In a particularly bleak scene, the 14-year-old protagonist in Nagesh Kukunoor's Lakshmi, who was sold to a brothel by her father, has high fever and is in agony because of a wound in her leg. Her spirit and body have both given way, and yet, in the next few moments, she is forced to service seven men through the course of the night. Pants are unzipped, vaginal creams poured; you see the protagonist in pain and eventually, washing down herself.
The movie, about a teenager who takes on her assaulters to court successfully, has scores of such scenes and has made more than one reviewer squeamish. While one claimed to have walked out, another said she had thrown up and a third called it 'offensive'. Others, comparatively kinder, called the film "disturbing", "brutal" and "stomach-churning".
Kukunoor, who himself essays the role of the pimp in the film, has based the movie on a young girl he met at a rescue centre in Andhra Pradesh. Calling these reviews "insensitive", he feels that a movie on an issue like this cannot shy away from violence. "The women I met in the centre had been subjected to countless forms of torture. And, nothing in the movie is exaggerated. But, then again, a movie like this is a hard-sell to an audience used to an escapist fare," says Kukunoor, who helmed the acclaimed Iqbal and Hyderabad Blues.
The debate is not a new one. Other filmmakers have faced similar criticism from critics and viewers who feel that a line must be drawn. While onscreen brutality has had its fair share of fans and detractors, how does one make a movie or a documentary about atrocities without making the audience squirm and yet arrive at the established yet tried notion of what is good or bad?
Sometimes, the case is set by what you are setting out to make, feels writer and film curator Latika Padgaonkar. "A documentary that necessitates different degrees of violence as far as visual material could convey is always different than a feature film that may depict the violence on a psychological scale. However, filmmakers must exercise a certain amount of sensitivity," says Padgaonkar.
Earlier this year, Steve McQueen's gut-wrenching slavery drama 12 Years A Slave triggered discussion on whether its brutal depiction of 19th century America's savagery towards black slaves was too much to stomach. Critics, however, noted that the violence in the movie — which picked up the Academy Award for best film apart from two other Oscars — was reinforced by the dearth of slavery movies and their brutal honesty and authenticity.
Filmmakers have, for years, resorted to ghastly onscreen violence as commentary. There was the goriness of American troops' casualties during the Omaha landings in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan that served as a grim reminder of the horrors of World War II. Or, extreme still, Srdan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film that showed necrophilia, torture and, most disturbingly, the rape of an infant.
Kaushik Bhaumik, film historian and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, feels that there is a serious problem when fiction attempts to appropriate reality. "When a feature film tries to tie in realism and violence, it exhibits an amount of flimsiness. It is naive to show things the way they are without employing hyper-melodrama, that Bollywood is usually used to," he says. "Indian films have always glamorised violence, and Kukunoor is known for his deglamourised treatment. Even Dadasaheb Phalke's Shri Krishna Janma has a beheading scene with blood sprouting in 1918."
As Bhaumik puts it, the viewer always has the liberty to walk away if the violence is too offensive. Film critic Raja Sen agrees. "The viewer should be prepared if the subject calls for violence. How much can one desensitise violence? Violence serves the purpose of showing disgust, tragedy, or brutality... At the end of the day, what a film shows you is not real."
Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, widely regarded as one of the most disturbing films of the last century, shows extreme sexual violence and sadism. Banned in some countries, the film has gained cult status because of its exploration of fascism, corruption and abuse of power. "For its wonderful portrayal of fascism, the documentation the decadence of the Bourgeoisie in Roman history and its magnificent aesthetics, it is held in high regard," says Bhaumik.
The dominant argument against on-screen violence is the impression it may have on people. "It is social immaturity if one needs to resort to help from censors to stop you from watching a film. You can't be moralistic about a movie. At best, a horrifying movie must help you break away your own psychological thresholds and handle reality in a better way," says Bhaumik. "I am not a big fan of violence on screen, but it is ignorant to assume that it may drive viewers to the extreme. A film is, after all, a film," adds Padgaonkar.
Panned for its quality and yet praised for taking the bull by the horns, Kukunoor's Lakshmi may, perhaps, be the treading of a new ground.