NO… No means no. A syllable that is a whole, irrefutable sentence. Pink reminds us of this basic truth, without holding back punches and with assured cinematic finesse. A familiar phrase gains weight and contemporary resonance in Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone. The pause after the first No leaves the court, his client and the judge bewildered when he has to make his closing argument for a girl accused of many crimes clumped together – assault resulting in grievous injury, blackmail and prostitution (I don’t remember the precise sections, but that is the sum of the charges). Then comes the reiteration that clinches the case. When a woman – be it a recently met acquaintance who might signal availability to a feudal mind because of her dress and demeanour, a girlfriend, a sex worker or even a wife – says no to sex, it means and stays a decisive no. Bachchan’s precise eloquence highlights this point without evasion or ambiguity. The argument is passionate and rational. It gives clarity to a flawless film that is made at thriller pace, with suspense and emotional engagement in perfect sync.
Stills from Pink
Delhi, our benighted rape capital, is portrayed with nuanced perfection by a filmmaker known for his Bengali films. Each character is clearly drawn, and grey areas of behavior are not smudged – Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s film is perfectly attuned to contemporary urban reality.Pink portrays the life and attitude of the modern Indian working girl, forever under the judgmental eye of a dyed-to-the-deep core patriarchy that suffocates her with its toxic air. Three flatmates in a typical Delhi gated colony are a microcosm of India working in the capital. Minal Arora (Tapsee Pannu) moves out of the parental house in Karol Bagh to pursue her career in an event management company, because of irregular hours. Falak Ali (Kirti Kulhari), a demure Lucknavi girl who works in the corporate world, breaks down in the witness box when the out-to-fix-the-girls misogynist digs up her liaison with an older, married man. Andrea (Andrea Tariang), the petite girl from the North East, represents the racist and sexual harassment women from the region face. They are normal working girls and the way they dress (piercings and tattoos), their sexual history and irregular hours should not concern anyone. But the censorious world around them is quick to brand them sluttish, the moment cops come in to take Minal away on a trumped up charge of soliciting and blackmail. It is only their kindly landlord who will stand by them and not succumb to threats over the phone.
The director cleverly posts background chatter when the initial credits come on, in male and female voices, and then come the cuts between frightened girls coming home in a cab and a trio of young men, with one of them bleeding from a cut above the eye. You know something momentous happened, but Roy Chowdhury withholds full information to build up suspense. What you see is how the girls are trying hard to gain normalcy, while the guys are hatching vengeance to implicate Minal. Rajveer (Angad Bedi breathing entitled, menacing machismo), the wounded molester, has high political connections and thus can manipulate things at the Surajkund police station. The scenes here are chillingly brutal, in the matter of fact way they imply insults and threats. Minal is accompanied by a colleague when she goes to lodge a complaint. The impassive cop tells the colleague “This will get you nowhere and you seem more “experienced”, so better dissuade your friend.” The way he says Madamji makes your skin crawl, with its implicit insulting tone. It is through these spot on details and perfect casting of even minor characters, the precise editing (Bodhaditya Banerji) and atmospheric cinematography (Avik Mukhopadhyay) that Pink matches film craft with brilliant content. Ritesh Shah wrote the screenplay, along with producer Shoojit Sircar and Chowdhury.
And what content! We finally have the Indian equivalent of Accused, the 1988 Jonathan Kaplan classic that tells you that no matter how short a woman’s skirt, or how many drinks she has, it does not give a bunch of horny men the right to gang rape her. Blaming the victim is the way a sick society explains, if not condones, men’s violence against women. Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance nailed the patriarchal excuse. Pink subverts the girly connotations of the colour and exposes that a modern girl may lose her virginity to her boyfriend freely and willingly, but that does not make her available to any crude hoodlum who reads her friendliness as compliance. Bachchan’s calibrated rhetoric – dripping with sarcasm and righteous anger – exposes our double standards when it comes to sexuality. That is the reason why his character of Deepak Sehgal, the broody bipolar lawyer who quit, comes back to the courts and subjects Minal to what looks like cross-examination by her own defending lawyer. The purpose is to establish once and for all the difference between consensual sex and molestation by a man who will not understand a firm no.
