How films like Pink have helped Bollywood cinema come of age as it confronts the abuse of women

Three films – Udta Punjab, Pink and Parched – have been ­particularly powerful in their portrayal of the sexual violence that plagues Indian society.

Taapsee Pannu (lying down) and Andrea Tariang in Pink. Courtesy Rashmi Sharma Telefilms Limited
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In middle-class India there is an oft-heard phrase: “­Acche ghar ki ladkiyan ...”, which means, “Girls from good homes. ”

This phrase is followed by a list of qualities that qualify Indian woman as good and virtuous: they are from good homes, do not drink, do not wear skimpy clothes, do not mix with men they do not know, do not go out after dark, do not get married against their ­parents’ wishes, do not get ­divorced – this list that polices women’s behaviour is a long one.

For decades, Bollywood has largely followed this list with its portrayal of women on film.

Female characters have been written with a perplexing lack of depth, and they exist primarily to serve as eye candy, supporting the male lead’s story.

Films deviating from this formula tend to be dismissed as “parallel” or “art-house” cinema, meant for an educated elite – not the Indian masses.

Some of this year’s Bollywood offerings are finally challenging the status quo.

Three films – Udta Punjab, Pink and Parched – have been ­particularly powerful in their portrayal of the sexual violence that plagues Indian society.

In Udta Punjab, Alia Bhatt portrayed a Bihari immigrant who gets caught in a drug-trafficking plot and is repeatedly raped by her captors. The character perfectly represented the reality of "invisible" lower-caste women in India.

Parched, which was released in India last week, also deals with the subject of sexual violence, as experienced by three uneducated rural women in the hinterlands of Rajasthan. Like Udta Punjab, Parched is a chillingly accurate depiction of the lack of power and control that ­uneducated, poor Indian women have.

Pink, which stars ­Amitabh Bachchan, is different from the other two films in a crucial way – the women in this film are ­educated, ­English-speaking, have good jobs and are respectable, taxpaying members of society. They are, to all intents and purposes, emancipated women with all the liberties afforded by their ­financial independence.

And yet, when it comes down to it, all it takes is one entitled man who would not take “no” for an answer to tear apart their lives and the illusion of consent.

In the two weeks since the film’s release, there have been repeated calls, led by producer Shoojit Sircar, to make tickets for the film tax-free, so that it is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

This idea has merit – Pink raises unsettling questions largely ­ignored by Bollywood up until now and brings the issue of sexual violence into urban ­middle-class living rooms. It forces the audience to ask themselves tough questions about whether education has really changed the way women are treated in ­urban India. The more people who see it, therefore, the better. It would not be the first Bollywood film to be given exemption from tax – films such as Mardaani and Mary Kom were made tax-free in certain parts of the country.

The depiction by the Indian film industry of sexual violence has traditionally followed a certain formula. Usually, the audience is detached from the violated woman’s experience by the privileges of birth – class and caste – and the strict code of morality imposed on such women.

Even the most gut-­wrenching films on the subject have ­followed this trope.

Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2003), which showed sexual brutality in relation to unchecked female foeticide, and Bawandar (2000) – based on the gang rape of ­Bhanwari Devi, the case that resulted in ­India's laws about sexual harassment in the workplace – both have rural protagonists.

Lajja (2001) and Damini (1993), portray women fighting for the rights of lower-caste women. They are opposed by their husbands and after securing justice they inevitably ­return home with their reformed spouses. All is quickly forgiven and the sacrosanct family unit remains intact.

Aside from poverty, all these on-screen victims have ­another thing in common. They have all the celebrated virtues in Indian society but are still raped, so there is a kind of heroism in championing their cause.

Pink is different – the victimised women feel perfectly comfortable sharing a drink with men they have just met. The moral quandary audiences – and some critics – faced is how does one reconcile the love of virtue with the self-evident right over one's own body? This was a question first raised 36 years ago in the 1980 film Insaf Ka Tarazu, starring Zeenat Aman.

The premise is similar to Pink: Aman's character, a model called Bharti, is raped by her boyfriend who is in a fit of rage after he is spurned. In the trial that follows, she is challenged by a lawyer who says partners who have sex don't get raped. The fact that the film's examination of consent still remains a morally ambiguous subject today proves the film was ahead of its time.

Wind of change

In recent years there have been some attempts at changing the conversation. Daman (2001) and Provoked (2006) raised the subject of marital rape among upper-middle-class women. Highway (2014) and NH10 (2015) tackled the subjects of child sexual abuse and honour killings, ­respectively.

The fact that these films are led by some of the bigger names in Bollywood – Provoked had Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Highway starred Alia Bhatt and NH10 had Anushka Sharma – might just be an indication that Bollywood is finally becoming more open to layered, ­realistic storytelling.

Leading actresses such as Kangana Ranaut and Vidya Balan have repeatedly turned down roles that ­required them to be little more than glamorous dolls. There has never been a better time for writing meaty female characters and films.

One can only hope that the conversations started by films such as Pink continue long ­after the final credits roll.

• Pink is in cinemas now