Child sexual abuse is one of the ugliest hidden realities of India’s dangerously repressed society. Over 53% of children in India have faced some form of sexual abuse, as per a government study, despite the Protection of Children From Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, a comprehensive law to deal with the crime and deter perpetrators.
While this heinous crime thrives under our silence, many Hindi films have, however, attempted to talk about it directly. Bollywood, of course, has seldom been the best when it comes to portraying sensitive topics. From rampant ableism, objectification, and sexism to the glorification of rape culture, it has contributed to the worst forms of oppression. However, even a broken clock can be right twice, and a number of Bollywood films exist which address child sexual abuse in a surprisingly sensitive manner. Given the breadth and complexity of the issue, not all of these films completely hit the mark, but the fact that they exist as part of one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world is a big step forward.
“I Am Abhimanyu”, the third short in Onir’s landmark anthology “I Am”, tackles child sexual abuse in a way few Indian films have ever done. Based on the true stories of fashion designer Ganesh Nallari and equal rights activist Harish Iyer, it film depicts how a film director (played by Sanjay Suri and Zain Salam) deals with the trauma of sexual abuse at the hands of his step-father (played by Anurag Kashyap) for 11 years and attempts to move forward and forge his own identity as a person. The film demonstrates the power of being able to say “No” to abuse and unwanted advances, and the sheer courage it takes. Not only does it show how the effects of such abuse can persist lifelong, it also addresses the fact that often, sexual abuse occurs at the hands of close family members or acquaintances.
Madhur Bhandarkar is known for his sensationalist take on issues, and his depiction of child trafficking and abuse in “Page 3” is no different. But the film still tackles the fact that such incidents can happen under the veneer of ‘respectability’, by depicting famous figures committing such crimes. Sexual trafficking of children is a serious, difficult to tackle problem, and an attempt to draw attention to it in a sensitive manner in a medium that can reach millions is more than welcome – it’s necessary.
In this strange and intermittently powerful Imtiaz Ali film about Stockholm syndrome, a kidnapper (played by Randeep Hooda) and his hostage (played by Alia Bhatt) bond over similar histories of child abuse – sexual and physical – at the hands of close family figures. The film leads to a moving denouement where the female protagonist confronts her abuser. It scores in showing how trauma operates in subtle, long-lasting ways, and how emotional support can provide strength to survivors and help them confront both, their abusers and their trauma. It also explores how such abuse cuts across class boundaries – the kidnapper comes from an entirely different social strata than the hostage, and his experience of abuse is informed by destitution and violence, while the hostage is unable to come to terms with how a seemingly reliable and respectable family figure abused her, and how she never found support from her family.
Mira Nair’s musical, colourful extravaganza uses the idioms of Bollywood filmmaking, like reliance on melodrama and emotions, in a very interesting way. It is ostensibly about a family preparing for their daughter’s big fat Indian wedding, but ends with a revelation about how a trusted family member (played by Rajat Kapoor) sexually abused one of the principal female characters (played by Shefali Shah) when she was a child. It is depressingly realistic in its depictions of predatory behaviour, and also of the dynamics of how the typical Indian joint family reacts to such news – from outright disbelief to dismissing it as a ‘little thing’. However, the film’s portrayal of the survivor’s uncle staunchly standing by her and taking action against the abuser, are important indicators of how a family can and should support a survivor, to help them find the strength to move on.
This tribute to ’70s Bollywood had high ambitions, with a story spanning the trials of refugees in Kolkata following the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War and the Kolkata underworld. But perhaps the most notable, if slight, scene in the film is when a police officer takes advantage of two young refugees (who would eventually grow up to be the eponymous outlaws of the film) and sexually exploits one of them. The scene is handled sensitively, and brings to light how easy it is in India for people in positions of power to exploit those they are supposed to protect (a very important factor when it comes to child abuse). It is also worth noting here that Section 9 of POCSO, which deals with aggravated assault, details the harshest punishment for custodians or caretakers – police officers, army personnel, doctors, public servants, etc. – who sexually exploit children: up to 10 years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.
Sujoy Ghosh’s 2016 sequel to his 2012 thriller hinted that it would deal with child sexual abuse in its trailers, but what surprised many when the film was released was how crucial the issue was to the plot. The film’s direct approach to several aspects of child sexual abuse is, in many ways, unprecedented in mainstream Bollywood cinema. From the difficulty children may face in articulating the abuse they have experienced, being barred from accessing the language of sex, sexuality, and violence that would allow them to express it, to the fact that such abuse often occurs within the family and is either hushed up or silently encouraged by other members of the family in an attempt to maintain a facade of respectability, “Kahaani 2” attempts to give a serious, rounded view of a pressing issue in the garb of a thriller; and while it may be guilty of sometimes reducing the child’s trauma to a plot device and not giving her enough agency, it is still an important film.
With Bollywood’s focus on the family as a unit, it is no surprise that many of these films focus on abuse at the hands of a family member/friend, and how families deal with the same. Survivor accounts abound that show how often families react by covering up the incident – even though that is a crime under POCSO – and how societal repression ensures that families are reluctant to confront or come to terms with it, regardless of the long-term effects on the survivor.
While these films have each attempted to tackle child sexual abuse in their own ways, with varying degrees of success and sensitivity, the one point that they all make is the necessity of breaking this silence surrounding this grave issue. It is crucial that we follow their lead – beginning from our own homes.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at email@example.com. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.