By Poulomi Das Mar. 07, 2020
Netflix’s Guilty, which traces the investigation of a rape accusation made on Twitter, had the opportunity to stand out as a film that explores the changing nature of consent in a post #MeToo world. It squanders that chance and instead tells us a story told far too many times – that rape survivors are often disbelieved.
Midway through Ruchi Narain’s Guilty – now streaming on Netflix – there’s a throwaway moment that felt to me, like the most pertinent part of a film that trains its gaze on the ramifications of #MeToo. A senior lawyer at the law firm defending VJ (Gurfateh Singh Pirzada), a DU college student accused of rape, offhandedly mentions that he has stopped hiring women interns after the #MeToo movement. The nonchalance with which he utters this as a solution is striking, as if the only way to ensure a safe working environment is to keep women away.This one line sticks for it encompasses the host of fault lines that were revealed in the wake of the Indian #MeToo reckoning two years ago – how ill-equipped most workplaces were to act on accusations of inappropriate behaviour, the Indian mentality that holds women accountable for their own safety, and more crucially, how speaking out often works against women and derails their careers. If Guilty were made up of more such moments, it could have been a thorough record of sexual violence and the continuing challenges of guaranteeing safe spaces for women.
The middling film that Guilty ultimately becomes, is a far cry from the competence of this sequence. Letdown by a muddled screenplay and a collective commitment to screechy overacting, it gives an illusion of substance while resorting to ignorant cliches.
Written by Narain, Atika Chohan, and Kanika Dhillon and produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, Guilty, set in Delhi 2018, traces the investigation of a rape accusation. In the throes of the #MeToo revelations on social media, Tanu Sharma (a dreadful Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor) tweets about VJ, the college heartthrob, raping her on Valentine’s Day a year ago. Operating between two timelines, the film unfolds as a “he said, she said” narrative as Danish (Taher Shabbir), VJ’s lawyer interviews his friends to get the complete picture of the night of the crime. His politically-connected family and friends, including his girlfriend, Nanki Dutta (Kiara Advani), are convinced of his innocence – going as far as to claim that it was Tanu who raped him.
Guilty is intriguing. Yet, it squanders its own accomplishment by adding classism into the mix.
Guilty ambitiously, and at times, deftly, charts out the reasons why no one seems to believe Tanu. The argument against her is her reputation. In their recollection, Nanki and her friends reason that Tanu was sexually promiscuous (one of them call her a “fuck girl”), attention-seeking, and vocal about her infatuation toward VJ – even on the night of the rape, it was Tanu who was “throwing herself” on him, implying that she is at fault. Even though none of them object to the assertion that VJ did have sex with Tanu that night, it’s underlined by an assumption that it was Tanu who forced him into it.
When the writers argue that this animosity toward Tanu stems from decades of normalised casual sexism as well as her refusal to behave like a “perfect victim” (in another highlight moment, a female student makes an unseemly remark about Tanu’s revealing dress – “She’s dressing like this? Even after the rape?”), Guilty is intriguing. Yet, it squanders its own accomplishment by adding classism into the mix. The film pits Tanu as a small-town girl from Dhanbad who is a visible misfit among VJ and his friends, all of whom come from wealthy, connected families.
Yet, as can be expected from a reductive reading of class disparity, Tanu’s small-town origins (she speaks in Hindi as opposed to the others who are fluent in English) is used as confirmation of her lower-class status. Guilty makes no direct reference to Tanu’s social standing and the fact that hailing from a small town is not a direct marker of someone’s class standing escapes the film’s writers. Similarly, assertions of privilege seem redundant given that everyone in the film enjoys a fair degree of privilege, including Tanu.
The glaring problem with Guilty, despite its promising premise, is the fact that its writing is consistently juvenile. The film possesses the correct vocabulary but is clueless on how to effectively employ it to build a credible story. Take for instance a moment where Nanki accuses VJ of “character assassinating” her for implying that her local guardian wants to get into her pants. She yells at him to stop the car at a deserted road well past midnight and storms off. Seconds later, a truck drives past and she is eve-teased only to have VJ come to her rescue. The messaging of how unsafe Delhi is for women is so on-the nose that it comes without any real insight besides the fact that women need men to protect them.
Guilty possesses the correct vocabulary but is clueless on how to effectively employ it to build a credible story.
Even disappointing is how Guilty trivialises the complexities of women resorting to using social media to call out sexual harassment. Not only does the film fail to dig deep into the inadequacy of the legal system (no legal authorities make an appearance in Guilty) to empower victims of sexual assault, but it is also deeply suspicious of the methods employed by them. It doesn’t help that the central conceit of the film, involving Nanki’s muddled mental state, is used as a gimmick. The writers withhold crucial information in a bid to make Guilty feel like a thriller, but all it does is hamper the viewer’s reading of Nanki, who comes across as impossibly whiny. Although Advani is sincere on her part, her character is severely underwritten and saddled with some of the film’s worst dialogues.
The writers play it so safe that there’s rarely a doubt over what actually transpired that night. Part of the reason is because Guilty seems too invested in drawing out easy melodrama by pitting its two female leads against each other instead of exploring the male psyche: VJ, his motivations, and the culpability of his friends are barely touched upon. It’s not entirely clear whether he even feels guilty for his actions or how warped his understanding of consent is. So when the big reveal comes in the film’s closing sequence, it feels all too convenient and ill-earned.
In the end, Guilty comes down to saying not a whole lot, besides the fact that rape survivors continue to be disbelieved and that sexual violence is a lifelong trauma for women. The trouble is that there are other films that say this exact thing way more compellingly. Guilty had the opportunity to stand out as a film that explores the changing nature of consent in the age of #MeToo. But for close to two hours, it remains so obsessed with wanting to make a “feminist” statement that it often forgets what it really takes to be a powerful piece of cinema.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.