Taapsee Pannu and Amitabh Bachchan in Pink
That is why Pink is so radical, because so far in our film history, a woman is pitied as a rape victim who unconsciously brought it on herself. It is a given that she is a virgin with no sexual desire or experience. Just go back to Insaf Ka Tarazu, which won a Filmfare award for best dialogue, along with a clutch of nominations (including best film and director for B.R.Chopra). I still cringe with horrified shame when I remember the applause in a theatre when the prosecutor, played by Shriram Lagoo, savages the rape victim Bharti (Zeenat Aman), branding her unfit to bear the sacred name. Based on the Hollywood hit Lipstick, Chopra distorted the film, in the name of Indianisation, to blame the rape victim for inciting her lovelorn suitor Ramesh (Raj Babbar). Bharti’s fault lies precisely in the fact that she is westernised in her dress, pursues a dicey career like modelling and, the worst sin of all, lives alone without parental supervision. The first half of the film manipulates us into seeing Ramesh as a man in love that we must sympathise with. He is overcome by uncontrolled lust and justifiable anger when she spurns him. She is engaged to a man who turns out to be without a backbone. The rape scene is pretty graphic for its time – I recall Zeenat Aman’s ankles being tied up and I can’t bring myself to watch it again to verify the details, so repulsed was I (and remain to this day). By the time the heroine takes revenge when the repeat offender tries to molest her kid sister, irreparable damage has been done. Bharti is anointed with sindoor by the parents of her spineless fiancé (older Indians conveniently carry it around with them for symbolic redemption, apparently) after they had rejected the rape victim as bahu. In the hyper theatrical world of B.R.Chopra films, both rejection and acceptance have to be loud, not to mention the symbolism.
The other trope is to raise the rape victim turned avenger into a Devi. Smita Patil played one such divine avenger in the Salim Khan-scripted Angaarey (1986). Aarti, daughter of a martyred army hero, is raped by her leering boss and rejected by her would-be in-laws and society in general. There is no kid sister, but a kid brother dies in this melodrama which tries to be muted and milks Smita Patil’s image of art house icon. When Aarti snatches the rifle from a pious Muslim watchman (for the secular touch) and spectacularly shoots down the villain, she is in a red sari and temple bells clang to cheer her on. She is a divine executioner now, not a normal woman. Rarely, there is a Dahan from Rituparno Ghosh, where a sheltered, middle-class woman is molested by goons before her husband. She internalises her trauma and thinks herself unworthy, while a feisty young schoolteacher wages a battle on the victim’s behalf in public, unmindful of threats to her job, safety and relationship with her aggrieved fiancé. It was a complex story told sensitively, with an understanding of the social and psychological factors that shape the personalities of two women who don’t even meet each other, let alone be friends.
Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Damini was again an exception, where Meenakshi Seshadri goes against her rich in-laws to bring justice to a maid who has been raped by her drunken brother-in-law. It is not often that you have a woman fight for a cause when neither she nor a close family member has been the wronged person. It is for a wider cause, for a fellow woman who is disempowered. And for this, she is shut up in a mental hospital as an unstable woman, until Sunny Deol, as the alcoholic lawyer, comes to her help and declaims those famous lines about our courts being addicted to adjournments: tareekh pe tareekh. Despite the excessive melodrama and the heroine clutching on to a figurine of Devi for sustenance and inspiration, Damini was a notable departure.
Stills from Damini
In the arid wasteland that has been our mainstream cinema for the way it deals with women’s sexuality and their right to be free from unwanted molestation, the double standards so routinely applied to men and women, Pink is cause for celebration. It tells the shameful truth about us and our norms as they are. It is empowerment without sloganeering or spouting feminism that has cried itself hoarse all these decades about the basic equality women demand and deserve – and are so often denied.