Many mainstream media platforms have been quick to pan the recently released Hindi courtroom drama Section 375 as being misogynistic and injudicious. Most of the criticism centres around the apparent sympathy that the makers show for the rape-accused filmmaker, Rahul Khurana and the final post-trial twist, which seems to indisputably establish that he was, after all, falsely accused and unfairly prosecuted.
Section 375 is a movie that tries to portray the problematic grey nature of sexual interactions that occur in seemingly progressive and gender-sensitive social circles. However, it refuses to present a simplistic tale of coercion and abuse. This aspect of the narrative makes the movie a brilliant attempt at pushing the boundaries of discussions on the murky realm of consent and sexual abuse in “modern” spaces.
The junior costume assistant Anjali Dangle’s police complaint accusing Rahul Khurana of rape acquires multiple dimensions of ambiguity when it comes to light that she has been having an affair with the accused. One of the biggest strengths of the movie is the intriguing use of unreliable narration where different versions of the rape are presented, making it difficult for the audience to separate fact from lies and conjecture, as the trial proceeds.
The element of unreliability also enables the movie makers to probe different shades of grey surrounding the rape allegation, without getting confined into boxes of right and wrong. This does not imply that the makers do not take an ethical stance (or take an unethical stance for that matter) on the act of abuse that the story narrates. It is established beyond doubt that the accused filmmaker is a man with an arrogant sense of entitlement and has scant respect for his female subordinates. He is shown as a habitual sexual predator who baits the young and vulnerable woman into conceding to have an unequal sexual relationship with him, humiliating and discarding her when she appears to overstep the boundaries he has set for her.
The plaintiff’s lawyer Hiral Mehta, convincingly argues that indirectly coercing a female subordinate to sleep with oneself is tantamount to rape. In this context, it is strongly implied that at the time of the alleged assault, the absence of physical violence or explicit lack of consent, is irrelevant, since the nature of sexual interaction between the accused and the victim was manipulative and exploitative, to begin with.
The movie admirably attempts to nuance the popular perception of sexual abuse by eschewing a narrative of unmitigated victimization and focuses on latent, subtle forms of manipulation that can get overlooked in the legal discourse on consent and rape.
By boldly and sensitively portraying the contradictory emotional pulls experienced by the victim, the movie opens up a discussion on the widely varying experience of abuse— that it is possible for the victim to get emotionally attached to the abuser (and vice versa); that the appearance of consent need not necessarily absolve the abuser of the offence. It is only by acknowledging the emotional complexity and complicity that the victim may experience while getting subjected to abuse that we can hope to finetune our legal vocabulary and laws to deliver justice and prevent victim blaming.
By keeping the narrative deliberately ambiguous, the movie abstains from giving clarity regarding the technicalities of the rape incident, a narratorial device which helps maintain the focus on the abuse of power by men in positions of privilege. According to many a critic, the movie’s unacceptable hubris lies in the climax where Anjali cryptically reveals to her lawyer that it wasn’t rape, but it was also nothing less than rape (a detail omitted in many reviews of the movie).
The tone set and sustained throughout the movie makes it difficult for the viewer to jump to the conclusion that it is unarguably a movie about the misuse of the anti-rape law. In a movie that makes it clear at the outset that the business of law is very different from the business of justice, the twist, in the end, can be seen as a masterstroke where the victim gets her justice despite an imperfect legal system that is ill-equipped to accommodate the multifarious present-day realities of consent in the context of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, while trying to present a rape trial in all its complexity, the movie succumbs to the risk of being misunderstood by viewers across the spectrum of opinion, prematurely shutting down a layered discussion on the dynamics of consent that the movie engages with.