Nisha Pontathil’s Maunam Pesumpothu (Breaking the Silence) is one of the many films that emerged from the coruscating moment of December 16, 2012 in Delhi. It is born from anger and rage and, as a consequence has both great strengths and terrible weaknesses.
In terms of form, the film is not very creative. Like most documentaries in India, it is mainly talking heads, has a linear narrative and a certain developmental telos. Given the subject matter of the film, which is violence against women, this has some deeply troubling ethical consequences. Throughout, the viewer is subjected to narratives that are very uncomfortable in that they border on the voyeuristic and the exhibitionist. Women show us bruises on their bodies, they describe in graphic detail the rapes they suffered.
This is one of the abiding problems that the women’s movement has not addressed. There is a politics of exploitation and possible voyeurism to the representation of violence against women, no matter how noble the intention. Maunam Pesumpothu would have been a great opportunity to explore this but it settles instead for what it presumes is the bald and naked truth of the violence against women. The camera stays frontal and the vision is journalistic veritas.
The film, as a whole, is fuelled by righteous rage. Rage has been one of the most productive fuelling inspirations for women but it also has destructive effects. As images of violence pile up one upon the other, the film gets suffocatingly caught in the binary between victimised women and victimiser men. In this binary battering, all nuance is lost. A feminist activist locates the family as the locus of all the problems. It is lost. A veteran journalist from Chennai speaks of men and the need for them to engage with the women’s movement. It is lost too.
As the film travels the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, covering different forms of violence against women, we are left with a sense of an opportunity lost. Most issues are in the film: caste, institutional violence, family violence, custodial violence, domestic violence, sexual violence. Bu none of them are actually teased out in ways that make us think about how to deal with them.
Nisha Pontathil, the debutant director, who is broadening the film into a nation-wide canvas needs to re-think the form and content of it in serious ways. At a recent screening of the film at The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM), Tamil Nadu’s TISS campus in scenic Kovalam off the ECR, Pontathil spoke with great passion about what turned her into a film-maker. Pontathil has been of late doing superb coverage of South India in the dying Tehelka magazine. But there were also many problems in what she said. From blaming women for not lodging complaints to focusing only on young people to bring in change which is a form of ageism, Pontathil needs to re-think her politics too. The young MA students asked her difficult questions even as they were deeply and affectively moved by the film.
One of the big issues that came up in the discussion was that of complicity. Narratives of breaking the silence (the title of the film) presume there is a simple equation of women’s oppression, silence and the need to break that silence. The situation is, of course, much more complex. Women are often complicit with the violence against them, some women are complicit with the violence against other women, men are not only victimisers, they are in complicated ways victims too and alienating them by straitjacketing them into the victimizer category inhibits change and perpetuates violence.
There is a need to start a conversation on violence against women or men. Pontathil, it is hoped, will make of this film in her expanded version, the first step in that direction.