie about being sexually assaulted.
It is, though, understandable that an engaging courtroom drama can only be created using the layman’s views on how courts work – with witnesses being examined and cross-examined and lawyers objecting and the judges allowing or overruling them.
Courtroom Depiction Might Aggravate Survivors’ Fears
It would not be fair to question this very much as filmmakers are allowed creative freedom to make their movies interesting. But this is a movie which the makers claim to be legally sound and based on a lot of legal research done in consultation with senior lawyers. That being kept in mind, it must be open to fair criticism on that front.
While there are several inaccuracies in the procedures shown to be followed by both the lawyers and the judges in the movie, one pivotal point requires our focus.
The movie wrongly depicts the survivor and other witnesses having to withstand examination by lawyers in the High Court.
For the sake of survivors who might not come forward fearing constant questioning in court alone, it must be pointed out that once the statement of the survivor has been recorded in camera by the trial court, the appeal process is dependent on her deposition made to the trial court alone and there is no occasion where she has to go through the traumatic process of giving her statement again.
Notion of a Wronged Man Pervades the Movie
What also stands out is that Akshaye Khanna, the male lawyer, deals with all the real evidence, punchy dialogues, and thumping arguments. The female lawyer, played by Richa Chadha, is left with emotional appeals and rhetoric about women being victims, because, well, she is a woman.
Another problematic aspect of the movie is the portrayal of protesters, who are simply shown as angry and senseless people baying for blood without any nuance. The movie is pervaded by the sense that the man has been wronged by the woman.
Even the scene where the judges are shown to be pondering over the verdict, there is a resounding noise of protesters, implying that the judges are biased due to the sheer force of the protesters hounding the court. While it is correct that with the advent of social media, public opinion holds a lot of sway, nuance is necessary to really understand this and it does not serve any purpose by just showing them as the movie has.
It is also interesting that assertions of victims of trials— which get media attention —not getting justice are being made in the case of a privileged movie director, but never in the case of multiple men across the country who currently face the death penalty after facing trial for just a few days or when bar associations refuse to defend them.
It is easier for people to rally behind the cause of people who are not from marginalised sections of society and when there is no survivor left to shame and doubt.
Narrative’s Immediate Effects on the Audience
An extremely distressing scene is one where the judges deliver their verdict. They say that after listening to the arguments made by both sides, it would seem that there is truth on both sides but law would demand that the woman’s statement be conclusive evidence of consent (or lack thereof) and go on to convict the man.
This is an allusion to the popular myth plaguing our criminal justice system; that it is skewed in favour of the survivor even though evidence may point otherwise. The man might not be guilty but courts are inclined to convict him. However, lawyers who routinely fight for the rights of survivors in India’s trial courts would beg to differ.
I didn’t have to venture far to experience the effects of the movie. When the movie ended, harking to the fact that the woman had indeed filed a false rape case as revenge against her lover, men and women in the audience jeered, “See, this is what happens in all cases” and laughed about the consequences of “women not getting their way”.
To foreshadow this, dialogues delivered by Khanna regarding false cases filed by women after consensual sexual intercourse kept coming up. As the country is going through a period of transition, when women have found the courage to speak up, it is troubling that the makers chose to focus on an aspect which serves to push down and drown out the voices of other courageous survivors.
(Ninni Susan Thomas is an advocate who works with Project 39A at National Law University, Delhi.Views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)