By Nazeef Mollah:
The film ‘Phobia‘ begins with – at least, that’s when I entered the hall – a quotation of Franz Kafka. I had forgotten it by the time I left, but I did manage to find it online. I do not wish to discuss the quote and, therefore, my ignorance of Kafka. The key word in it is all we need to know – cage.
Cages are invoked in the film through imagery and set design, but also, and more importantly, as a metaphor. The taxi Mehak (Radhika Apte) gets molested in is a cage. That was a cage she wanted to get out of. The cages that follow – the house that she moves into, for example – are those that she wishes to be locked inside. The real cage, however, is the phobia she develops (agoraphobia according to the psychiatrist in the film). Mehak is afraid of stepping outside her house.
The film, as I saw it, is about the trauma that a ‘victim’ of sexual violence experiences. Mehak Deo recovers from it at the end. For those of us who roll our eyes at political correctness and the use of the term ‘survivor’, then, the film is a powerful eye-opener. One knows at the back of one’s head that there is no ghost/evil spirit, or even a murderer the reveal of whose identity would be the climax. We know it’s only her fear. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling uncomfortable until the entrance to her apartment is safely shut and bolted. The film doesn’t merely show us a scary situation, it literally makes us feel the fear in the protagonist’s mind.
The character of Mehak is that of a witty, strong, talented, and independent young woman in her early thirties. She’s a successful artist. She’s not afraid of travelling alone late at night. Her boyfriend (or, “just a good friend”) not only loves her but respects and admires her. Basically, the kind of woman that a section of populations across the world detests. She’s the ’21st-century girl’, the new species of the genus homo that Indian mass media began to present to us at the turn of the millennium. Whether this new species wipes out the old remains to be seen.
But there’s more. The most important thing about this girl’s boldness or independence is that it is unapologetic. Filmmakers and screenwriters have rarely been so bold as to allow female characters, even in women-centric films, to not have any redeeming qualities. ‘Mother India’ for example, had a strong female protagonist who was redeemed by her values and sacrifice. Priyanka Chopra’s boldness in ‘Fashion’ was redeemed by her character’s sincerity to her career. Even the epitome of boldness – the woman who had the audacity to tell Emperor Akbar, “Parda nahin jab koi khuda se, bandon se parda karna kya” – Anarkali, played by Madhubala, was redeemed by her undying love for Salim. To be bold and independent, women in Indian cinema appear to need redemption either by their devotion to their children or lover, or by sacrificing their dreams, or by their commitment to justice, and, if nothing else fits, it’s rather convenient to have them die at the end.
‘Phobia’, on the other hand, dispenses with the need for such redemption. Mehak is witty and makes good use of her wit. She is talented and unpredictable. She’s smart enough to know she needs treatment, but too stubborn to let others treat her like a child. She has slept with her good friend/boyfriend “ek bar,” and doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed for not being in a committed relationship. But she’s not a bad person. She’s like any normal person one might come across – full of imperfections.
The film opens with a painting by Mehak. A colourful ‘acrylic on canvas’ showing a hand reaching out towards several arms which, in turn, are reaching out towards it. The final scene of the film is framed in a similar manner. Mehak’s injured hand – which represents the fact that she is flawed, I guess – is reaching out to a number of others belonging to members of the ‘sabhya samaj’ who rush to help her. Perhaps it heralds the beginning of a new time when female characters in films, if not their real-life counterparts, will be celebrated for their imperfections, just as James Bond is for his promiscuity and disregard for authority. Finally, these fictional women can break out of the cages they’ve been kept in for so long.