Brutal moments. Personal moments. There is no person who has not suffered those, in different degrees. Some of us bury them. Until, yes, until a trigger reminds you of it and then a spiral of agony scorches through you. Such is Deepa Mehta’s film An Anatomy of Violence. (In Patrick Mullen’s POV review, he wrote, “Is it true crime, mockumentary, hybrid film, or docu-drama? Anatomy of Violence is all of these forms and none. Let’s call it Mehta-fiction”.)
Producers Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray spoke to Mehta about making a film about Jyoti Singh’s rape on December 16, 2012. Mehta, not wanting to dwell on the act itself, chose to make a film about the rapists. In an interview to The Globe and Mail, Mehta explained, “It was too convenient for them just to be ‘evil,’ because we don’t become who we are in isolation. I really believe in that, looking at where they come from, to find some root cause. Maybe just get a glimpse of what it might be, because somehow I feel that we’re complicit in it.”
Mehta used the reenactment technique in an acting workshop in Chandigarh as research for a feature film. During the workshop, she then took a decision to not make the feature film but use the workshop footage as the film. Adult actors played the imagined childhood of the rapists. This includes poverty, sodomy, rape, abject loneliness and violence. Actors in the workshop hooked threads from an imagined past and wove present moments. These actors were not slum kids brought up in poverty. Can there be any verifiability of this imagined life of the rapists? Do their horrific imagined histories then mean that they had no existential choice but to become brutes?
Jyoti Singh’s barbaric rape has become a brutal, personal moment to Indians. I feel I own it. It is my personal pain. In that, no one should touch it. Leave it alone. Enough. But Mehta’s film triggers all that you don’t want triggered. It devastates you. It questions that in our furious anger, we let slip the layers that led to such a merciless act. Predictably, we will respond with sentiments like “The film practically blames Jyoti’s rape on the grinding poverty and cruel society the rapists grew up in and lightens their guilt”. At the core, for some of us it is impossible to be understanding and forgiving. We are all the father whose four-year-old has been raped; who in his rage wants to kill the rapist. I’ll admit to similar thoughts after Jyoti’s rape and death, thinking somebody might just do it. The anger in my core reduced me momentarily to a revenge seeking rabid fiend.
It is perhaps Mehta’s distance or somewhat anthropological view that draws her to look at the larger picture that we cannot. There is a presumption in the imagined lives of the rapists that they must have been poverty stricken, sexually violated and repressed. Can we accept the authenticity of this presumption and projection? Why did these men become rapists when millions in similar circumstances did not? The book on Phoolan Devi by the late Mala Sen and Shekhar Kapur’s film Bandit Queen showed the bone-chilling rapes Phoolan Devi suffered and the ruthless revenge she took. Phoolan Devi was considered a heroine by some feminists for killing her rapists. Others pointed out not every woman who is raped becomes a serial killer.
There have been similar rapes of young girls, some as horrific as what Jyoti Singh suffered and we did not give the same attention or vent the same fury. The Justice Verma Committee did change many crucial aspects of the law. Has it stopped women from being raped? We will never know how many potential rapists it stopped. We can never get the statistics of how many more women are likely to report rape than they did before. And, we will never know how many still go unreported.
Deepa Mehta took a courageous turn when she chose the reenactment genre, employed by many documentary filmmakers. In anthropologist Jean Rouch’s experimental film The Human Pyramid, he had students in a racially-mixed school in the Ivory Coast act out their own lives. In Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, he uses clay figures and archival footage to recreate the atrocities of his experiences in Khmer Rouge labour camps. And, there lies the difference. Their stories are not imagined.
By pushing the genre even further, Anatomy of Violence demands a great deal from the audience. The fusion of non-fiction and fiction is difficult and will create debate, which seems to be Mehta’s intention. It forces us to look at our lack of engagement with the discrepancies, economic divide and injustice that surround us. It surely raises the question: how responsible are we for the kind of human beings we have become? When an anthropologist studies a tribe, the premise is that those observed are exotic and different, almost alien, from the observer. When shown in international festivals, we will feel judged. I predict there will be resentment. How dare she tell our story her way? Yet, we learn from how others view us.
This article was first published in Hindustan Times.