Once the noted Indian auteur, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, told me that cinema could not be just a means of entertainment. It also had to be a platform of provocation. Films should shake us out of reveries and pull us down to earth, to the earth of hard realities. And happily some fiction features and documentaries in India have been teasing us with socially relevant and disturbing stories. Honour killing is one of them.
A Tamil fiction movie, Yenru Thaniyum, by Bharathi Krishnakumar, was to have opened on March 18, but for the ongoing cinema industry strike in Tamil Nadu.
The plot of Yenru Thaniyum unfolds against the backdrop of caste divide in Tamil Nadu, where the Dalits and their women are subjugated in an unimaginably variety of ways, and where a strong form of “khap” panchayat flourishes.
Krishnakumar told me some time ago that there were two kinds of caste violence. The first was one perpetrated by the upper castes. The second was one committed by the Dalits and other lower castes. “While the first cannot be justified at all, the second perpetrated in retaliation or revenge can be be justified at least to an extent...But violence only breeds violence, and the cycle continues unabated. So, films like mine -- I hope -- will help people realise the futility of fighting over caste and shedding innocent blood”.
He added that his work was not a true story, but “a story of truths”. What are these truths? “In the past two years, Tamil Nadu alone has seen 81 honour killings. One of them happened two years ago in Udumalpet, near the hosiery town of Thiruppur, and a video recorded by a bystander shocked us all.
It was March 2016, when Shankar and his new wife were attacked on a crowded street. The man hailed from a lower caste, and he died hours later, while his high-caste wife survived – and took her parents to court for murdering her husband. And it is this gruesome incident which has been rolled into a 25-minute documentary – India's Forbidden Love: A Honour Killing on Trial -- by Sadhana Subramaniam and is now being screened on Al Jazeera.
Kausalya’s steely resolve that pushed her beyond the emotional boundaries led to the court sentencing her father and five others to capital punishment.
Subramaniam's movie may be a trifle shoddy, even amateurish, but captures the essence of the crime, the horrors of family honour which blind even parents to such an extent that they stoop to murder their own children, often daughters.
Subramaniam has said that she was lucky because Kausalya survived and lived to tell the tale of her parents' misplaced sense of family honour. What is more, the young widow emboldened herself to move the judiciary and have her parents arrested. It could not have been easy at all.
The documentary took 12 months to be shot, and fortunately Subramaniam could cajole Kausalya’s family to be part of the film. Yes, the young director had to often face troubling questions. One of them pertained to her caste. Another related to her stand. Would she support Kausalya or her parents?
But then I think Subramaniam has managed to present a balanced view of the picture. But look at the irony. While India's Forbidden Love... is now being aired on Al Jazeera's Witness, a documentary channel, Indian television has turned its face away. And it is in India that such movies must be seen.
However. Some fiction features in the recent years have been talking about honour killing.
A 2011 film by Avantika Hari, Land, Gold Women, takes a hard look at a small British Asian family in modern Birmingham, where the daughter commits the unpardonable crime of falling in love with a white boy. Her uncle, who arrives from India, pressures the parents of the girl to view this affair as a blot on the family’s honour and to get rid of her!
A Bollywood film, NH 10, narrates the horrific tale of a young woman and her lover being butchered by her brother, while her mother calmly prays for the resurrection of the family honour that had been sullied by the elopement of the couple. The lover, a young man, a low-caste Hindu, had “sinned” by desiring the woman from an upper caste.
And debutant director, Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga, came as a powerful indictment of honour killing. A low-caste Dalit teenager, a pig-rearer, makes the fatal mistake of taking a fancy for a schoolgirl, whose land-owning father is an upper caste Hindu. The boy writes a love letter to the girl, and the father happens to read it, and it is Hell after that.
Good, but I have to say here that the power which a documentary wields is far greater than that of a fiction feature.
( Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)