Section 375 Review: A Smug and Ignorant “Not All Men” Proclamation

Bollywood

Section 375 Review: A Smug and Ignorant “Not All Men” Proclamation

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

It is slightly amusing that Hindi filmmakers seem to currently be more invested in educating the country about the laws enshrined in the Constitution and the Indian Penal Code than Indian politicians. Ajay Bahl’s Section 375 – like Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 – is designed as a response to the excesses of a society that often disregards the basic codes of human civility. Both these films capitalise on the demands of a socially conscious climate and by design, command attention and muster immediate praise for doing so. Yet they also tread a thin line between packaging themselves just as a message and as an all-out statement: If Sinha sometimes fumbled while ensuring that Article 15 spoke about the marginalised and not for them, then Bahl can be accused of unreservedly falling into the trap of making Section 375 – supposed to focus on the idea of consent – into a smug “Not All Men” declaration.

The premise of Section 375 – inspired from real cases – is straightforward: Anjali Dangle (Meera Chopra), a young junior female employee accuses Rohan Khurana (Rahul Bhat) her older, powerful boss of raping her during a work meeting at his house and lodges a case against him. Initially, Rohan denies that the assault took place and claims Anjali is lying but eventually admits they were having an affair and that the sex was consensual. These two contrasting narratives of the same incident are sincerely and at times, theatrically heightened in court by Hiral Gandhi (Richa Chadha), the prosecutor arguing on behalf of the victim and Tarun Saluja (an effective Akshaye Khanna), the high-profile defense attorney. 

In the ensuing 123 minutes, Section 375, under the guise of a courtroom drama, doesn’t just ascertain who eventually wins the case, but also seeks to pinpoint the exact moment when sex becomes rape. The main contention of the film is Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, that states the circumstances under which a man is said to have “committed rape”. The film focuses on the first two, which list down that sexual intercourse becomes rape when it is against her “will” and without her “consent”. 

Initially – at least in the effective first half – Section 375 feels like a film that wants to truthfully confront that sexual assault can never be cut and dried in this day and age, unravelling the complicated, messy terrains of enthusiastic consent. But that’s merely a ruse. Under the veneer of socially conscious filmmaking, Section 375 instead, reduces both, sexual assault and the Me Too movement into broad stereotypes (there are ample digs at the media for covering sexual harassment that seems to miss the point of reporting and social media is villanised with dialogues like “the court of Twitter”) to argue that in cases of rape, the burden of proof falls on the accused instead of the victim, making it that much easier to misuse. This, according to the film, is not just a travesty, but also a violation of the law and every moment of Section 375 is designed specifically to illustrate and serve this systemic tale of horror. Bahl employs the separation between following the “law” and serving “justice” (In an early scene, Saluja deems justice to be abstract and law to be a fact) as a crutch to drive home the point.

The main problem with Section 375 is Bahl’s sneaky gaze, which revels in giving out the illusion of moral ambiguity when it really is deeply distrustful of women.

The power equations are cleanly drawn from the very beginning. Gandhi is described as the “torchbearer of female rights” and is the bright but inexperienced junior lawyer fighting her first case while Saluja is played up as a confident, persuasive lawyer whose questionable methods are overridden by the fact that he seems to know what he is doing. Saluja also happens to be Gandhi’s former mentor, which Bahl generously exploits as a license for him to be routinely patronising toward her in court. 

Moreover, the film is entirely told from the perspective of Saluja, who is shown in an heroic light at every given opportunity (It’s not enough that he decides to argue in favour of a convicted rapist, he is also given an agreeable backstory: Saluja takes up these high-profile cases only so that it can allow him to fight cases for the under-privileged, pro-bono). And throughout, Saluja – and by extension the audience – rely only on the version of the events repeated by the accused to come to a conclusion. As a result, he is the only one who remains in possession of any new evidence (Saluja gets to manufacture every plot-twist in Section 375).

Gandhi, on the other hand, is painted as an inefficient lawyer, who screeches one point on repeat, discovers evidence in her own case after it has been presented in the court, and advises her client to withhold information. Bahl never allows them to be on a level-playing field: Saluja is always one step ahead. The judges hearing the case in the High Court are given defined labels as well: One is “tolerant and liberal” while the other has a “no-nonsense approach” and boasts of a “high conviction rate”. The implication is naturally, that the odds are highly stacked against the fate of the accused. 

To be clear, Bahl is well within his creative liberties to choose to highlight a narrative of sexual assault that is sympathetic to the fate of men who are falsely accused of rape. There exists ample record of these scenarios as well as innocent men being unfairly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit being played out in our daily lives. I also don’t necessarily believe that a film – or any art for that matter – is mandated to be politically correct. But it does have a responsibility to not be terribly dishonest and utterly ignorant. Unfortunately, Section 375 is both these things. 

It’s slightly amusing how Hindi filmmakers are invested in educating the country about the Constitution and the Indian Penal Code than Indian politicians.

For one, Bahl’s gaze suffers from an evident superiority complex, as if he is a chess player playing and winning a game against himself. He crafts Section 375 as a film whose true colours are visible only in hindsight, a move that is unquestionably manipulative. Bahl introduces sub-plots under the garb of being “factual” at his convenience to deliberately mislead the audience into questioning their reading of the incident. And Section 375 is especially dangerous, given how cleverly the director manages to camouflage his bias, even when it is on full display. 

For instance, in one scene (Section 375 is written by Manish Gupta and Bahl is credited for “Additional Screenplay and Dialogues”), Gandhi implies that an incident of rape is possible even in a consensual affair where one wields an unhealthy amount of power over the other. A few scenes later, the film has taken an U-turn, resting the blame on Anjali, implying that despite the power-gap in her relationship with Rohan, she was actually in control and fully aware of her actions. Yet the epitome of Section 375’s utter cluelessness in interpreting the power dynamics that accompanies rape is the film mistaking “will” for “consent”, arguing that one naturally indicates the existence of the other. Saluja’s closing argument rests on the fact that given Anjali consented to an affair with Rohan, it’s ludicrous to imagine that the sexual intercourse could be against her will, effectively taking a myopic view of the situation. It’s a telling blindspot on the part of the makers to seem over-confident in not entertaining the idea that a sexual intercourse that is as per a woman’s will, can also be devoid of her consent. Rarely has a film being this misinformed about the politics and logistics of rape, consent, and Me Too as gloriously as Section 375.

This is argually the biggest flaw of Section 375: Bahl’s sneaky gaze, which revels in giving out the illusion of moral ambiguity when it really is deeply distrustful of women. It’s not just saying that the judiciary and the enforcers of the law of the land are systematically corrupted to a point where justice is a foregone conclusion. But more importantly, that women are out to seek revenge and that the system enables them. At a time when we’re witnessing men accused of misconduct return from their shame leaves, it’s evident that news of sexual harassment has been going on long enough for filmmakers to finally feel comfortable in announcing how it has been a hard time for men. The least these confessionals could do, is make an effort to not exist at the expense of women.

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