Why Pakistani critics of Mahira Khan's Verna have a problem with how a rape survivor reacts
No two women react the same way to any act of violence, sexual or otherwise.
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When I was in high school, there was one film I, along with other children, was not allowed to watch: Insaf Ka Tarazu, and even in my late teens, the film remained R-rated (restricted rating) to us. The explicitly shot scenes of Zeenat Aman and Padmini Kolhapuri were considered too risqué for their time, and in a way, they still remain some of the most boldly executed scenes on a subject that makes any decent human being cringe: rape. The film dealt with the aftermath of rape, the futile legal battles, and the ultimate end: revenge. By the victim.
Then there was the Jodie Foster- and Kelly McGillis-starrer The Accused that I watched in college, and it remained in my mind for ages; it was that disturbing. That was one film in which the victim gets retribution the way she should have, and like all rape victims should: through court.
Dimple Kapadia’s Zakhmi Aurat had multiple victims-turned-vigilantes and multiple castration of perpetrators, opening a new debate. What is the right punishment for the very wrong act of rape?
Mahira Khan in Verna
As per media reports at that time, the rape of the character played by Monica Bellucci in Irréversible was said to be the most violent rape scene in the history of cinema. Her rapist also meets a very violent end, and that too out of court.
Sridevi’s Mom deals with ordeals of a young rape victim, her family’s failure to get legal justice, and finally revenge vigilante-style by a family member.
Pakistan’s Shoaib Mansoor’s Mahira Khan-starrer Verna is not different from most films dealing with one of the most brutal crimes against humanity: rape. Watching a 10:30pm show yesterday in Lahore in which there was pin-drop silence in the cinema during most of the film, my 23-year-old niece and I both had the similar reaction: how eerily realistic the film was in its treatment of general male behaviour and societal ethos of Pakistan.
Contrary to some negative reports I had read online, Verna, excluding a few structural flaws, is well-made, well-directed, well-acted and well-written, except for the over-the-top ending, and that is also because of my categorical opposition to capital punishment in any form - court-decreed or as a result of vigilantism. What makes Verna a film to be watched attentively is the very powerful dialogues. Like strategically placed punches, most dialogues of Verna hit hard, laced with heavy dollops of reality of sexism, misogyny and treatment of women in general, and that of rape victims in particular. Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye, Bol and Verna deliver one message: For God’s sake speak up or...
Review after review of Verna focus on and bash the film among other things on one aspect: how Sara - Mahira Khan’s character - should have reacted to rape, how a rape victim is supposed to feel, react and act. Some accuse Verna of trivialisation of rape. Why? Because Sara doesn’t break down and hide in a corner? She does all that, and more. And then she stops, outwardly at least.
Is there a manual that I missed? A self-help book that sells the most effective way to overcome the trauma of rape? A tried and tested remedy to lessen the scars of a violent sexual act? A one-fits-all set of actions that aid in normalisation of life after your body has been violated?
No two women react the same way to any act of violence, sexual or otherwise, and no film would ever truly depict how you, she, he, they, anyone or me react to rape. Rape affects in a deeply personal way, and subjective are responses and ways to deal with it.
A victim or a survivor, one rape, one tag. Life can’t be that simple, it never is. There is no black and white here, what there is: a multitude of greys.
One rape survivor may retreat into a shell never to move out of it. Another one may lock it all deep within her and never talk about it. One may scream hard for justice and not stop until she gets it. Another one may live a normal life fighting demons no amount of love and sense of security ever exorcise. Life of one victim may be marked with the memory of that one brutal experience, as she recoils inwardly each time a man touches her, in an act of love.
Verna is one of the most potent films I’ve seen on the very sensitive subject of rape, and interestingly, there is no rape scene in the film, not even one violent touch. Between Sara’s kidnapping and return there is nothing more than her husband and family’s pain, yet you feel what happened to her when she is reunited with her family. Mahira’s portrayal of a rape victim/survivor is powerful, and without any histrionics that don’t gel with the theme.
It is easier said than done. How many rape victims do we actually see and interact with in our tight-knit cliques, our protective families, our privileged educational, work and social circles? You hear stories, but they are what they are: stories. Rape is still hushed up, and rape is particularly hushed up in affluent families whose lives work on one simple line: log kya kahenge?
Verna is "power di game" as the opening song states. It is about the treatment politicians, law enforcement and other agencies mete out to ordinary people, the immunity they take for granted, the sense of entitlement their positions attach to them like a medal of honour bought in a pawnshop. Nothing and no one can touch them in their cocoon of invincibility, their bubble of omnipotence.
Verna challenges it all, and then some.
Men in Verna are males I see all around me. In Pakistan that is patriarchal, misogynistic, sexist - even when it doesn’t mean to be. While they don’t boast of raping women, they behave with a sense of entitlement like Zarar Khan’s villain Sultan, react like Haroon Shahid’s Aami, threaten like goons of the powerful scion of a very powerful political family, subvert the system like the police officers who handle Sara’s case, and mock the very edifice of humanity like all politicians except one do in Verna. Sara’s husband Aami is not a "weak loser". Aami is every man: rape is shame. For the victim. Rape is not to be dealt with.
Verna is not simply about the hell the victim/survivor goes through. The emphasis of Verna is on the reality of the aftermath: hiding of the crime, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, adding falsehoods and a blatant effort to brush it all away as nothing. Rape is not considered a barbarity that must be punished. Rape is viewed as an act of shame that must never be talked about.
In Verna, it is not about Sara’s reaction to rape, it is about her fight for justice. When all legal doors close, retribution comes from the victim/survivor and her loved ones. What is termed as an unrealistic, oh-come-on-who-does-this, over the top ending of Verna, I - barring my above-mentioned repudiation of certain punishments - looked at it as something that is meant as a punch in the gut, something meant to force you to keep your eyes fixed on the screen, something hard, ugly and distasteful to jolt you out of your apathy.
There will always be a woman who will make sure her "NO" is heard. Whose fight for justice never ends. Who doesn’t live by familial and societal yardstick of accepted behaviour. Who gets justice in her own way. Verna is about expectation of silence and submission, and it is about the exact opposite of that. Verna is about the depths of pain the victim and her loved ones suffer and how they say: enough.
The denouement is startling, stark, searing. It is if the raped woman is simply saying: You will suffer until you die like I suffered as I lived. Scream all you want; your pleas to be saved will not be heard by anyone. Like mine weren’t. Your torment will be hidden. Like mine was. And your pain will go unnoticed. Like mine was.