Last weekend, my wife and I made a trip to the local multiplex to watch the most-talked ‘Bollywood’ flick of the month – ‘Secret Superstar’.
Of course, our decision to watch the movie had been largely fuelled by the fact that it was produced by one of those rare superstars in Bollywood whose movies are almost always synonymous with quality. While most of Aamir Khan’s movies in the past 15 years have been record breaking mainstream entertainers, they also stood apart, more often than not, for carrying thought provoking messages (a far cry from the average ‘Bollywood blockbuster’ that painfully hammers your brain with befuddling logic or formulaic cringe-inducing mush).
And this movie didn’t disappoint either.
It did have a few forgivable moments of typically Bollywood-style melodrama towards the fag end, but all in all, it was a worthy watch. The movie is about a young girl (portrayed perfectly by Zaira Wasim – of ‘Dangal’ fame) trying to fulfill her dream of becoming an acclaimed singer and who is urged on by her semi-literate loving mother (a wonder performance by Meher Vij) who supports her in every way possible despite being wedded to an abusive, controlling husband – a husband who wouldn’t blink an eye before pounding his wife at the slightest provocation, and gives two hoots about his daughter’s life or her aspirations.
Secret Superstar is not the perfect movie; but it’s an endearing one. Do watch it if you haven’t already.
By the way, this post isn’t really a movie review. This is actually about a serious underlying social issue, showcased more than once in the movie and plagues society even today – domestic violence.
According to a National Family and Health Survey conducted in India, in 2005, total lifetime prevalence of domestic violence is 33.5%.
In other words, officially more than a third of all women in the country experience domestic violence at some point in their lives.
The irony is that even this large percentage might be understating reality – no official statistic is likely to give a real account of domestic violence in the country because violence within the confines of a home gets grossly under-reported.
It would seem an enigma why there are so many victims of domestic violence in our society and why is it that these women seldom retaliate.
As it so happens, one of the primary reasons as to why these women suffer in silence is because the biggest culprit in the abetment of domestic violence is society itself – a society that comprises the victim’s own parents, relatives and community members.
There is someone I know who was a victim of domestic violence for years. And ironically, this was not somebody who was from a rural deprived family – the person in question was a well educated young woman from a well-to-do middle class family who started encountering physical abuse from her husband only a few days into her marriage.
It started with a slap out of anger for forgetting something very trivial.
It then graduated to bigger forms of physical abuse till a point where there was hardly a week that passed without the woman facing intense abuse ranging from slaps to punches. The woman had to clasp her mouth to even cry because if her sobs or cries weren’t muted enough, there would be further blows.
A verbal retaliation was out of question because protests were met with even more abuse.
And irrespective of whether the reason was as trivial as the food she cooked not measuring up, the house not catering to the cleanliness standard of the husband, or the pet bird’s poop was not being cleaned on time, the punishment was all the same.
Ironically, the devious man was careful in his abuses too – he ensured that at no point were there visible marks on his wife’s face or body that could be seen by somebody in a way that would arouse suspicion.
Hence, blows were mostly to the thighs that were always covered by clothing or to the head. He often caught her leg while she was seated and hit her on the soles of her feet (beatings to the soles of the feet, an area of nerve endings, are excruciatingly painful but leave no visible marks) which led her limp painfully for days and the repeated abuse landed her once in a hospital where deceptive stories to cover up the true nature of her injury were used.
The agony of this abuse not only weakened her body considerably but also crushed her spirit and made her live in fear every moment of her life – she spoke with a barely audible voice for fear of offending her husband unwittingly, and used carefully measured words.
The trauma caused her to lose weight considerably and gave way to health issues. Ironically, her friends who only saw pictures of her on her Facebook account complimented her on her weight loss and had no idea at what cost it came.
Had it not been for the intervention of a female friend who sensed something was wrong and travelled from across the state to her side and helped her run away from her husband (to a distant city, away from even her own parents, to whom she didn’t give her whereabouts till she enlisted the help of a lawyer), she would have still been suffering in silence.
When she told me her story a few years ago, after the turmoil was over, it seemed incredulous that an educated woman would put up with domestic violence of that nature, when she could walk out and stand on her own. I enquired why she put up with it and she gave her reasons.
“Initially, I feared the social pressure it would put on my parents if I were to have separated – our society never looks at a woman the same way if she leaves her husband – irrespective of circumstances”
“My parents wouldn’t believe me when they heard about the abuse first, then when they did they tried over and again to get me to reconcile – after all he was cunning enough to not show his shady side to them. Twice I went home to them and twice they sent me back to HIM!”
“And of course, I was scared out of my wits – he would threaten that if I tried telling anyone, he’d create stories of me – and that’s why I wouldn’t even speak with friends. Each time I ran back home after an especially bad phase, and was eventually forced to return, I had to face more blows for having gone away”
“I wasn’t allowed to work and every phone call and every email of mine was scrutinized. I didn’t even have freedom to cry in peace even.”
“Apart from that one friend of mine, I didn’t get the slightest of support. And eventually had it not been for her I might have not even be alive today – I was sick of living at one point”.
While the woman has finally moved from her gory past, she still shudders when she recollects her harrowing years. For many months after her escape, she didn’t feel safe. She feared crowds (what if one of his friends recognized her), had nightmares and feared her husband would hunt her down and take her back. Despite pleas from her friend to file a police complaint, she abstained saying she feared that wouldn’t stop him because she had no evidence to show what he did, and years later got a divorce on mutual consent.
To this day, she shudders at the memory of those days and wishes she could wipe away those years from her life or her memory for ever.
It was on hearing her story that I realized, the biggest issue facing victims of domestic abuse is not the abuse itself but the lack of necessary support to help them out in such a situation.
Parents often cajole the victim asking her to give the abuser another chance – “after all he’s your husband and he will change after a child comes along”, they’d say.
Society often rejects the woman who leaves an abusive relationship and their condescending outlook and the general apathy (I’ve heard separated women being called rejects and second-hands by many).
At times, even the victim too sometimes bends in to the social pressure to continue the relationship to preserve the ‘sanctity’ of marriage and might say to herself “he just does that when he’s angry and so I’ll just try better next time”
In countless cases what happens is that the victim just learns to live with abuse for the rest of her life and the perpetrator never gets punished for what he does. The cascading effect of such a toxic family is that even children from those families may start to accept that behavior as normal and may even emulate that behavior.
We have victims of domestic abuse all around us; a victim could be a work colleague, a friend, a neighbor or a relative.
The best thing we could do as responsible members of a society would be to ensure that they get the right amount of support and confidence to come out of an abusive relationship and help in their rehabilitation.
Victims remain in hiding because they fear a lack of support and retaliation for speaking out.
There are countless organisations today that can help victims of domestic abuse discretely and connecting them with such organisations would be the big step in helping these silent sufferers break out of their cycle of suffering.
The last thing a victim should be allowed to do is to accept abuse as a part of life and live with it.
That would be sad, very sad indeed…
PS: While it may be true that the vast majority of domestic violence are women today, there are many men too who are at the receiving end of scrupulous women and their families who misuse anti-dowry laws to harass men (I have known a few such instances personally too). Even in such instances, support groups (there are a few specifically for male victims) will be immensely helpful in helping the victim come out of the cycle of domestic violence.
A Useful Link for those battling domestic abuse in India : https://www.thebetterindia.com/51945/the-best-resources-for-indian-women-battling-domestic-abuse/