I was seven-years-old when I watched a film that repulsed me like never before. Made in the early 90s, starring Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla, the film glorified rape, and the worse part is — no one protested.
The film, a Bollywood remake of a Tamil film, is called ‘Benaam Badshah’. The cringe-worthy plot is about a man who rapes a woman on her wedding day and then plays hard to get as the woman keeps chasing him, wanting to marry him — her rapist.
Throughout the movie, the survivor, played by Juhi Chawla pursues Anil Kapoor, the man who violated her and that led to her wedding being called off. She keeps pursuing him, stalks him, sends him love letters and even starts living next to his house. She then wants to marry him. At some point, she even pretends to be pregnant with his child as a ploy to convince him to marry her.
Meanwhile, Kapoor, untouched by the aggrieved damsel's bewildering gestures, doesn’t relent. All of this is justified because, at the end of the day, Kapoor is not the villain in the film, but the hero who 'wins' the girl.
I remember cringing as a seven-year-old. The storyline of ‘Benaam Badshah’ disturbed me.
There was no outrage when this movie was made. Sure, it would have made news had it been made in 2018, probably for all the wrong reasons, but back then, no one even batted an eyelid.
And ‘Benaam Badshah’ isn’t even the only one. The list of films glorifying and normalising sexual harassment is a long one. Eve teasing, stalking, endless efforts to woo the girl, and incessantly hounding her is a part of almost every Bollywood film, especially the ones that were made in the 90s.
It isn’t the cheesy songs and sequences that are problematic, it is the normalisation of sexual harassment by passing it off as ‘love’. In the end, the hero woos the heroine to be with him and they live happily ever after.
While these films are meant to entertain us, they seem to be sending out an extremely wrong message. In these films, the stalker is never the bad guy, he is the hero who, like in Benaam Badshah, gets the girl in the end. These films normalised stalking and harassing in the name of ‘wooing’ a girl as perfectly alright.
The problem is that no one takes issue with the way the heroine is apparently ‘wooed’. It is dangerous when the hero suggests ‘Iskey naa mein bhi haan hai (Her refusal means yes).’ The signals it sends out are confusing for the young impressionable viewer watching the film.
Formulaic filmmakers are guilty of making such films. The actors are guilty of portraying such characters. Censors are guilty of passing such films for public consumption. And, we are guilty too — of watching these films and endorsing them in real life.
In many judgements that involve rape cases in our country, the magistrate often asks the rapist to marry his victim because she is ‘scarred for life’.
The idea of ‘marrying your rapist' is common in many countries in spite of being outlawed and in spite of Human Rights Watch and United Nations campaigning against it. Juhi Chawla and Anil Kapoor in 'Benaam Badshah' had, wittingly or unwittingly, joined a long list of actors in taking this idea to an obnoxious level.