When the Alia Bhatt-Shefali Shah starrer, Darlings, released on Netflix last week, it immediately led to a slew of reviews, obviously, and in almost all of them there was at least one mention of Thappad (2020), another film on the same theme: domestic violence. Darlings is more of a dark comedy, though, unlike the Taapsee Pannu-starrer Thappad and the treatment of the subject in both the films is different.
In Darlings, Badrunissa, or Badru (Alia Bhatt), bears the merciless beatings of her alcoholic husband, Hamza (Vijay Varma) day after day; Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) in Thappad realises that violence in any form is not okay in a marriage and files for divorce after her husband publicly slaps her in a party. Badru, bearing the bruises of the night, gets mollified by her husband each morning and goes back to her life; Amrita refuses to give in when her husband apologises but in the same vein, justifies his action.
In a couple of reviews and in conversations, both on social media and in drawing rooms, Amrita of Thappad has been hailed as the more powerful protagonist. But how many Amritas are you likely to meet in the real world? In my world at least, I have come across more Badrus than Amritas—women who suffer varying forms of domestic violence, unable to get out of a toxic relationship.
The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 data shows that almost one-third of married women in India, or 32 per cent, in the age group of 18-49 have suffered physical, sexual, or emotional violence in the hands of their partner. Physical violence (28 per cent) is the most common type of such violence. Yet, only a fraction seek help. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, on BMJ, the British Medical Association’s collection of journals says that one in three women in India faces spousal violence, but only one in 10 seek help following such instances.
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Lawyer Ayesha Sen Choudhury, whose interests lie in gender and human rights, agrees adding that one cannot expect a “Thappad-like conclusion in 90 percent of the cases…reporting domestic violence is still very low in our country,” and that there are many reasons for that.
One of them—and this is probably the foremost cause—is the social conditioning around domestic abuse. “We live in a society where abuse and violence is connected to love; gaslighting coexists with love,” says Sen Choudhury. “This is the reason why films like Arjun Reddy (2017, Telugu) or Kabir Singh (2019, Hindi adaptation) have done so well in the box office,” she adds. Both films depict a young doctor dealing with alcoholism and a furious temper, resorting to abuse when he finds that the woman he loves is about to marry another man. While the films were heavily criticised for glorifying a toxic culture of abuse in the name of love, the cash registers however tell a different story. The Telugu film starring Vijay Deverakonda was a box office hit, earning ₹51 crore, prompting the Hindi remake with Shahid Kapoor to follow.
One of the most common ‘myths’ associated with domestic abuse, according to UK-based Women’s Aid, is that alcohol and drugs leads to violence. ‘While drugs and alcohol may exacerbate emotions, they do not cause domestic violence,’ adds Chayn India, an open-source project to leverage technology and empower women facing domestic abuse. ‘The choice to act in a violent and abusive manner rests with the person (man). Period.’
In Darlings, Hamza, Badru’s husband, essayed this example throughout the film. It’s the alcohol that is to be blamed, not me, he’d tell his battered wife. Trusting him, she would find ways to help him get rid of the bottle. Towards the end, he admitted that he was to be blamed for his actions, albeit forcefully.
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For my domestic help’s husband, this admission is yet to come. “He was hitting the kids, not me,” she told me one winter evening, when, hearing loud noises and raised voices from her house, my husband and I decided to intervene. She fumbled with her dupatta and added, in his favour that “he gets tired and sometimes has a drink. Then the boys start getting on his nerves. I was trying to protect them.” I told her about laws being in place for domestic violence, but she just shrugged it off—something akin to Shamshu (Shefali Shah’s character in Darlings) mouthing the dialogue, “Twitter walon ke liye duniya badal gayi hai. Humare liye nahin.’ (The world has changed for people on Twitter. Not for us).
Here, by ‘us’ Shamshu indicates the middle or lower socio-economic strata of the society. This is yet another myth. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, notwithstanding wealth or social standing in the society.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDV) 2005, was enacted by the Parliament and brought into force by the Indian government on October 26, 2006. For the first time, domestic abuse was defined in terms of the Indian law as violence not just related to physical abuse, but also emotional, verbal and psychological abuse.
Taking the first step towards seeking help, however, is often the toughest. Thappad and Darlings show us two different perspectives in such situations. In the former, the victim’s mother asks her to stay put for sake of their dignity, and in the latter, despite the victim, despite getting support from a single mother to walk out of her marriage, she hesitates.
“Funds for implementation of the Domestic Violence Act has reduced, and access to formal legal system (to register a case of domestic violence) has (also gone down) now,” notes Sen Choudhury. "Protection Officers deputed to help women facing domestic abuse, are also now deputed for child protection, sometimes even trafficking,” she adds. As per a report in Deccan Herald, in April the Union Government told the Supreme Court of India that it has no provision of release of funds to states under the PWDV Act, although it had been releasing money under various schemes for the safety of women and children.
Shaina Roy, a woman’s rights activist, says in order to break stereotypes and break intergenerational abuse through dialogue with survivors, the only way ahead is to keep the conversation going about domestic abuse.
“The survivor could be the mother herself—like Shefali Shah’s character in Darlings—or a neighbour, a friend, a relative. It could be anyone,” says Roy. “The important thing is to talk about it instead of hushing it up in the name of family pride, or hope that prayers will make everything all right.”
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur