Thought Box



by Balaji Vittal May 3 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 9 secs

Courageous storytellers daringly illuminate the darkness of child abuse, igniting conversations long overdue. Through their lens, they challenge stigma in a world where silence reigns. Read what Balaji Vittal explores.

The noisy arrival of guests, the ceremonies, the dancing and singing late into the nights…the Vermas’ bungalow in Delhi is a bubble of happy confusion typical of a north-Indian wedding. But there is a barely perceivable look of fear (or is it hatred) in Ria’s eyes at the arrival of a middle-aged relative, Tej Puri. Eventually the dirty truth comes out. Many years ago, when Ria was in her pre-teens, Tej Puri used to sexually molest her. Ria grew up with the trauma without disclosing this to anyone. And in the present day, amidst this merry Monsoon Wedding (2001) gathering, Tej once again tries to seduce a minor girl; the ten-year-old Aliya.

For the longest time, the portrayal of sexual abuse of children in our cinema has been taboo. Though talking about it in our homes is still by and large prohibited, thankfully our filmmakers have started doing so, among them Saif Hyder Hasan, whose recent release, “Yes Papa”, deals with this most heinous of crimes. ‘In December 2018, my wife met a girl in an orphanage who had been raped by her father when she was a child. She was rescued by an NGO and her father was put behind bars. And I came across more such instances. So, my wife urged me to use my craft for a social cause,’ says Saif Hyder Hasan. ‘Yes Papa’ is the story of Vinita, who is in her mid-thirties and is accused of murdering her father. The courtroom drama brings out her revolting back story.

What makes the crime so insidious is that most of the time the perpetrator is a close family member, which leads to the act being hushed up. In some instances, the child may not have a living parent and is left to the unwelcome attentions of relatives. Says Prashant Murali Padmanabhan, director of butterfly_girl_85 (2023), another film about a little girl subject to abuse at the hands of a local tailor, ‘”butterfly_girl” had lost her mother in her childhood and so the tailor took advantage of the fact that she had no one to guide her or give her advice.’

But then having a mother doesn’t seem to be of much help either. Says Nandita Puri, who plays Mrs Ghoshal, Vinita’s mother in Yes Papa, ‘When Vinita, aged 3 or 4, tells Mrs Ghoshal about what her father was doing to her, Mrs Ghoshal sweeps it under the carpet because she does not have the cushion of financial independence or any close friends or relatives in Delhi. And then there is the fear of ostracization of her daughter and herself – despite the doctor confirming that Vinita had been abused.’

In the case of the girl, Saif Hasan’s wife met at the orphanage, the victim’s mother was insistent that the case against the father be withdrawn. But there are parents with exceptional fortitude like those of the minor girl Nu Singh in “Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai” (2023) who bravely took it out in court for their minor daughter who had been sexually abused by a religious baba. Nandita Puri says, ‘If an educated Mrs Ghoshal cannot look at (or does not want to look at) something which had warped her daughter mentally all her life, what hope do the rest of the children have?’

Sexual abuse of children is not limited to girls alone. Filmmaker Onir talks about the story “Abhimanyu” in his 2010 anthology “I Am” in which young Ashish gets abused by his stepfather right through the growing years. ‘It was based on the experiences of fashion designer Ganesh Nallari and gay activist Harish Iyer. A lot of people don’t know that an almost equal number of boy children get sexually abused in India. Because parents are a bit more protective about girls, boys getting abused is justified as part of their growing up.’ In Abhimanyu too, the other parent remains impassive to the boy’s abuse. ‘One of the key lines that was censored out was Abhimanyu telling his mother “You knew about it”, the argument for censoring being that we could not show a mother in that light,’ Onir discloses.

Sexual abuse leaves an ugly mark in the minds of the victimized children. Made worse by the cover-up that follows, which leads to a sense of guilt and shame in the victim. Ashish, for instance, changes his name to Abhimanyu in an effort to get away from the past. Years after the abuse at the hands of the tailor, a now grown-up “butterfly_girl” sees a man masturbating in the narrow alley, and she breaks down howling. ‘That is because the man in the alley brings back nightmares of that tailor,’ explains Prashant.

Among the many impacts on the victims are the inability to engage in relationships and a skewed perspective to sex. Vinita in “Yes Papa” becomes frigid. ‘The word “sex” drives her away and she is not able to get intimate with her loving husband,’ points out Hasan. For unstated reasons, Ria in “Monsoon Wedding” decides to remain unmarried while Abhimanyu grows up with a confused sexuality. Onir fleshes out, ‘The friendship between him and Natasha borders on romance and physical attraction while he continues to play games with the other women and men he is seeing, keeping them guessing. He is shifty in his relationships.’ “Butterfly_girl” becomes dependent on every woman she meets and feels safe with a transgender because she sees that as a ‘safe zone’.

This breach of trust by both the perpetrator and the bystander could result in promiscuous behavior. ‘I have heard of a case where a girl raped by her father turned into a nymphomaniac. This was her way of getting back at her mother who did not speak up when the father was abusing her,’ shares Hasan. Even worse, in Onir’s film, Abhimanyu starts enjoying the ‘power’ that he has over his stepfather. Points out Onir, ‘The first stage is one of horror at being violated. Then he gets participative and desires it, trading himself against materialistic desires. And then, realizing how wrong it all is, decides to use it one last time in exchange for money to leave home forever to study films.’ ‘At the age of 13, I was like a slut,’ Abhimanyu laments.

What drives sex offenders? Explains Dr Paromita Mitra Bhaumik, Consultant Psychologist, ‘Offenders enjoy the sense of power over the children. They know that the victims cannot fight back. In many cases the offenders may have themselves endured sexual abuse. And they try to project it on others – just like the bullied turning bullies.’

But what about our social institutions? Would education and providing a listening ear not be their responsibilities? Points out Nandita Puri, ‘This education around “good touch-bad touch” is a very recent phenomenon, from our children’s generation. Whereas in “Yes Papa”, my daughter’s character was born in the 1980s.   

Do the victims ever manage to overcome this trauma? Gathering the courage to fight back is one way – “butterfly_girl” beats up the man she encounters in the alley, thus overcoming the state of shame. She sheds her pseudonym ‘butterfly_girl’ and changes her social media profile to her real name, Dhanya. After his stepfather’s death, Abhimanyu confides to Natasha about his childhood, and experiences psychological freedom, a catharsis. ‘He might end up having a more honest relationship,’ says Onir. Tej Puri in Monsoon Wedding is expelled from the wedding function by the host and one can instantly discern the change in Ria’s body language at the guilty person being punished. Strangely a ‘role reversal’ may also help.  Onir shares, ‘Though I don’t show child abuse, people were not comfortable playing the stepfather. Then Anurag Kashyap said that he would be happy to play the role. Because as a child, he was a victim of sexual abuse.’ This was his catharsis.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.