Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal (The Incessant Fear of Rape)


You really don’t want to get on her bad side.

(2018) Drama (Mumba DeviShalini Vatsa, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Kritika Pande, Vinay Sharma, Ahmareen Anjum, Sonal Joshi. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

In our patriarchal society, rape has been a hidden problem, one that is often not taken seriously by the powers that be. A large percentage of rapes go unreported because often the investigation and trial are nearly as bad if not worse than the actual sexual assault. As bad as things are in the United States however, they are infinitely worse in India.

Delhi is the rape capital of India (and quite possibly the entire planet). The women of Delhi live in a constant state of fear and hyper-awareness. At 8 pm, women know that the time for extra vigilance has come and being away from their homes is taking a terrible chance. Ladies-only taxi services have sprouted up because of the number of women who have gotten into taxis only to be driven to a remote spot and raped by the driver. Ladies only services only pick up women and have female drivers.

One such service is run by Shaila (Pande) who is also a student and a self-professed feminist. One evening she picks up a group of women to take home; Chitra (Chakraborty), a martial arts instructor, Vibha (Vatsa) an office worker and Shagun (Joshi), a police officer. Traffic, as is typical at rush hour, is bad and the women decide to stop an get a bite to eat before continuing on their way home. At a roadside eatery, they are harassed by a tough guy on a motorcycle, the kind of thing women around the world have to endure. It doesn’t end there, however.

As they are driving a cyclist pulls up next to them and makes some lewd remark- s which causes an accident…sort of. The motorcyclist ends up sprawled on the side of the road and the women come up with an idea; they are all tired of living in fear of being raped. They wanted to have men feel that same fear – maybe if they were to understand how it felt to know they could be violated at any time changes might actually come.

They take the guy (Sharma) to an abandoned room which had been used by criminals who had since been arrested. They lock him in a metal cabinet and leave him there with the intention of figuring out how to break him to the point where he becomes certain that he can be raped at any time.

The women use a variety of techniques to break him down, by treating him as a servant girl to chloroforming him and spraying pepper spray into the cabinet. Chitra turns out to have a lot of anger and often has to be restrained; Shagun reminds her that when they react to their captive, they are putting the power in his hands. Their job is to make him react to them. They are streaming video of their various indignities being visited upon him live to the Internet but what will happen when the day comes to actually convince the man in their possession that he is about to be raped?

Kripalani also directed the 2017 feature Tikli and Laxmi Bomb which dealt with the abuse of sex workers. This takes a broader look at rape culture and the effect it has on women. In all honesty, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like this. Sure, we’ve seen our share of movies about women pushed to the edge (and often over it) by a sexual assault but those are generally revenge thrillers. There are elements of that here but I wouldn’t say this was a revenge thriller per se.

As with his previous film, Kripalani films largely on the streets of Mumbai and the movie has an authentic feel. While there are more sets in this film than in the last, the movie doesn’t feel static at all. There is kind of gravity pushing and pulling the film towards the inevitable climax which although somewhat anticlimactic in some ways, feels like the right direction for Kripalani to go in.

]Both Chakraborty and Pande appeared in his last film; they both deliver strong performances, particularly Chakraborty who is turning out to be an excellent actress. Chitra is a seething cauldron of rage who doesn’t need much prompting to erupt but at the same time she has a surprisingly vulnerable heart which is revealed in a moving conversation with Vibha late in the film. All of the characters have a personal connection to sexual assault which get revealed at various places in the film.

More or less this is cinema verite. There isn’t a lot of frills and the budget for the movie was likely not very large. The cinematography is a bit murky in places, like a ballroom lit by a 20 watt bulb.

I can’t imagine how women deal with the constant threat; the rules they have to follow – don’t get into an elevator alone with a strange man, when in a bar never drink anything you didn’t watch the bartender make and hand directly to you, always carry a rape whistle or pepper spray on your person, always park in well-lighted areas close to an exit. Be aware of what you’re wearing because that may be considered an invitation, or at least be used against you during the trial in the unlikely event that the crime goes to trial. These are things that men don’t deal with, can’t even conceive of. When the #MeToo movement began and women started posting that they had been victims of sexual harassment and/or assault, I had always known that the percentage of women who had gone through that horror was high but I didn’t realize how high it really was. I was shocked at how many friends and family had survived it.

There has been some blowback about the film; some men see it as threatening and even encouraging violence. I don’t know that I disagree; however, as far as understanding where that rage comes from, I can completely understand and even applaud the filmmakers for daring to tap into the rage of women, something that most men fear to do.

While the film has played the festival circuit, the producers tell me that Netflix has picked up the movie and will be streaming it this summer. I certainly hope so; I think a lot of men who could benefit from seeing it. The tragedy is that they probably aren’t aware that they are part of the problem.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely premise considering the rise of people opposing rape culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lighting is a bit too dark.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity and violence, sexual references and descriptions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The words tottaa, pataaka, item and maal in Hindi are words that are used in Northern India to tease women. They loosely translate to “hot,” “sexy” and so on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rape Squad
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Diamantino

Tikli and Laxmi Bomb


Another day at the office.

(2017) Drama (Self-Released) Vibhawari Deshpande, Chitrangada Chakraborty, Divya Unny, Upendra Limaye, Suchitra Pillai, Kritika Pande, Mia Maelzer, Ralchi Mansha, Bageshi Jeshirao, Manasi Bhawalkar, Mayur More, Kamil, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. Directed by Aditya Kripalani

 

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession but it certainly hasn’t gotten any respect. Sex workers are often characterized as drug addicts who have no other skills other than lying on their back. Most societies, including America, tend to keep prostitutes at an arm’s length in popular culture. Often they aren’t referred to and when portrayed in popular culture they are either victims or plucky hookers doing their utmost to get out of the business.

In India, like most other countries, being a sex worker is a dangerous occupation. Laxmi (Deshpande) has been one for awhile. She works for a pimp named Mhatre (Limaye) for whom she is mainly an administrator although she hangs out on the streets with the other girls. She rarely turns tricks herself however. One night, Mhatre brings a Bengali woman named Putul (Chakraborty) into the fold and instructs Laxmi to show her the ropes. Instantly Putul – whom Laxmi soon dubs Tikli – annoys the older woman. Tikli has a mouth that often gets her into trouble, and as free-spirited as she appears to be she has a hair-trigger temper as well.

Tikli soon notices that the women are treated horribly by Mhatre and his security man JT. When the somewhat incompetent security man doesn’t pick up the phone when she’s frantically calling for help, she extricates herself from a potentially horrible situation with a hidden knife and heads back to the street corner to kick the man who was supposed to be protecting her in the gonads.

Laxmi is horrified and is certain that this will bring the wrath of Mhatre down on her and it does; he arranges for the girls to be detained at the local police station where a group of corrupt cops take turns raping Tikli. Eventually she comes home, grim-faced and Laxmi begins to feel some sympathy for her, even though she doesn’t like her much. Mhatre has forced Tikli to live with Laxmi and Tikli snores and farts and smokes, all of which annoy Laxmi.

But Tikli has ideas that frighten Laxmi, like the revolutionary thought that if the girls are not getting protection anyway that there’s no use for the pimp or his muscle so they may as well work for themselves. That means paying a percentage of their earnings to the local crime lord who is the boss of Mhatre, but if they can get the girls to pool their earnings and work together, the plan might just work. Most of Mhatre’s stable goes with Tikli especially when Laxmi supports the plan although one intransigent veteran hooker named Manda (Pillai) refuses. More and more girls begin to defect to the gang of prostitutes who now call themselves the Tikli and Laxmi Bomb gang. They come up with an ingenious loyalty program to lure and keep repeat customers.

All of this gets the attention of their old boss who is none too pleased with the willful Tikli or the girls in the gang. Things begin to get more and more serious as Mhatre and his men launch escalating reprisals but Tikli and Laxmi are determined to beat the system but with the system so stacked against them can they prevail?

First-time director Kripalani is going for authenticity, filming on the mean streets of Mumbai and often in subdued lighting. That makes the picture dark and murky at times but it also feels like you’re right there on the streets with them. Kripalani also wrote the novel the movie is based on and while the story is fictional it has the ring of the real to it, making the story and characters believable in ways other narrative features can’t compare to.

I don’t know how much research was done into the lives of these ladies but it feels like there was a lot. The movie doesn’t gloss over anything, from the vulnerability to physical attacks that sex workers around the world are subject to, to the camaraderie – and occasional rivalry – the girls have. I don’t know if there is a drug problem among Indian prostitutes – many prostitutes in the States use alcohol and recreational drugs to help them deal with the psychological ramifications of their job – but it isn’t really depicted her. The ladies all smoke and love to go to clubs to dance; occasionally they even drink but there isn’t a lot of that going on in the movie.

Chakraborty is absolutely delightful as the spunky Tikli and Deshpande gives a multi-layered performance as Laxmi. It was the latter character who intrigued me more; she doesn’t dress as seductively as her fellow sex workers, rarely wears make-up and comes off almost tomboyish but she is serenely beautiful in her own way.

Despite the sexual subject there’s no overt nudity or at least nothing is shown beyond bare shoulders and legs. The sexuality isn’t what I’d call gratuitous here; it is handled as matter-of-factly as the women themselves would normally. In a lot of ways I thought of this film as a kind of Norma Rae for sex workers and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The movie is just a shade under three hours long so this isn’t a movie you get into lightly. It requires a commitment of time and patience and American audiences are notorious about lacking both. The movie isn’t generally available yet in the States for streaming purposes and continues to make the rounds on the Asian festival circuit but the producers haven’t ruled out appearances in American festivals or on streaming services here in the States. This is very different than what Americans tend to think of as Indian films; American audiences are only just discovering that Indian films are as diverse and as high-quality as the Sub-Continent itself and this particular film is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any serious lover of all things cinematic.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the plight of sex workers. The score has a bluesy edge that is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little rough around the edges. The movie might be a little bit too long for attention-challenged American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity as well as rape – the latter mainly implied rather than depicted graphically.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on street corners in Mumbai largely used by sex workers and their clients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blade of the Immortal