Cinema, in its quest to describe real-world phenomena, often ends up glorifying the phenomena it may seek to ‘objectively’ portray. The makers of Bollywood’s 2019 Kabir Singh, stated that they were depicting a reality that they had witnessed around them: men slap women.
Their portrayal of this slap, however, is accompanied by a bizarre and continuous glorification of the man who does the slapping. For the makers of Kabir Singh, this “occasional slap” was an expression of love. Love knows no logic is what the viewers are required to believe. But surely, love must know respect?
In contrast to this glorification, the 2020 film Thappad attempts to reverse this portrayal of abuse.
“Just a slap, par nahi mar sakta,” Thappad’s protagonist tells us.
This reverse in portrayal is important to evaluate. What is the picture of intimate partner abuse that Thappad furthers? What are the specific legal issues that the film flags and how do the filmmakers address these issues?
Power and abuse
The essence of Thappad is not ‘just’ the slap as its title suggests, but rather the structural entitlement enjoyed predominantly by men in intimate relationships. The film is a journey, exploring that sense of entitlement and questioning societal forces that allow it to seep into intimate relationships, to the extent that it takes an act of physical abuse to recognise years of disrespect, insensitivity and neglect.
From the first few scenes of the film, it is clear that the shared life of the protagonist, Amrita, and her husband, Vikram, only has room for his dreams, ambitions and career. The individual lives of the women in the house are focused on ensuring that Vikram receives exactly what he needs. The structural patriarchal division of labour is reproduced where the work done by the man is ‘labour’, whereas the work done by women of the house is their ‘duty’.
What changes the status-quo is a single thappad. Inflicted in full view of their families and friends after Vikram loses his temper over a promotion he did not get, it is this slap which awakens the Amrita from the life she had settled into. In the aftermath of the incident, Vikram makes feeble attempts, rooted in an immense sense of self-victimisation, to justify his behaviour to the Amrita.
What he does not do is sincerely apologise to her.
The protagonist’s decision to leave the marital home is met with varied responses by different characters in the film, each influenced by their social conditioning. A legal battle fraught with complicated and ugly questions ensues. Her husband’s sense of entitlement, through the back and forth in drafting a settlement, is writ large wherein he continues to believe that it is he who has been wronged because Amrita chose to blow “just one slap” out of proportion.
The protagonist is portrayed not just through her steadfast determination to leave the marriage, but also through her vulnerabilities, hesitation and self-doubt.
In an important scene, she tells her lawyer that perhaps she “made herself the sort of woman who could be slapped”.
This reminds viewers that women are conditioned to search for roots of abuse in their own conduct. Articulations such as “did I ask for it”, “could I have stopped it” are unfortunately relatable to most women.
The law is an important lens through which this film can be seen. The filmmakers have highlighted the constructed ideal of happiness that women are required to abide by – a heterosexual marriage, children. In this context, we must ask – what does the law do when this ideal breaks down?
The film has parallel storylines that span the lives of women who come from different social locations. In mapping their trajectories, the film calls attention to various forms of gender-based violence and the legal response to these issues.
Issues of marital rape – which is still not a crime in India – and the restitution of conjugal rights are flagged. The focus of the film, however, is on the act of a husband slapping his wife, an act of intimate partner abuse, or domestic violence, as it is more often called.
The world of the law is rightly portrayed as fundamentally inadequate; it cannot help Amrita in the ways she needs it to.
In the beginning, she is clearly told by her lawyer that if the matter is contested in court, her case would not be strong enough to successfully withstand trial. A trial in a legal system where women’s testimonies are routinely disregarded and they are often accused of filing ‘false cases’. These are important observations that call attention to the way in which legal systems further oppress women who have survived domestic abuse – a process referred to as ‘secondary victimisation’.
In India, a divorce can take place either through mutual consent by both parties or by one party proving ‘fault’ (under the legally provided fault grounds). The judiciary, which is over-burdened with an overwhelming case-load, is unable to adjudicate contested divorce cases within a short – or even reasonable – time frame. The process of trial itself is emotionally distressing as the most intimate details of the litigants’ lives are laid bare, in the form of pleadings and evidence, for scrutiny by courts.
The film throws a light on the fact that “sirf ek thappad” is rarely enough in the eyes of the law to leave a marriage. Given that witnesses to this incident could be easily influenced, as they were in the movie, even proving that this singular incident took place is a task fraught with challenges. “You still want to play fair” is what the Amrita’s lawyer asks her.
“Usne mujhe maara, pehli baar. Nahi mar sakta. Bas itni si baat hai aur meri petition bhi itni si hogi,” is the Amrita’s response.
Amrita is clear: her husband is not ‘entitled’ to hit her. Not ‘even’ once.
Unfortunately, in the Indian legal system the contents of her petition would simply not be ‘enough’ to grant relief to her, and women like her, in a contested divorce. Her lawyer, though truly empathetic of her unflinching position, was acutely aware of this reality.
The film arguably furthers the idea that our fault grounds must be liberally interpreted. Women should not have to wait to be abused more than once or be brutally assaulted, to have ‘enough’ material to make a valid case for leaving the marriage.
Deciding cases of abuse within marriages is a challenging task for courts. Every case is different and must be judged on its merits. But there must also be a recognition on parts of courts that they are dealing with relationships seeped in a power imbalance.
Further, what legal institutions must recognise is that an act of physical abuse is rarely actually isolated. It often follows from emotional abuse and denial. Due to patriarchal social conditioning, we are reluctant to categorise certain actions as ‘real abuse’. Then it takes one act of what is traditionally perceived as violence (such as a slap, push or a punch) to make a person realise that they have suffered from other forms of abuse, which may be more subtle in actual visibility than physical abuse but not in form.
There is an urgent need for courts to be sensitive to these forms of abuse instead of being fixated on brutal, violent and prolonged physical violence as the archetype case of abuse. Abuse, within a relationship, can be emotional, sexual, financial and also (but not necessarily) physical in its form. This recognition cannot come from the bare text of law alone, it must also be reflected in a sensitised judicial discourse.
While the film does not delve deep into the issue of maintenance, the filmmakers address it briefly. Amrita is seen telling her lawyer that she does not want to ask for maintenance as a matter of principle. The conversation with her lawyer raises questions about what we consider ‘contribution’ in a marriage and how that is tied to the idea of maintenance.
Feminists have fought long and hard to ensure that courts see that women have a share in their husband’s income, particularly when his income is sustained by the household productive labour undertaken by her. While the protagonist in the film is from an upper-class background who is capable of starting afresh independently, for scores of women who do not come from the upper class and caste backgrounds, maintenance is a necessity to sustain a legal battle and start an independent life.
Thappad navigates deeply complex areas with a rare honesty. Law and justice. Abuse and respect. Rage and love. Even in dealing with these nuances, the film is clear in its core idea: a relationship of care is never abusive. If it becomes abusive, it can no longer retain its claim that it is a space of care.
It is true that expressions of care, passion and love may take various spontaneous forms. But ‘love’ without respect is no love at all.
Devina Malaviya has completed a Master of Law from the University of Cambridge in 2019 and works at National Law University, Delhi and Ira Chadha-Sridhar has completed a Master of Law from the University of Cambridge in 2019 and is currently a senior research associate at Jindal Global Law School.