In 2012 a young woman was gang-raped while travelling on a private bus in Delhi and her friend was beaten. All the six men on the bus, including the driver were involved in the rape and beatings. The incident and the trial that followed created a media storm in India and internationally. The Incessant Fear of Rape is the second film from the team that made Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017), a film which was much admired when it was shown at festivals in the UK in 2018. It dealt with sex workers who set up a female co-operative as a protection against abuse and exploitation. The new film, again written and directed by Aditya Kripalani and co-produced by Sweta Chhabria, is not directly about the 2012 gang rape incident but instead explores how a group of women might respond to the constant threat of rape they face travelling in the Delhi region.
It is significant that the narrative is set in Delhi which as a city region has grown extremely quickly to become the ‘National Capital Territory of India’ and the second largest urban area in the world with 26 million residents. It rivals Mumbai as symbolic of the ‘New India’ with the ‘satellite city’ of Gurgaon where the women live and the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. All of this means that many workers find themselves commuting for long periods across the city region. Kripalani’s film sees four women who find themselves in a ‘female only’ taxi struggling to make the journey home one evening when the traffic congestion is particularly bad.
The driver, Shaila (Kritika Pande) is the young owner of a taxi company who finds herself driving tonight but who is soon ousted from the driver’s role by the aggressive police officer Shagun (Sonal Joshi) who claims she knows a better route. In the back are Vibha (Shalini Vatsa), employed as a ‘social media consultant’, and Chitra (Chitrangada Chakraborty) who teaches martial arts classes for women. With her closely cropped hair, it took me a while to recognise this lead player from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb. The women don’t know each other but they are soon chatting about, among other things, forms of feminism, and when they decide to stop at a roadside bar/café because the traffic is so bad, Shagun tells the others about her first encounter with a violent man in her police work. At their outdoor table a man in leathers on a motorbike leers at Chitra and makes a nuisance of himself around the four women. Later, the women find themselves on a lonely road where the same man (played by Vinay Sharma) re-appears, riding close to them and shouting. Chitra loses her temper and manages to knock him off his bike. Soon the four women have a ‘captive’. What will they do with him?
The women have already discussed the fear of rape and how men don’t understand what rape means and what it means to be fearful on the streets at night – or in buses and taxis. They quickly determine to teach this man a lesson. Shagun knows about some empty premises and they lock him up in a metal cabinet. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative pleasures about how the plot develops but I do want to discuss ideas about genre and narrative structure. There are four women in the car who don’t know each other and who each respond differently to the situation. We learn most about Vibha. She is introduced at the beginning of the film arriving for work on a Metro train. In a clever title sequence we see her framed under signage indicating the ‘Women Only’ carriage on the train and later aggressively smoking two cigarettes as she looks out over the city. On the soundtrack is a rock song with some English lyrics I couldn’t quite work out but they relate in some way to the narrative. Vibha recognises something in Chitra’s behaviour and invites her home after they have locked up the man. We will learn about Vibha’s back story in some detail and later we will learn about Chitra too. (Vibha’s story is told in flashback introduced in an elliptical way). Only Shaila will remain without a back story. Her role, in generic terms, is to be the one who has to be ‘taught’ and convinced that what the other three women plan to do is thought out and ‘justified’ as a response to male violence. In a way she stands in for us, the audience.
Once the man is locked up, the generic elements of a different kind of film come to the fore. Now we have a prisoner and four potential gaolers. I was impressed by the script at this point and the way that a certain kind of ‘training programme’ was developed. Although I haven’t watched any examples, I remember the cycle of ‘torture porn’ horror films such as the Saw films and I wondered if the women would inflict increasing forms of physical pain on the man. But their plans are more sophisticated and involve breaking him down psychologically. To some extent this draws on ideas about BDSM. Rape is about power rather than sexual drive and the women want the man to understand this so they use humiliation and link it to gender roles. They discuss how men in India still think of women only in three ways: women must ‘dress to look hot’, ‘cook well’ and ‘be fuckable’. (I think the film’s Hindi title refers to this sexist language.) This might well apply to male ideas everywhere but India does seem particularly mired in this form of sexism. The recent film Article 15 (2019) focused on sexual violence in rural Uttar Pradesh and linked it casteism, but The Incessant Fear of Rape takes place in the National Capital Territory and involves the ‘New Women’ of India. The women want to ‘break’ their captive and to publicise the lesson they are giving. I won’t give away the ending which is in some ways shocking, but on reflection makes some sense after I read about the Delhi bus gang rape in 2012. The Incessant Fear of Rape is a disturbing narrative – as it should be. The women’s fear is understandable but their actions might be considered excessive in relation to what the man did and they conjure up ideas about vigilantism and revenge which aren’t lawful. What do we make of the moral questions about their actions alongside our thoughts about the social evils of rape?
I did the film disturbing to watch but it certainly made me think about rape in new ways and overall I thought it was an example of how a different kind of ‘social’ film could expose the issue and engage an audience. But how is it as a ‘film’? It’s low budget and classifiable as an ‘Indian Independent’. I don’t think the film has been released to cinemas in India but it is available on Netflix and that’s how I accessed it in the UK. Since I don’t have a Netflix account I had to watch it at a friend’s house. One weakness in the film, which may have been attributable to how the Netflix signal was received, was the poor sound quality. I had difficulty hearing the English dialogue used by some of the women and the music didn’t come across well, especially the bass notes in the guitar track which ran through several sequences. Aditi Sharma’s camerawork, following on from Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, uses mainly ‘available light’ and works to represent the harsh environments. The empty print shop is sometimes bathed in different single colours. The mise en scène of Vibha’s apartment offers us artworks, a shelf of books and film posters. I recognised a poster for Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), a parallel film starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Vibha is cine-literate and Aditya Kripalani was an FTII graduate. He is also a novelist and the eclectic selection of popular fiction and biographies on Vibha’s shelves made me think about where my images of Gurgaon and ‘New India’ came from and I think they are literary, for instance from Chetan Baghat or Aravind Adiga novels. Chitra’s apartment has another display of artworks and the lives of all four women are quickly sketched out in a series of montages.
