The Avenging Woman films: Pratighaat (Retribution, 1987), Kaali Ganga (Black Ganges, 1990), Sherni (Lioness, 1988), and Zakhmi Aurat (Wounded Woman, 1988). The posters make explicit the theme of violent vengeance.


The Bollywood remakes —
victimhood vs. empowerment, and
women who don’t seek vengeance

The Hindi remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy also invoke the figure of the mother, often valorized in male-centered Hindi films, and resignify motherhood as a mother-daughter bond.[8] But for the most part, they translate the Hollywood film into conventions closer to a feminist Bollywood genre: avenging women films. In fact, with its combination of thriller elements and theme of physical and sexual abuse, Sleeping with the Enemy is a diluted version of a rape-revenge film. The paradox at the heart of rape-revenge films as well as Bollywood’s avenging women films is then operative in its remakes as well. The representation of the brutalized female body brings these films close to exploitation films that profit off of the fetishistic and sadistic violence. At the same time, the same scenes represent the reality of abuse, which is a necessary plot motivation for the protagonist’s transformation from victimhood to empowerment.

Gopalan analyzes a body of Hindi rape-revenge films in the late 1980s which have variously been critiqued

  • as films that portray women as “hardened, cynical, vengeful, creatures” (M. Rahman); or
  • as films where the actresses find “dominant and powerful women [that] are a welcome break from stereotypical roles as submissive and dutiful mothers and wives” (N. Chandra); or even
  • as being “hostile to female sexuality” (Maithili Rao); and
  • as “passing themselves off as nothing more than victimization masquerading as female power” (qtd. in Gopalan 43).

Discerning a structure of repetition and intertextual relay between these films, Gopalan argues that they reveal the workings of a genre that she names the “avenging women films” (44). While she admits to the contradiction that the films represent female victims as vigilantes, her preference of the adjective, “avenging” points to the positive connotation of strength and the feminist potential of these characters.

What these films have in common are the following features:

  • the female protagonist who is always a working woman with a strong presence on the screen;
  • absence of strong paternal figures;
  • family settings which appear as happy and normal;
  • rape of the protagonist;
  • plea to the State for justice; and
  • the State’s inability to convict the rapist (Gopalan 44).

This injustice allows for the female victim to carry out her own revenge and become an avenging woman. Therefore, films like Pratighaat (Retribution, 1987), Kaali Ganga (Black Ganges, 1990), Sherni (Lioness, 1988), and Zakhmi Aurat (Wounded Woman, 1988) among others present these female victim-vigilantes who suffer and inflict violence and brutality.

Jyotika Virdi puts these films in line with changes in Hindi cinema’s depictions of femininity in the 1970s and 1980s and discerns in them a response to social attitudes about women. The idealized fallen women victims of early 1970s films (like Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana/Prayer), she argues, gave way in the latter half of the decade to tomboyish female heroines (Jaya Bhaduri in Guddi and Hema Malini in Sholay/Embers) that lacked feminine grace (151). While these women too would revert to proper feminine roles within the plot after getting married, their rebellion anticipates the 1980s female avenger films (Virdi 152). This shift from maternal melodramas to films resembling Hollywood’s rape-revenge films is both a result of the increasing violence in Hindi cinema as well as a response to the protests launched by several women’s groups in India against injustices being perpetrated on women.

While the genre picks up steam in the latter half of the 1980s, Insaf Ka Tarazu (Scales of Justice, 1980) was the first experiment and a response to the grassroots women’s movement, especially to the Mathura rape case that outraged women across the nation.[9] In the film, Bharati (Zeenat Aman), winner of beauty contests and a career woman, is repeatedly raped by a rich admirer, Ramesh (Raj Babbar). The film stages the inadequacy of the state and anti-rape laws in providing justice to her. Her profession as a model is used to indicate her lack of sexual morality and therefore to prove that it wasn’t rape. Moreover, the film shows how the victim suffers another rape not just by the legal system but also by society. She is fired because her association with the company’s products will result in losses. It isn’t until her sister, a stenographer, gets raped by the same man a few years later that she takes a gun and shoots him, and then chooses to defend herself in court. Her defense is a severe critique of the misogynist judicial system. This film is still tame in comparison to later films like Zakhmi Aurat, which presents the gang rape of a policewoman Kiran Dutt with an equally violent castrating revenge scene later.

Zakhmi Aurat: gang-rape of the policewoman ...
... and her revenge.

The revenge then balances out the scopophilic victimization of the raped woman even though, until the revenge happens, rape functions as little more than a substitute for “eroticized violent sex” (Gopalan 51). Gopalan borrows Carol Clover’s critique of the voyeuristic and sado-masochistic pleasures of Hollywood rape-revenge and slasher films, which are largely based in the representation of the abuse of the female body. Gopalan’s suspicion of these films can be extended to Sleeping with the Enemy as well as its remakes where the sadism and abuse of the woman is seen as part of the thrill. The paradox of victimhood and empowerment lies at the heart of films dealing with such women-centered stories about abuse and rape. There’s a teleology in place where these women have to be victimized for them to be able to eventually escape and then become empowered. In each film, there are significant changes in the women that almost indicate the death of the victim and the birth of the empowered woman, signaled by change in names, identities, clothes, and actions. Laura becomes Sara, she plans her escape, rebuilds her life, and pulls the trigger to kill Martin at the end of the film. In Agnisakshi, Madhu becomes Shubhangi, pursues a career in dancing, and actively participates in trying to get Vishwanath behind bars. Both women, however, struggle with their own fears when faced with these men again, and they lack the violent retribution of the rape-revenge films or the avenging women films. Secondly, the representation of victimhood in these cases continues to be problematic for the sadism and scopophilia in which the films indulge.

Sleeping with the Enemy: Martin’s monstrosity and abuse of Laura.

The first half of Sleeping with the Enemy presents the guilty pleasures of masochism and sadism in watching abuse and rape. The frail Laura is routinely thrown around, beaten, and intimidated. The huge mansion where whiteness and glass dominates, the only splash of color is offered by the dress that Martin makes her wear or the flowers he gets her as apology for abusing her or her blood. In one scene, where Martin hits her sending her body across the room, the camera withdraws back so that her smallness is made highly visible; her tiny crumpled body occupies the only space in the vast emptiness. Then, the camera zooms in to display her fear, her anguish, and the blood on her mouth. Every time the camera shows a close up of her face, it is either to reveal her pain when Martin is not watching or her immediate reorganizing of her face into a semblance of a smile if he is watching her. Unlike the rape-revenge films, Sleeping with the Enemy shows marital coercion and forced sex as a part of violent patriarchal power. Laura has to suffer through the marital rape and still smile at the end of it. Again, the camera zooms in on her face, which reveals her pain but also her resignation to the brutalization of her body. Sleeping with the Enemy therefore does both. It stages the violence inflicted on the female body and even fetishizes the body parts for sado-masochistic pleasures. And by focusing on Laura’s face to convey her interiority as a subject, the film also allows for sympathetic identification.

Each Bollywood remake presents sexual threat to organize these pleasures. In Yaraana, Raj Babbar (the same actor who played the rapist in Insaf Ka Tarazu) tries to buy Lalita by paying her uncle money. There isn’t even a suggestion that he might love her. He watches with desire as she performs a dance number (which functions extra-diegetically as an item number). This scene also presents the ordering of gaze as he watches her while she performs on stage unaware of his gaze. Then he transgresses the voyeuristic barrier to get on the stage, put a necklace around her neck, and caress her neck, thus making explicit not just his desire but also his power. Lalita runs away and later refuses his offer of marriage because she knows that he is only interested in her body. This refusal results in his kidnapping and imprisoning her in his home. All of his attempts are aimed at forcing her to agree to have sex with him, not that he wants her as a consenting adult but as an obedient partner. The attempt at forcing her to marry him reveals his intentions instead of functioning as an example of love.

Yaraana. Lalita’s performance where she is the object of JB's gaze.

The camera alternates from point-of-view shots aligned with JB to give multiple reverse close-up shots of his face and eyes.

These reverse shots zoom in closer to his face and make obvious his fetishizing animalistic gaze.

JB crosses over to the stage and puts the necklace on a visibly uncomfortable Lalita onstage.

JB kidnaps Lalita with the help of her uncle. The shot from behind the railing ... ... and then an immediate cut to a bird in a cage serve as expressions of her imprisoned status.

In Daraar, Vikram wants sexual control over Priya. He is capable of committing murder in order to ensure that Priya’s body remains his. He beats her up when the neighbor mentions that he saw her on the porch of the house and says:

agar kisi ne tere roop ka charcha kiya to main tere chehre pe tezaab daal dunga/
if someone ever mentions your beauty, I will throw acid in your face.”

Agnisakshi translates and expands the rape scene from Sleeping with the Enemy. The rape in this case makes obvious Vishwanath’s sadism and perversion. The scene starts with Vishwanath putting balm on her bruised legs while he explains why he beat her with a belt. His calm tone is chilling because even though it sounds like an apology, it functions as a warning to Shubhangi. But as he looks at and touches her bruises, he begins to get aroused. The camera follows his hands as he lifts her sari to reveal her legs with more bruises on them, even as she tries to cover them. And then, despite her protests, he forces himself on her. The camera fetishistically goes from her bruised legs to her face and then back to her legs while he rapes her. What makes this scene scarier than the one in Sleeping with the Enemy is that it is presented through Vishwanath’s flashbacks and voice-over so the audience is clearly positioned with his perspective.

Daraar. Vikram abuses Priya.

The bruises Vikram inflicts on Priya when he realizes that she has talked to the doctor.

Agnisakshi. Vishwanaath makes Suraj watch the video of his wedding ceremony. On Shubhangi’s birthday, a crazed Vishwanath watches home movies ...

... that he recorded of her birthday when she was living with him.

The camera turns around to give audiences a view of Vishwanath’s reaction as he watches these home videos. He smiles and laughs to himself, remembering with fondness the scenes of his sadism.
Vishwanath beats Shubhangi’s legs with a belt when he finds her practicing her dance at home. Later, he apologizes and puts balm on her legs.
But then forces himself on her.  

At the same time though, through a clever trick, these scenes make explicit audience identification with the camera and therefore their participation in the scopophilic and sadist pleasures. Since the scenes of Shubhangi’s abuse are presented through Vishwanath’s flashbacks, viewers get access to these scenes by identifying with Vishwanath, whose flashbacks are sparked by watching the video of his wedding and life with Shubhangi. So audiences are not only aligned with him visually by occupying his point of view, but are also implicated with him because they, like him, are watching a screen. His fiddling with the remote and his gaze directed at the TV forces the illogical connection between his flashback scenes and his TV-screen, as if those scenes are getting replayed on that screen instead of in his memory. This camera trick ends up implicating the audience watching it on their screen and draws attention to the voyeurism inherent in watching this material on their theater/TV screen. As if this wasn’t enough, after the audiences view the atrocities inflicted on Shubhangi through his flashback and his sadistic behavior towards other people, the camera disconcertingly turns around and gives the reverse shot of him (and by implication of the audience) as he smiles nostalgically at these scenes/memories, thus evoking horror at the pleasure of gazing at a violated female body.

Perhaps the swiveling of the camera back at the audience to reveal Vishwanath ruptures their immersion and identification with the camera to open up a potentially critical viewing position, one that may not undo the voyeurism but produces guilt even in those viewers who are simultaneously complicit with the camera as well as sympathetic towards Shubhangi. However, by giving narrative and visual control to Vishwanath (as opposed to the abused wife, as is the case in Sleeping with the Enemy and Daraar), the film denies any subjectivity to Shubhangi in these scenes. The revelation of the pure evil in Vishwanath also goes along with the star text of Nana Patekar known for his villainous roles, and one of the primary attractions of the film.

The politics of these films remains so deeply enmeshed in the economics of commodification and profit that these scenes of abuse make one question if the films package punishment of women and sell it as a commodity. The domestic abuse plot, in that case, becomes nothing more than a titillating plot point in the thriller. It is imperative therefore to ask the question about commodification of even the resistant themes, especially given that Hollywood and Bollywood are culture industries. Moreover, David Dhawan (Yaraana) and Abbas-Mastaan (Daraar) are notorious in the film industry for producing unacknowledged remakes that lack originality and depth. Are these films then just new kinds of thrillers that filmmakers are introducing to attract more audiences? Can we just write off the content because the films are remakes? In fact, can the proliferation of remakes on the same theme be explained away completely as a matter of profits? Given that genres and remakes are financial products, the appeal of the films is tied up with economics. Remakes (and even genres) are financially conservative because they build on repetition of themes that already enjoy popularity. The remake adds in differences with newer elements to bring novelty. The repetition of the domestic abuse plot is a constant in all four remakes, thus indicating how filmmakers understand what might appeal to Bollywood audiences. Therefore, I next deliberate on the production of so many remakes of the same film before I return to the concern of whether these films are just commodification of women’s issues or if they have more political potential.

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