‘Thappad’ and ‘Bulbbul’: Portrayal of domestic violence in films sees a major shift 

Both ‘Thappad’ and ‘Bulbbul’ not only highlight how domestic violence is perceived in our society, they also show women standing up for themselves, in their own way

Representative Image 
Representative Image
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Smita Singh

The scene where Indraneel beats up Bulbbul in a film by the same name currently streaming on Netflix is crucial to the story. I winced while watching the scene which depicts cruelty a husband can inflict upon his wife. Most might argue it’s just a story or it’s just a movie. But don’t literature and films mirror our society? I believe they do. What goes on behind closed doors in the name of family honour or entitlement by men, whether its domestic violence or marital rape remains mostly hidden. And then along come films like Bulbbul, Thappad or Hamari Adhuri Kahani and shake us, force us to have a conversation.

Bulbbul has been making the right noise, whether it’s about the feminist angle of the film or about child marriage or men’s entitlement within a marriage and family. It’s important to mention here that a spike in domestic violence has been reported worldwide during COVID-19 lockdown as couples who were already in an abusive relationship were forced to live within confined spaces.

Reasons for domestic abuse

The foremost reason for domestic violence or abuse may start when one partner feels the need to control and dominate the other. The perpetrators of this kind of abuse may feel this need to control their partner because of low self-esteem, extreme jealousy, difficulties in regulating anger and other strong emotions. They might even feel inferior to the other partner in education and socio-economic background.

Some spouses, mostly the husbands, who hold very traditional beliefs, may think they have the right to control their wives, and that women aren’t equal to men. In the case of Bulbbul (Tripti Dimri), it was both extreme jealousy and traditional belief. Children especially boys pick up this behaviour from growing up in a household where domestic violence is accepted as a normal. Here, I am reminded of a scene from the film Axone, a girl from the north-eastern part of India has an argument with a youngman while buying vegetables; he slaps her to stop her. Later, they again come face-to-face, this time he is with his parents and wife. The girl again confronts him and asks why he slapped her. His father wants to end the confrontation but his mother keeps accusing her, the father slaps his mother. To this, the north-eastern girl says, “I think he learnt this from you.” This was a profound message.

Abuses and the forms they take

If a partner ignores the other’s feelings, or ridicules or insults the other as a group or ridicules or insults valued beliefs, religion, heritage, or class then this can be termed as emotional abuse. Also, withholding approval, appreciation, or affection as punishment, humiliating partners in private or public and regularly threatening to leave or told to leave also come under this type of abuse. I remember the film Thappad here. Amrita (Tapsee Pannu) wants to end her marriage because of a single slap by her husband.

When this film released there were many opinions floating around, one being - a single slap cannot be the reason for a divorce. But I see it differently; Amrita could not take the humiliation of being slapped publically in the midst of a party in her home. Also, she woke up to that fact that her husband was capable of physical violence with that one slap. That changed the equation.

Only a wife or partner will know when she is being emotionally abused while in the case of physical abuse it easily detected because there are physical evidences. Like in the case of Bulbbul, she was physically abused by her husband Indraneel (Rahul Bose) which leaves her scarred for life. There is also a mention of a man in the film who beat up his wife so bad that her bones were broken. This same man was allegedly killed by the chudail.

While in the film Hamari Adhuri Kahani the father of Vasudha (Vidya Balan) is a wife-beater. So, she grows up with the view that pati parmeshwar are meant to be like this and so accepts all forms of abuse by her husband Hari (Rajkummar Rao).

Another very scarring form of domestic violence is sexual abuse. When the partner forces the other to participate in any form of unwanted sexual activity with him or uses a sexual derogatory name are only some forms of sexual abuse. The list of this kind of abuse is endless let me tell you. Here, I would like to mention the film Praan Jaye Par Shaan Na Jaye and the characters played by Sayaji Shinde and Shweta Menon. They are not the lead characters of the film but portray sexual abuse within a marriage very well.

Last but not the least - financial abuse, this often goes unnoticed but is a very common form of domestic violence where the abused feels caged. It occurs when one partner tries to control the financial independence and freedom of the other partner.

The bottom line

After watching Thappad, what haunted me was the fact that Amrita’s mother and mom-in-law kept asking her to forget about it and to get on with her life. This is what happens in our society. Women, especially of the older generation tend to pacify such behaviour which reflects the normalisation and internalisation of domestic violence or intimate partner abuse in our society.

We might hear of it in our families or friend circle but we choose to ignore it saying that the matter is strictly between the couple. It was heartening to see Amrita getting support from her would-be sister-in-law. Thappad and Bulbbul are two important films of our times primarily because they strongly convey that women have to stand up for themselves. Of course there are hurts, sadness and anxiety when a relationship breaks, but far more than a hollow relationship, it’s important to be treated equally and not as some possession.

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