The Incessant Fear of Rape is a raw, vital film about a serious issue in the ‘New India’. It deserves a wide audience and a thorough discussion of its ideas.
It’s great to be able to comment on this Oscar-winning short film that has received two screenings on BBC1 over Easter and is currently on iPlayer (UK only?). Overseas it also seems to be available via Amazon and iTunes. The film gained an international promotional platform with its Oscar win as Best Live Action Short a few weeks ago.
The Silent Child is a 20 minute short presenting the story of Libby (played by the deaf actor Maisie Sly), a pre-school child who is profoundly deaf and who seems withdrawn and miserable living in a busy and middle-class household in an isolated house in rural England. In a last attempt to do something for Libby before she faces the daunting experience of starting school without the ability to communicate with other children (or her teachers), her mother Sue hires Joanne as a one-to-one tutor. When both parents and their teenage son and daughter go off to work, Joanne, played by the film’s writer Rachel Shenton, sets to make contact with Libby and gradually over the next few days and weeks teaches her the basics of BSL (British Sign Language). Libby’s world and her outlook on it is changed dramatically. But as the school start date draws near, Joanne learns that Sue has decided to stop the tuition. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative but by this stage many audiences will be in tears and shouting at the screen in frustration. The film ends with some on-screen text that presents the film’s underlying argument in five short statements.
For me, this film works very well in presenting its argument in the form of a beautifully-made narrative. The performances are very good and Maisie Sly is phenomenal. I was intrigued to look at the IMDb entry. It hadn’t occurred to me that all the nominated shorts would be reviewed before the Oscars. Some clearly gave the film no chance because the other ‘issues’ struck them as more gripping for (US?) audiences. Some objected to seeing a PSA (public service announcement) film there at all and trotted out the common prejudice about being ‘preached at’. The ‘User comments’ on the other hand are often from viewers who have experienced the issue themselves as parents, teachers or as deaf people. Many give the film 9/10 or 10/10.
I’ve written before about short films and the difficulties that the format creates for writers and directors. There is little point reviewing a 20 minute film as if it was simply a shorter version of a feature film. There isn’t the ‘narrative time’ to introduce and develop characters nor the kind of budget to create the ‘narrative space’ in which to set an expansive story. Instead, filmmakers have to think carefully about what kind of narrative they can create and how to make a strong impact given the constraints. The team which made this film are not very experienced as feature filmmakers, though for young ‘creatives’ they have extensive experience of television series as actors. Rachel Shenton experienced her father’s rapid onset of deafness and she has become a signer and an activist in the deaf community. Her partner Craig Overton is a first-time director. I was impressed by the CinemaScope cinematography by Ali Farahani, who also has limited feature film experience but a strong background in a diverse range of other film productions. The Silent Child is actually quite complex in terms of the ‘narrative data’ it offers audiences and the presentation of the narrative is in one sense quite conventional but makes good use of familiar visual language and symbolism. This may be dismissed as ‘melodrama’ by some, especially in the closing scenes in which music, cinematography and mise en scène combine to ‘express’ the isolation that Libby experiences. It worked very well for me.
The film was shot in winter in rural Staffordshire and the long-shot cinematography makes excellent use of mists/fog, the bare spiky trees and wet country roads. It would be a different film made in summer. The rural location is important – there are no other children of Libby’s age to play with close by. Small rural primary schools might be less stressful in some ways but are also less likely to have the funds to support deaf children and may need to mix children of different ages to make reasonable class sizes. Children start formal school, i.e. not nursery school, early in the UK. In England most children will enter school at the start of the term before they become 5 and join a reception class.
The family in the film is middle-class and this too is important. Middle-class parents might be expected to be more concerned about educational opportunities and to have the wealth and the social status/ work experience which helps them to argue for support of their children. The script of The Silent Child suggests that Libby’s family has its own internal frictions that perhaps negates some of these advantages. One aspect I did like was that the teenage son who develops a crush on Joanne also learns some sign language. I thought this was done with some subtlety. In some ways the film is also about Joanne. Shenton hasn’t given her own character any real identifying features except that she is energetic, cheerful, personable and has both the knowledge and skills to be a successful teacher. I notice some reviewers (and the film’s official website) refer to her as a social worker or a ‘carer’, neither of which are supported by what happens in the film. Is she self-employed? Does she work for a charity or a publicly-funded service? Either way she could be helpful in negotiating with the primary school.
As someone working with students and public audiences in cinemas I’ve experienced being asked to work with signers and to be aware of lip readers and hearing loop systems. I’ve always been glad to do so but I remember from my schooling how little we learned (it was a long time ago!) about deafness and how poorly deaf students were supported. The Silent Child has two specific devices to bring home to audiences what it might mean to have hearing loss. At one point during a busy, noisy scene the sound is turned off almost completely – just a few seemingly distant bumps of sound as Libby is cut out of the conversation. The other device is to subtitle Libby’s own signing in yellow to distinguish it from all the other dialogue in the film which is subtitled in white. Most audiences will react to the first time we see Libby try out her new skill. If you haven’t seen the film yet, give it a go. And perhaps watch it a few times? It’s a rich text. Here’s the trailer: