JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Sleeping with the Enemy. The domestic kitchen cupboards are rendered uncanny. Laura approaches the kitchen cupboards hesitantly to confirm if her monstrous husband has been there. ...

... The neat organization of the cans confirms his presence and evokes dread and fear in her.

Sleeping with the Enemy. Laura (Julia Roberts) as the female victim-hero.

Indian remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy under discussion.

Hindi remakes. Dil Hai ke Maanta Nahin is a remake ...

like Chori Chori, and both ...

... are remakes of It Happened One Night.

Trailer for Sleeping with the Enemy showcases the romance between characters played by Julia Roberts and Kevin Anderson.

 

 

“Behind her laughter…is fear!” Domestic abuse and transnational feminism in Bollywood remakes

by Gohar Siddiqui

Neatly organized kitchen cupboards are used to serve as a source of fear and terror in Sleeping with the Enemy (Joseph Ruben, 1991). They announce to Laura (Julia Roberts) that the maniacal husband (Patrick Bergin) she had escaped from, the one who had beaten her up if everything was not neatly organized and perfect, is perhaps inside her new home. The uncharacteristic pairing of neat cupboards with suspense also indicates the mixing of domestic melodrama and thriller genres while it also borrows from other hybrid genres like Hollywood’s rape-revenge films and slasher films. Like some rape-revenge films, Sleeping with the Enemy constructs a female victim-hero, similar to Carol Clover’s “Final Girl:” the only character who is “intelligent, watchful, level-headed,” and the only one to survive (206).[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Clover uses the example of I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi 1978) where Jennifer is gang-raped by three men. She survives the experience but plots her revenge and brutally murders each one of them. She hangs Matthew, cuts off Johnny’s genitals and lets him bleed to death, kills Andy with an axe, and disembowels Stanley with the motorboat. Like Clover’s formulation, Laura (Julia Roberts) is tortured and chased, and eventually triumphant; but the brutalization in her rape or her revenge does not approach the level of violence exhibited in the rape-revenge films of the 1970s. Still, Sleeping with the Enemy borrows the ideological contradictions inherent in rape-revenge films where the female body is brutalized on-screen before the transformation of the victim into the avenger. Agnisakshi/ With Fire as Witness (Parto Ghosh 1996), the most popular Bollywood remake of Ruben’s film, inherits this generic hybridity. Moreover, while distinctive from mainstream Bollywood genres of the 1990s, it also borrows from the genre of avenging women films that were popular in India in the late 1980s.[2]

In this paper I argue that Agnisakshi, along with other Hindi remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy, constitute a cycle of domestic abuse films. Yaraana/ Friendship (David Dhawan,1995), Agnisakshi, and Daraar/ Crack (Abbas Mastan,1996) were released within a period of two years and were successful at the box office. Vinay Shukla’s Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe/ Someone Ask My Heart (2002) hit the theaters after a seven years gap. While all the remakes expand the storyline in slightly different ways, the centrality of the domestic abuse plot and the similarity to avenging women films indicates their critique of patriarchy. I discuss the transnational feminist potential of these films as understood as remakes and as constituting the domestic abuse cycle.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in the number of close Hindi remakes of Hollywood films produced by the Hindi film industry. Some of these remakes, like Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin/ The Heart Refuses to Listen (Mahesh Bhatt 991), Baazigar/ Gambler (Abbas Mastan 1993), Akele Hum Akele Tum (Mansoor Khan I am Alone, You are Alone 1995), and Jism (Amit Saxena 2003) have been immensely popular while some others have been descried as plagiarized copies.[3] Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin is the second remake of It Happened One Night (Frank Capra 1934), but the temporal distance from Chori Chori/ (Anant Thakur 1956), its first remake, sets it apart from the case of multiple remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy that were all released within a decade.[4] The four Hindi remakes constitute an atypical case and I argue that they acquire meaning as remakes as well as a domestic abuse cycle. As remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy, they contest post-feminist assertions in the West by highlighting the commonality of women’s experiences with domestic abuse across the borders of the so-called First and Third Worlds. As part of the domestic abuse cycle that extends and complements the critique presented by avenging women films, these films are responses to contemporary women’s grassroots movements in India. Given that cycles, like genres, exert an interpretive force over the ideological import of the texts within them, the domestic abuse cycle advances the case of the female victim-hero and draws attention to abuse of women.

