Last month, I had gone to see a play called Oedipus, written by Pali Bhupinder Singh. Till the morning of the play I had been under the impression that it would be about the my boy Oedipus Rex, but I decided to Google it a few hours before the show and found out it was more of a modern recreation, or adaptation rather. Oh well, it was just 1 rupee, and I figured it would still be enjoyable.
Well, the play is about a woman who, long story short, has been abused her whole life and wants to die at the hands of a boy she had seen grown up since he was little, as he has turned into an aspiring murderer due to the death of his mother in some riots. To cut to the chase, the climax of the play involves a great deal of bright lighting and music that reaches a crescendo as the culmination of the play unfurls before us… the man drags the heroine to the back to be raped.
I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, seeing as shocking scenes seem to be necessity these days, but I remember not clapping or hooting, while almost everyone in the rest of the audience did the same. Looking back, it was a strange feeling to be sitting amongst the sound of cheers and whistles and a crescendo of music and lights while a woman is beaten, thrown around, and raped – but this kind of treatment of shocking scenes is completely normal, and I was used to it.
After a long discussion of the same play with one of my teachers who had come along to see the play, I realised just how disturbingly normalised this kind of sensationalism of negative events which should never be condoned was. Of course, it gets an audience to cheer and hoot, so what’s the harm, right?
The harm does happen, however.
I haven’t watched the recent controversial Bollywood release Padmaavat, and I truly cannot be bothered with the accusations of distortion of history being pelted at the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but actress Swara Bhaskar’s open letter to him is eye-opening to mainstream sensationalism. Quoting from her letter, “I understand that Jauhar and Sati are a part of our social history. These happened. I understand that they are sensational, shocking dramatic occurrences that lend themselves to splendid, stark and stunning visual representation; especially in the hands of a consummate maker like yourself — but then so were the lynchings of blacks by murderous white mobs in the 19th century in the US – sensational, shocking dramatic social occurrences. Does that mean one should make a film about it with no perspective on racism? Or, without a comment on racial hatred? Worse, should one make a film glorifying lynchings as a sign of some warped notion of hot-bloodedness, purity, bravery – I don’t know, I have no idea how possibly one could glorify such a heinous hate crime.”
Sensationalism does lead to glorification, especially when it is done in splendid colours and with the accompaniment of skilful music, and solely for the shock value it provides a creative work. The message to artists is clear: If you include scenes depicting abuse, rape, women voluntarily burning themselves, and do not bother to include something that critics these practices in the same work, you should not glorify them by making them look admirable. There is a way to depict such scenes, and it is not to keep the goal of hooting and cheering audiences and theatres in mind.
The paradox being: if you do not include shocking elements in pieces of art like films, plays, or anything else for that matter, how are you going to impact an audience? Well, I’m sure if such events are not depicted in a way as to entice people into clapping for them, they would have an impact which would be a lot more desirable, and not just overwhelm people’s senses to the point of admiration of such scenes, especially in a country like India where many still can’t fathom the idea of treating women like human beings.