ENTERTAINMENT
15/03/2020 5:24 PM AEDT

Kiara Advani’s ‘Guilty’ Is Proof That Bollywood Really Didn’t Get #MeToo

The caricaturish characters in 'Guilty' (worsened by superlative bad acting) make a story about assault, also, caricaturish. And that felt pretty wrong.

Screengrab from Netflix
Kiara Advani in a scene from Guilty.

Guilty is desperately tacky. The fast-forward-and-watch kind of tacky. The Bengali Rhodes scholar in Guilty has ‘Ekla Cholo Re’ tattooed on her chest in such giant fonts that who knows, maybe Tagore can spot it from whichever realm he inhabits. The ‘small-town’ girl constantly keeps saying where she is from in sentences her place of birth has no relevance. “I have just come from Dhanbad and I need to wash my clothes right now,” the girl says in one scene, sitting in front of a bucket of clothes, making Dhanbad sound like some kind of a radioactive wasteland. The nerdy men are the ones who bring out morchas and secretly they are infatuated with the ‘cool’ girls who are not interested in them. 

Now being a comical stereotype is hardly Bollywood’s biggest crime, right? If Guilty was about anything except consent and sexual assault, these were easy things to ignore. Since it isn’t, the caricaturish characters (worsened by superlative bad acting) make a story about assault, also, caricaturish. And that felt pretty wrong.

Caricatures, not characters

Bollywood unfailingly veers towards melodrama when dealing with the subject of sexual assault. The woman at the centre of it, almost always, is a ‘good girl’, unwittingly feeding stereotypes about assault and morality. Guilty tries to change that by trying to make the survivor a sexual being like an average woman is. However, the woman’s character, Tanu (played by Akansha Ranjan Kapoor) is written so badly that everything she says and does is an exaggeration and as a result almost comical. She is portrayed as unreally abrasive — she locks herself up in the hostel washroom and washes a pile of clothes while other girls wait in a queue. Then she gets into fights, she shouts at people and it’s ridiculously difficult to see her character as anything apart from a badly written piece of fiction. One of the first few scenes that introduce Tanu shows her playing the character of Lady Macbeth and speaking the lines that pop up as auto suggestion on Google even as you begin to type ‘Macbeth’. She is seen shouting ‘out, out damned spot’, only, it sounds like she is squabbling with a rickshaw driver over change. Kapoor’s dialogue delivery is so off key that it makes Tanu seem even more unreal. 

Nanki, the Bengali Rhodes scholar with icy grey highlights, is played by Kiara Advani who is supposed to be a foil to Tanu. As a result, all she gets to do is look ridiculously sleepy, like you almost expect she’s going to end up yawning while trying to smile. Her anxiety and hallucinations, in real life, would be evidence of someone struggling with mental health issues but the film makes no mention of that. At one point, she is also referred to as ‘troubled’ and immediately her being ‘troubled’ is romanticised — apparently, that is what leads her to write amazing songs. 

And clearly mental health is not the only thing the film doesn’t get.

Screengrab from Netflix
Kiara Advani in a scene from Guilty.

Nope, the film doesn’t get #MeToo

Every time an allegation of sexual assault surfaced on social media, the critics of #MeToo, had one question: where is the evidence? How do we know she was really raped? Why is she saying all this now? Why should we believe her if she has no evidence? Why did she not lodge a police complaint right then? 

With these questions, the critics of #MeToo chose to deliberately ignore and erase the reality of how trauma is experienced and processed by a majority of women. Women argued that survivors often do not report to police, perturbed by the perceived insensitivity of government institutions and the mental, physical, psychological burden of fighting a sexual assault case. The experience is often one of isolation, fear and self loathing. #MeToo, however, provided the robust feeling of solidarity that encouraged many women to come out. It asked us to believe women, not immediately reject their claims because a public sharing of an account of sexual assault comes at great personal cost. The movement amplified conversations about how survivors of abuse are gaslighted, and often silenced. How it is impossible to respond to assault with clinical precision and collect evidence against a man. How the public personas of the assaulters — popular and well-liked — often made it difficult for women to share their ordeal and that ‘evidence’ is often lost in the process of piecing your life back together. 

Guilty, concludes with women empowering each other to talk about trauma but how does that come about? Nanki is only willing to accept that Tanu was raped by her boyfriend VJ, only when she gets cold, hard evidence. Not just evidence, but literally a witness who had watched VJ rape Tanu from the window of the room. Nanki gleefully vilified Tanu throughout the film till she has an inkling that one of their friends may have witnessed what transpired that night. She apologises, but only after her friend, a man she is conditioned to trust, admits that he witnessed the assault. Somehow, Nanki empathises with Tanu only after the survivor points towards undeniable evidence of the assault, it is established that she went to file a complaint but was turned away by the police and that the assaulter used political power to bury the case. 

In fact, in the tweet in which Tanu accuses VJ of rape, she also mentions #evillaughter, which later turns out to be the caller tune of the witness. Therefore, Tanu seemed to have even registered a phone ringing and what it sounded like in the midst of a violent assault. Tanu is a perfect victim. Whereas, #MeToo was about expanding the narrow, prejudiced definition of a sexual assault victim and acknowleding the violence that doesn’t get called out in noise stereotypes make.