The films deal with the issue of marital abuse, a concern that is given a lot of attention in the West and, perhaps because of this attention, assumed by post-feminists to no longer exist in the West in the same way as it does in the poorer nations of the world. Dowry deaths, honor killings, and recently gang-rapes have been examples of such post-feminist Othering. An example is the Delhi rape case in December 2012 where Western media, including certain feminist websites talked about gang-rape as an “Indian” problem, despite the reported gang-rapes within the United States around the same time.[5] These discourses therefore figure abuse of women as “over there,” thereby bolstering the notion of the West as progressive and feminism as passé here. They also re-demonize non-western nations as barbaric and simultaneously allow the West to turn a blind eye to the oppression experienced by women (mostly poor and women of color) in the developed nations. Scholars like Sarah Projansky and Sarah Gramble argue that post-feminism is a backlash against second wave feminism and that it blames the second-wave movement for portraying women as victims.

Domestic violence has been a persistent problem, strongly articulated by and organized around by Second Wave feminists. Currently women’s groups and many organizations continue to raise awareness about it. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and National Organization for Women (NOW) have been working actively to help domestic abuse victims in the United States. Initiatives like “Take Back the Night” to end sexual violence have been international in focus but remain primarily limited to the developed countries in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Despite changing the label from victim to survivor, abuse and rape remain thorny topics for post-feminists and are often ignored. Given the pervasiveness of domestic abuse and rape culture in societies including the United States, this blindness of post-feminism is part of a larger problem where realities like rape are kept from visibility, and worse, naturalized (Projansky 9).

Sleeping with the Enemy has progressive potential because it recognizes female subjugation in a post-feminist era (Helen Hanson 197). Remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy further give the lie to post-feminist and neo-colonial formulations to point to the commonality of such experiences as domestic abuse across the borders of first and third worlds. Furthermore, these films explore domestic abuse without sacrificing the cultural differences of women’s experiences. The cultural contexts that shape the treatments of each film’s plot indicate different patriarchal practices, representations of abuse, and solutions to the abuse. The remake is important to consider in film studies because it opens up a space for transnational feminist scholarship attendant to the historical and cultural nuances in the adaptations.

However, a consideration of domestic abuse as represented in film must first come to terms with a problem in feature fiction construction itself. Hollywood and Bollywood films occupy a problematic position (vis-à-vis the feminist politics they enunciate) because of their associations with both thriller and rape-revenge film genres that are tied very closely to voyeuristic pleasures of violated female bodies on screen. The negotiation between these two genres offers a complex examination of society and of women’s treatment in society. Moreover, because the profit principle shapes commercial products, these films as genres, remakes, and as a cycle are implicated in commodifying resistance and therefore feminist awareness too. However, the cycle of remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy in India potentiated the effect of social critique. By understanding the industrial context (that allows for the cycle as dependent on audience interest and women’s social movements), we can understand the cycle’s critique of patriarchy and domestic abuse as it is made more powerful by a cycle of films as opposed to a single remake.

The promotional materials for both the Hollywood Sleeping with the Enemy and the Bollywood Agnisakshi avoid any mention of domestic abuse, the thematic issue arguably central to each. The trailer for Sleeping with the Enemy promises that the film will straddle the romance and thriller genres. It starts with generic romantic scenes suggestive of a budding relationship between Julia Roberts and Kevin Anderson. The locations are in the sunny Midwest; the lighting is soft and bright as Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” accompanies the montage. And the voice-over indicates a boy-meet-girl formula, albeit with a tantalizing secret. Then the trailer’s mise-en-scene and the music change drastically. The settings become darker and scarier (solitary house on the beach, colorless hospital room), and the voice-over functions like intertitles between scenes. Shadows and low angles create a sense of threat and menace. An ominous mechanical sound accompanies the voice-over as it indulges in a long pause after saying, “Behind her laughter…” The pause continues over scenes of a shadowy figure knocking on a door at night as the woman cowers down. And then it continues, “…is fear.” The audio track continues to use the same rhetorical strategy by pausing between suspenseful exclamations to show scary scenes from the film. The pause that interrupts the next phrase, “Behind her happiness…is a past she can never forget,” depicts another montage: a boat in a storm at night, the scream of a woman, and a body whipped around on the boat before it drops into the ocean. The trailer ends with intercut scenes of Patrick Bergin and Julia Roberts where he says: “I know your every thought Laura…Nothing can keep me away…I can’t live without you…I won’t let you live without me.” His soft, threatening voice accompanies scenes of her backing away, scared, and crying.

