copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

“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.

Genre and Sleeping with the Enemy:
thriller or woman’s film

Sleeping with the Enemy uses the generic elements of the thriller but imposes them on a melodrama of “patriarchy gone wild:” it has

Through these elements, it becomes, in effect, a horror story about patriarchy. Laura’s husband, Martin, is a psychopath whose fault seems to be his obsessive love for her. But the ways in which his love manifests itself is by making her behave like a proper wife. He wants his house organized and ordered; he wants food ready on time and perfectly arranged on the table; and her body must be constantly at his disposal. If she does not behave according to his decrees, she is punished physically by being beaten or raped. Moreover, similar to many abusive relationships in which women stay with their abusers, Martin often follows his punishment of Laura with an effusion of gifts and apologies in the form of clothes and flowers. Such switches in the abuser’s behavior more generally ensure that women continue in such relationships. Therefore, Martin’s monstrosity is just the obvious, extreme manifestation of patriarchal control. In fact, the Second Wave roots of the title, “sleeping with the enemy,” locate the man/husband as the enemy, the instrument of patriarchal control over women. Logically then, heterosexual marriage can be seen as oppressive and abusive to women.

Sleeping with the Enemy renders bare the ways in which patriarchy allows for domestic abuse and encourages it as a way to control women, but its politics are impacted by the same ideologies that it contests. The generic elements of the thriller make it a story about an anomaly—a man who has gone berserk and becomes a monster. Here, and in all Bollywood remakes of the film, there is another man to replace this abnormal man—the nice guy or the modern patriarch, whose characteristics are eerily similar to, although tamer than, the psychopath’s. At one level, all men are not seen as evil in these films. But at another level, in a more sinister way, patriarchal oppression inherent in romantic codes relating to men is still valorized. The domestic abuse in the thriller then runs the risk of being a mere plot point—an individual crime with an individual solution instead of an example of systemic oppression which cannot be resolved so simply as doling justice out to an abuser. To take this larger view would mean to undermine interpreting the film as a critique of patriarchy or of domestic abuse. In fact, the films may also validate the concerns of post-feminism where women are never understood as victims—instead, they always have the power of choice, and freedom is theirs for the taking if only they choose.

Certainly, Laura has access to certain race and class privileges which provide the possibility of an individual solution—bringing the film closer to a post-feminist sensibility. Laura comes from a seemingly unspecified background. Her mother is in a nursing home and Laura is dependent on her husband for everything. However, she manages to get hold of money to transfer her mother to a different nursing home and to pay her mother’s monthly bill. Moreover, later, Laura is able to get a job at the university library without having to prove her identity, an unremarked-upon fact that very well might indicate her white privilege. Yet her privilege does not protect her from her husband—her body is subject to marital rape and even torture. She might have agency because she had enough privilege to escape her husband and become a survivor instead of a victim, but she still has to suffer first. The film shows that class and race do not protect women from domestic abuse.

The genre of woman’s film/melodrama, then, incorporates thriller elements within it and enables the film’s critique of patriarchy as well as post-feminism. Critics like Helen Hanson have coined different names for this hybrid genre to comment on its progressive potential. Hanson calls it the “neo-gothic genre” for its revision of 1940s gothic films, also gothic/thriller/woman’s film hybrids. Tania Modleski refers to the films of this 1940s genre as “gaslight films,” Mary Ann Doane uses the term “paranoid woman’s films,” and Sabrina Barton calls it an example of “woman’s psychothriller.” Hanson discerns a male dynastic structure in Sleeping with the Enemy and argues that such a patriarchal structure suggests that Second Wave feminist questions about the politics of domestic labor and about domestic violence and sexual abuse can still have significant purchase in the 1990s (185).

Modleski locates roots of this genre in gothic novels and discusses the woman protagonist’s paranoia, a theme that Doane then takes up. One characteristic that Modleski mentions—that the men/husbands in these films are often not murderers or lunatics—is not the case in Sleeping with the Enemy (53). Doane discusses the paranoia where the wife fears that her husband is going to kill her in films like I Spit on Your Grave, Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock 1941), and Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock 1940). The term ‘paranoia’ used by both Modleski and Doane indicates a certain insanity in the woman, which is further confirmed when their suspicions are proved to be unbased in any facts. As Diane Weldman notes, viewers rejected the sloppy ending of Suspicion because despite all evidence pointing towards the husband, the film suggests that the wife’s suspicions were all wrong and a product of her imagination (33). These films then simultaneously align the audience with the woman as suspense and terror is created because they share her paranoia, but the plots indicate her slight madness because of the ambiguity at the basis of these fears.

At the same time, Doane connects the classic symptom of the paranoid condition (of being watched) with another condition—femininity:

“there is a sense then in which paranoia is only a hyperbolization of the ‘normal’ female function of exhibitionism and its attachment to the affect of fear” (126).

Therefore, male violence in these films is delineated as an effect of the voyeuristic gaze (126). Doane finds in this paranoia the uncanniness of the domestic. Such a view, however, constantly questions the woman’s agency. Barton, in contrast, points to a strength in this genre and argues that these films are distinctive from most movie psychothrillers in “granting a more central and investigative role to the woman in jeopardy” (187). Doane also raises this possibility but quickly denies it. She argues that the female investigator is so threatening that often a male investigator is brought in and the female victim’s agency is sidelined, as is the case in Gaslight (George Cukor 1944) (135).

Sleeping with the Enemy revises the genre by making two changes. First, the plot gets rid of the ambiguity—the audience knows from the beginning of the film that Martin is a psychopathic, obsessive person who subjects Laura to physical and emotional abuse, and that he is willing to commit murder to get her back. This setup establishes the script’s greater relation to the woman’s film than the “paranoid films genre” because the husband is already proven to be a monster. As a result, Laura never seems delusional. On the contrary, the narrative centers her point of view as authentic and true. Secondly, not only does the film refuse to provide a male investigator but by confirming Laura’s suspicions about her husband, it adds to her credibility as a female investigator and therefore invests her character with agency. Therefore, when Laura sees the organized cupboards, her fear is not just a product of mere paranoia, it’s a result of seeing clues and evidence. Her paranoia then is necessary for her safety and survival. Finally, violence remains hidden in the domestic space, which is often why in Doane’s formulations the paranoia seems to be a product of psychic fears about marriage and the husband. But Sleeping with the Enemy and its remakes literalize that violence and therefore articulate the roots of that paranoia by rendering that abuse visible. Thus, despite director Ruben’s intentions to make a thriller, his borrowing and updating of the “paranoid films genre” and the film’s critical reception point to its feminist potential as a woman’s film.

Seen as a woman’s film, Sleeping with the Enemy opens up different interpretive positions for analysis. It indicates something rotten in the ideology of heterosexual romance itself, much celebrated by Hollywood. Scholars have analyzed Ruben’s film as a woman’s film in various ways: It represents the dark side of a romantic comedy, is in line with other films that display anxiety regarding aging empowered women, and reveals the connection between women’s oppression and heteropatriarchy. These approaches therefore indicate the film’s subversive potential as not just a feminine (as opposed to the masculine associations of the thriller genre) but also a feminist text.

Jane Caputi’s article, “Sleeping with the Enemy as Pretty Woman, Part II,” draws attention to the similarities between two films that extend beyond the intertextuality of Julia Roberts’s star text. Seeing the two films as representing one relationship, Caputi argues that the relationship between the couple indicates that the same qualities that are described as desirable and romantic, like possessiveness or jealousy, constitute its opposite and form the basis of abuse (4). Coincidentally, even visually, the two films have mise-en-scene that seems mirrored. Caputi draws attention to similarities between Edward (Richard Gere, Pretty Woman) and Martin, and to the empty rich mansion which functions as a prison. But even Julia Roberts’s representation in the two films serves as a commentary on female sexuality and patriarchy. Vivian’s (Julia Roberts) transformation in Pretty Woman requires clothes that are more restrictive and her hair is tamed, a look that she sports in Martin’s mansion in Sleeping with the Enemy. The change in her hair signifies her class-marked uncontainable working body finally brought under control through marriage. Hair, the riotous curls, becomes a marker of her freedom, her sexual freedom, which she had more control over as a prostitute than as a wife. Similarly, Julia Roberts’s hair at the end of Sleeping with the Enemy resembles that at the beginning of Pretty Woman.

Elaine Roth discerns in the film’s representation of the mother a backlash to Second Wave feminism. Talking about Sleeping with the Enemy along with several other “momophobic” films, she argues that these films render powerful women as enfeebled and disabled. Yet, she claims, the presence of the maternal is also empowering for the daughter:

“This figure of the incapacitated mother…delivers a warning of the dangers of patriarchy to adult daughters, since the utterly marginalized mother represents the teleology of patriarchy for women. Such a compromised figure tacitly encourages the daughter to reject a model of womanhood complicit with dominant ideology and prompts the daughter to escape the replication of her mother’s cultural position” (194).

At the same time, the mother’s vulnerability contributes to Laura’s vulnerability (he finds her by gaining access to the mother) and the film advances two imperatives through the mother-daughter relationship and their location within patriarchy—heterosexuality and female defenselessness (Roth 196). Therefore, not only does the film present the contradictory negotiation with patriarchy that these women are enmeshed in, it also makes explicit the connection between heteropatriarchy and female oppression.

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

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:

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

From remake to the domestic abuse cycle

The recycling of certain themes and myths, while a characteristic of genre films, is also a characteristic of much popular Hindi cinema. Early Hindi cinematic genres like the mythological were just cinematic renderings of sacred myths and stories, and pleasures of watching were pleasures of recognition and difference, as well as pleasures of rituals.[10] As I mentioned in the previous section, the remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy are constitutive of alternate generic universes than those dictated by the industry. They share certain characteristics with the avenging woman genre but are also distinct from this genre. Together these films constitute a sub-generic film cycle of the avenging women films: the domestic abuse cycle.

While the avenging women genre focused more on the public rather than the domestic humiliation and rape of a woman who then takes revenge and kills (and even castrates the rapists), this cycle of domestic abuse films focuses on the domestic space, the battery of the wife, her struggles and escape, and her subsequent release through the death of the perpetrator/husband. These films not only show the underbelly of patriarchy that is much celebrated by the Bollywood family films, they also provide solutions enacted by women who have moved from a position of victimhood to empowerment. Unlike the avenging women films, the final act of revenge is not always allowed to these women, and this denial might be a result of the changes in the industrial products as responses to changing ideologies regarding gender. Still, the repetition and reiteration of domestic abuse in the remakes points to the impact of these films taken together as a domestic abuse cycle. I contend that the remakes’ paradoxical cultural and feminist politics need to be understood within the context of the films as constituting a film cycle.

All four remakes constantly throw up contradictory impulses for articulating a feminist potential or for using the alternate femininities as fresh blood to bring in excitement and thrill. But taken together these films reveal yet another political and industrial aspect. While they borrow from Sleeping with the Enemy as well as the avenging women film genre, these remakes blur the boundaries between categories such as remakes and genres and arguably constitute a film cycle within the avenging woman genre. What Steve Neale calls “systemization” or Rick Altman calls “Producer’s Game” is a set of steps that genre films follow in reusing successful, marketable elements. Certain features are repeated and newer ones introduced based on audience response, providing enough difference to appeal to viewers. Cross-cultural remakes are similar except that instead of picking any successful film, producers, directors, and scriptwriters select a source film based on its adaptability to existing national genres and on how they understand their audience’s desires. The remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy interestingly don’t just borrow from the Hollywood film but also adapt and introduce changes that are very similar. For example, in all the Hindi versions the woman’s new partner/fiancée takes part in the extended fight against the abusive partner. Each film is thus formulaic, which puts the remakes closer to our understanding of a genre where the process of replicating the successful formula continues over a number of films. Then again, four films are not enough to constitute a genre. Furthermore, they might share characteristics with the avenging women films, but crucial differences set these films apart as a small group of films with clearly identifiable shared characteristics similar to film cycles.

Certain factors distinguish a film cycle from a genre—it is

“a distinctive and more focused category. A series of genre films…[which are] linked by a dominant trend in their use of the genre’s conventions” (Leger Grindon 44).

The films in the cycle are made within “a specific and limited time-span” (Steve Neale 9), after which they need to be updated or altered in order to survive (Amanda Klein 4). This is because they are responses to current events and immediate social issues, which Klein claims are attempts to capitalize on current fads and success of other films in the cycle (6). Sleeping with the Enemy then provides the master plot, a term used by Grindon to identify the main characteristics of the genre/cycle, and the Hindi versions are emulations of that master plot. While Yaraana, Agnisakshi, and Daraar did well at the box office, Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe was a major flop and signaled the unviability of the cycle in the next decade when the context of women’s movements is absent and the corporatization of the industry in 1998 impacts the genres that were being produced.[11] The combination of the domestic abuse plot along with the representation of sexual and other violence perpetrated on the female body perhaps brings this cycle a little close to the exploitation film. But also the urgency of women’s issues that get articulated boosts the cycle’s the appeal.

The films depart enough from the genre of avenging films to serve as a subset of or experimentation within it. Perhaps, given the comparative short life of the genre, even the avenging woman genre is closer to a cycle. The domestic abuse cycle, then, could be seen as one of the ways in which the avenging woman film changes and adapts. The characteristics that do distinguish the domestic abuse cycle as clearly separate from the avenging women films certainly result from different social and political contexts: There were changes in the industry in the 1990s including the influence of conservative Hindu hegemonic ideologies and the rise in number of remakes. And on the other hand, women’s movements in the late 1980s had been vociferous about the rights of married women. These industrial, ideological, and political impulses came together to shape filmmakers’ understandings of audience tastes. Moreover, because in Indian politics the fundamentalist Hindutva wave harnessed feminist work for fundamentalist purposes and worked to stamp down the feminist impulses in Hindi cinema, the avenging woman protagonist was replaced with the ideal wife in mainstream films. As a result, not only do the female protagonists seem un-vengeful, men occupy a more central role in the remakes than they do in Sleeping with the Enemy. Ultimately, the conservative turn in the film industry is also responsible for the short span of the domestic abuse cycle.[12]

The 1990s experienced a conservative turn because of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. It is evident in the generalized Hindu hegemony in the popular films of that decade (particularly in Agnisakshi, produced by Binda Thackeray). Hence, the production of family films with their celebration of the extended family and updated but conservative gender roles. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun/ Who Am I To You (Sooraj Barjatya 1994) is often lauded as the beginning of these family films that celebrate family values and ideal femininity. In the film, Nisha falls in love with her sister’s brother-in-law, Prem but is willing to sacrifice that in order to take care of her dead sister’s child by marrying her husband. By a happy turn of events, Nisha is stopped from making this sacrifice but her role as a protagonist is secured through her ideal femininity. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai/ Some Thing Happens (Karan Johar 1998), another blockbuster that dealt with the anxiety about westernization of Indian diaspora, Rahul is friends with the tomboyish Anjali who is in love with him. He falls in love with the London-born Indian girl Tina, but significantly only after she proves her Indiannes by devoutly singing the religious hymn,"Om Jai Jagdeesh Hare." Tina dies and years later Rahul meets Anjali and falls in love with her, but this happens after Anjali has transformed from a tomboyish carefree person to a shy saree-wearing woman. Films like Pardes/ Foreign Land (Subhash Ghai 1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham/ Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sorrow (Karan Johar 2001) and many others repeatedly follow this pattern of submissive woman respectful of patriarchal structures as the marker of ideal Indian femininity, particularly in films dealing with the diaspora.

The remakes of Sleeping with the Enemy are inflected by this more conservative cultural climate as well and are therefore less aggressive in their resolutions. The women avengers of the 1980s films often came close to goddess Kaali, much in keeping with the drive of 1980s feminists to find strong female figures from Indian myths. In contrast, the women in the domestic abuse cycle are more like goddess Sita, known for being the ideal wife and for being tested for her purity in popular imagination. Lalita, in the earliest remake Yaraana, is the only female protagonist who tries to kill her husband by stabbing him but he still grabs hold of her and tries to stab her with the same dagger she used on him. Then Raj has to come and rescue her. The figure of the avenging woman is tantalizingly displayed for us here but rendered incomplete. Therefore, even though these films seem to be a subset of the avenging genre films of the 1980s, the women are not allowed the same options of violent retribution and vigilante justice. Instead, the films reveal the negotiation between the aggressive femininity of the avenging women films and the new conservative femininity being introduced.

At the same time, though, these films are responding to a different factor, one expressed by the women’s movements, and this difference is partly responsible for the absence of the revenge plot. While the 1990s saw a proliferation of the NRI (Non-resident Indian) film or the Bollywood family film, which imagined happy, modernized, yet still patriarchal families, these films showed the flip side of marriage for women and enjoyed market appeal because of the cultural relevance of the subject matter. What would soon become the global consumer product of the Bollywood family films, the Hindu wedding, is turned on its head in these films. All the films in this cycle, but particularly Agnisakshi because it refers to the Hindu wedding, are anti-romantic critiques of the institution. The avenging women films focused more on the representation of critique of the legal system and demanding justice for public gang rapes of women that were on the rise in the early 1980s. The domestic abuse cycle responds to the concerns regarding married women by asking the state’s intervention to ensure their safety. In documenting this kind of marital abuse, Radha Kumar lists multiple cases of women who were asking for justice for dowry abuse, as is the case of Shahjehan Begum and Satyarani Chhada whose daughters were killed for dowry (157-58). Their families did not provide enough money, so the women were beaten up and eventually killed. Two films in the cycle make obvious the association between money, marriage, and domestic abuse though the connection exists implicitly in other films too: JB tries to purchase Lalita by paying her uncle some money, and Shubhangi agrees to marry Vishwanath to save her father from bankruptcy. Dowry abuse was not the only concern articulated by women’s movement protesters. They were also demanding for rights of maintenance for married women—asking that the husbands be forced to pay for financial support of the wife and the children. Many women have been abused or abandoned without money and men have been able to hide behind religious personal laws; thus, women’s groups were protesting against this and asking the state to intervene. These concerns are particular to the wife and her physical and mental well-being in her family (Kumar 164-68). The women in each of the remakes are stay-at-home wives who become earning women only after they escape an abusive marriage. Their new marriages ensure the safe and equal space that the women’s movement was asking for, and every single film in the cycle presents a new kind of husband as the ideal even if he still continues to be the patriarch.    

The film cycle then is placed very much at the nexus of what Grindon calls the ritual and ideological approaches, where the ritualistic approach “emphasizes the experience of confronting the conflicts and successfully bringing them to a resolution as a means of allaying social anxiety” and the ideological approach

“finds in the designs of the film industry, or other powerful social agents, an attempt to subdue the audience by distorting the nature and causes of prevailing social conflicts and deceiving or seducing the audience into believing in a simplistic and ineffective resolution” (48).

Clearly, the films ambivalently encourage both approaches. The subject matter’s real potential, however lies in the newness of the myth and ritual and its connection with supporting political events. The remakes together construct a cycle of domestic abuse films. Precisely because of the cultural immediacy and the short life of the cycle, the social conflict it brings to light reverberates beyond the film and overrides the ideological resolutions. The ending that re-establishes the heteronormative couple becomes trite convention, a false ending, and the domestic abuse and the female protagonist’s journey become the main plot of the film.

To conclude, I want to come back to the question of transnational feminist critique. This cycle contests post-feminist claims of feminism as passé by showing the reality of domestic abuse that cuts across class, race, and nations. Ultimately, even though the films are implicated within political and conservative ideologies, together they undo the neo-colonial binaries of first and third world in which the third world is the site of domestic abuse, dowry deaths, and gang rapes. And while individually all these films fall somewhat short of presenting domestic abuse as a pervasive problem, when understood as a cycle, they draw attention to multiple individual cases and multiple monster husbands, thereby revealing domestic abuse to be a systemic problem connected with the treatment of women in patriarchy and within the institution of marriage. The cycle also draws attention to concerns about forced sex as marital rape (far more common than rapes by strangers) and about rape as one aspect of an expression of male power along with battery and abuse. Even though the women may not have been allowed vengeance, the cycle refuses to participate in the normalization or naturalization of domestic abuse. Instead, it underlines the far more tame but more practical and empowering message that leaving (and divorce) is an option. Finally, looking at these films as a cycle also reveals the connections between industrial priorities and urgent cultural concerns because the cycle is responding to the demands articulated by the grassroots women’s movements.


1. The genre of rape-revenge films became popular in the 1970s. Ingrid Bergman’s The Virgin Spring is a story of a girl who is raped and killed by two men. The girl’s father kills these men in vengeance. I Spit on Your Grave is discussed by many scholars including Clover and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas where rape is followed by rehabilitation of the female victim-hero who then takes revenge. [return to text]

2. The avenging women films were influenced by the rape-revenge films as well, especially in the representation of violence and brutalization of the woman as well as her vengeance. Like many of the Hollywood films of this genre, the justification for the revenge is often provided through the critique of the legal and social system that deny the woman any justice. As a result, she has to take matters in her own hands. In India, as I discuss later, the public uproar over the public gang-rape of a woman and the failure of the legal system to punish the perpetrators added another layer to the reception of these films.

3. In fact, recently Sony Pictures sued the producers of Partner (David Dhawan 2007) for making an unacknowledged remake of Hitch (Andy Tennant 2005).

4. Baazigar remakes the plot of A Kiss Before Dying and borrows from both film versions (1956 version directed by Gerd Oswald) and 1991 version (directed by James Dearden). These films were adapted from the novel, A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin. Akele Hum Akele Tum remakes Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton 1979). Jism borrows from Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder 1944) and Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan 1981).

5. Self-proclaimed feminist website Jezebel used this headline (“India has a gang-rape problem”) on 19 Dec, 2012 to cover the story of the gang-rape and murder of a medical student on a New Delhi bus. The twenty-three years old student narrated the events when she gained consciousness in the hospital; she succumbed to her injuries later (Shubhomoy Sikdar). She got on a private bus with a male friend at night. There were six other people in the bus, all men including the driver, who first got into a scuffle and hit her friend, who fell unconscious. She was then brutally raped and tortured. After half an hour, the two of them were thrown off the bus. These kinds of headlines do not take into account the uproar and protests happening in India in response to the rape to demand justice for the woman and to make the city safer for women. BBC, Indian Express, and other credible Indian and international news agencies did report the reaction in the Indian Parliament and on Delhi streets, but these kinds of approaches that othered ‘India’ held sway over a lot of Western media. Such a viewpoint also betrays the understanding of rapes in the US (like the Steubenville rape case) as individual crimes as opposed to horrific rapes (and honor killings, dowry deaths, etc.) as inherent to the non-West.

6. The item number is a sexualized dance performance in Bollywood, known for its hot and steamy scenes, often presenting the spectacle of the female body, and having little or nothing to do with the rest of the diegesis.

7. The poster also intertextually invokes a similar polarity between Jackie Shroff and Nana Patekar in the award-winning superhit film Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989).

8. Given the centrality of mothers in Hindi cinema, the importance of the mother-daughter relationship in these films is crucial in the ways in which these remakes present an alternative. These mothers are unlike the mothers in previous Hindi films like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) or Deewar/The Wall (Yash Chopra, 1975). Mother India is often shown to represent the ultimate example of motherhood and sacrifice in Radha, who kills her son, the one who had turned bandit and kidnapped a village girl, to protect the village. The importance of Ma (mother) again resurfaced in the 1970s and 1980s angry young men films. Talking about the mother as a firm fixture in the melodramatic universe of these films, Rosie Thomas argues that

“the mother is a fount of nurturing beneficence and a vulnerable innocent, a protector of her boy child and in need of protection by him (she often appears slightly crippled or blind)…Mother is invariably depicted praying in the home or in temples, advocating humility and nonviolence, preferring folk wisdoms and accepting her fate as the will of God” (167).

The violent women films then have similar familial worlds where fathers are absent and mothers are the affective centers for the protagonists. Except for Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe, these mothers/motherlike-figures are also blind and provide moral support to their daughters in pursuing a future. They refuse to let their daughters accept their fate, but because of their disability, they are also in need of protection and make their daughters vulnerable to their abusive partners. Instead of the gender divide of the violent men films, where the mothers remain the ideals of sacrifice and the men become actors in their own lives, here the mothers support a different ideal of femininity, where their daughters are encouraged to leave their abusive relationships and pursue new lives. Just as the absence of fathers is required in the angry young men films for the achievement of masculinity, here their absence is required for the development of the victim into an empowered mobile woman.

9. Radha Kumar in History of Doing details the public rape of a girl by policemen in 1972 that resulted in women’s groups demanding justice and better laws. Both Virdi and Gopalan connect women’s outrage over the Mathura rape case with the depiction of rape and revenge in Insaaf ka Taraazu.

10. One of the older themes infused in the remakes to garner sympathy for the female protagonist is the woman’s chastity and marital fidelity even if her husband is abusive. Even for Lalita, forced to marry JB, it is important that the wedding ceremony never gets completed ensuring that he is not her husband. She fakes fainting midway through the phere, the necessary seven rounds around fire that the bride and groom complete. Agnisakshi invokes this ceremony by its very name: “with fire as witness.” While the film raises the question of her leaving an abusive husband and allows her to imagine remarriage, Shubhangi believes Vishwanath is dead. In Daraar, Priya escapes and knows that her husband is still alive. But at the end, even she tries to save him from death, ironically immediately after he tries to kill her. Further, these films are anchored in the melodramatic mode, which maps good and evil on the two polarized male love interests and resolves the conflict by weeding out evil without sacrificing the woman’s ideal qualities.

11. There were singular attempts like Jag Mundhra’s British docudrama Provoked (2006) which deals with the abuse of a diasporic Indian wife who ends up killing her husband and is then jailed for it. Mundhra’s film is a British production and adheres to real life events and thus does not participate in the genre. But largely, commercial films dealing explicitly with domestic abuse don’t reappear.

12. Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe (2002) is a failed attempt to resuscitate the cycle, unsuccessful because the industrial conventions as well as the cultural factors had changed. In the film, the mother’s (Mansi Devi’s) sacrifice of her son’s life as well as her own functions as a poor caricature of a similar theme in Mother India. Without any accompanying furor over women’s concerns, the film exaggerates the son Dushyant’s evil so as to have more impact. Mixed in is another outdated Bollywood convention of representing Western things as evil. Dushyant’s friends who try to gang-rape Esha are all foreigners and, through association, indicators of his perverse nature. In trying to adhere to a formula that is not viable anymore, the film functions as little more than the swan song of the cycle.

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