The trailer suggests that the film is a thriller about a husband who is obsessively in love with his wife, his wife’s escape from him by faking death, her new life in Iowa with another man, and her husband’s discovery of the lie and his subsequent efforts (which prove successful) at finding her. Surprisingly, the trailer gives away most of the story except for the film’s very last scene. The trailer has also reorganized the plot to create more suspense than in the film itself. Moreover, by doing so it has avoided any mention of the thematic issue driving Sleeping with the Enemy, domestic abuse, which gave the film its currency in 1991. The film is a domestic melodrama about a wife who manages to get out of an abusive relationship and make a new life for herself. Much of the film focuses on the abuse she suffers and its resulting trauma, her attempts at getting as far away as she can from her husband, finding a job in Midwest Iowa, and even starting a new relationship. But the film uses thriller conventions. Her pursuing husband Martin (Patrick Bergin) is represented as the equivalent of the monster whose presence invokes terror and horror.

Agnisakshi inherits this generic hybridity and adds even more elements until it resembles a regular Bollywood masala film. The thriller and romance elements become mere aspects of the masala—which includes comic elements, fleshed-out storylines of the main characters, and additional song and dance performances. In fact, the film’s promotional material does not indicate any thriller elements whatsoever. The promotional song for the film, “O Yaara Dil Lagana,” which topped the countdown show Superhit Muqabla/ Superhit Competition for several consecutive weeks in 1996 only served two functions. It is an item number and as such functioned to attract audiences by promising good music and dance as well as titillation; and it indicated a love story between the characters played by Bollywood stars, Jackie Shroff and Manisha Koirala.[6] As depicted in the film, the performance of the song shows several shot-reverse-shots between Manisha Koirala, who is performing on stage, and Jackie Shroff, who is located front center in the audience. The song that she sings articulates longing for and difficulty in finding love. The poster, on the other hand, indicates a triangle between the three stars, Manisha Koirala, Jackie Shroff, and Nana Patekar. Given Patekar’s celebrated roles as a villain, the poster sets up this triangle as one of melodramatic good versus evil where he is clearly evil.[7] Finally, the name of the film, Agnisakshi (translated literally as “with fire as witness”), indicates a theme of marriage and fidelity—because the Hindu wedding requires a ceremony around fire, which functions as a witness to the bond of matrimony between the couple. The promotional material for the film, in sum, promises a love plot, action scenes, and a melodramatic story, one perhaps having to do with marriage and infidelity.

In line with Bollywood conventions, the other three remakes also use promotional material that displays the attractions in the film. These include hit song and dance numbers and combinations of various genres, including melodrama and thriller. What remains notably absent from the promos but heavily present within the Hollywood and Bollywood films is the domestic abuse plot. Such a noticeable absence may indicate that the violence was merely a convenient plot point to the filmmakers. However, while marketed primarily as a thriller, Sleeping with the Enemy won acclaim for the representation of the domestic melodrama. In its remakes, too, what remains central is the domestic abuse plot despite other changes to the storyline. In the United States, critical reviews for Sleeping with the Enemy betray the importance of the domestic abuse plot. The critics either announce its failure as a thriller (Marilyn Moss, Rita Kempley, Roger Ebert) or laud its success as a film about domestic abuse (Brian Colwell, Variety). The film’s reviews in the United States and the importance given to the domestic abuse plot in its Bollywood remakes require a shift in focus to view such films as generic hybrids where the genre of the woman’s film perhaps holds more interpretive force than that of the thriller.

Close-ups of Laura’s face in the trailer showcase her femininity and happiness. The mise-en-scene is in keeping with romantic comedy’s lure with consumption of material things. In this case, the hat that is emphasized in the close-up. Change in setting is accompanied with canted angles and shadows as the trailer indicates the occurrence of something dreadful.
Martin is shot from a low angle, thus giving him a looming threatening presence. The bars of shadow on the ceiling and the wall behind him expressionistically convey the danger to Laura’s mother in this hospital room. In this scene, it is actually Ben [Kevin Anderson] on the other side of the door but Laura’s paranoia is conveyed through the use of shadows.

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