Questions that must be asked and truths that must be told are the driving forces of “The Rapist,” a gripping Indian social drama about a middle-class academic who wants her rapist — who has been sentenced to death and to whom she has fallen pregnant — to tell her exactly why he committed such a crime. One of the best works directed by veteran filmmaker-actor Aparna Sen (“36 Chowringhee Lane,” “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”), “The Rapist” is a deeply affecting portrait of personal trauma and an intelligent examination of social and cultural factors fueling the horrifying prevalence of sexual violence in India.
Featuring a standout central performance by Konkona Sen Sharma, “The Rapist” is sure to make a strong impact domestically and deserves to be widely seen elsewhere following its world premiere at the Busan Film Festival. With the full re-opening of Indian cinemas still some time away, “The Rapist” appears most likely to go straight to streaming. That said, its dramatic qualities and fearless commentary on a topic of urgent national importance could also lead to limited theatrical exposure prior to online release. Specialty distributors in foreign territories that generally acquire more lightweight commercial Indian fare should also give this one a look.
Cleverly constructed to make the rapist a bit player until he comes sharply into focus in the film’s latter stages, “The Rapist” casts an unblinking eye over the class, gender and religious factors at play in the lead-up to and aftermath of a terrible crime. Sen has said that the idea for this film began forming 15 years ago. The broad scope and rigor of her narrative is evidence of a work that has been deeply thought-out and meticulously executed.
Sen Sharma, who is the daughter of Aparna Sen and also a highly respected actress and filmmaker, is excellent in the demanding role of Naina Mishra, a New Delhi university professor teaching criminal psychology. In the film’s frisky opening sequences, we can tell Naina, a Hindu, is very much in love and lust with Muslim husband Aftab (Arjun Rampal), also a university professor. The couple have been trying to conceive for many years and are prominent supporters of India’s anti-capital punishment movement.
We don’t see much of rapist Prasad Singh (Tanmay Dhanania) before the crime. Snapshots are all that’s required to show him as the cowardly sidekick of slum gang leader Latif (Chetan Sharma). In a chillingly portentous scene, this loathsome duo intimidates a young woman who has committed the “crime” of being outdoors and unaccompanied at night. In their view, she is a whore who deserves to be shamed and punished. It’s a view shared by many in their poor neighborhood, where disdain for the middle and upper classes also runs deep.
After visiting a slum to help in the case of a woman who has committed infanticide following her shaming for giving birth to four daughters, Naina and her colleague Malini (Anindita Bose) are viciously sexually assaulted at a bus stop. Malini is murdered and Naina is left with shocking physical and emotional injuries. Piled on top is the humiliation Naina suffers from the moment she’s interviewed in a hospital waiting room while onlookers gawk and listen. The first question police ask her is, “Are you a hooker?”
Naina’s trauma is depicted with brutally realistic scenes of her flinching from Aftab’s touch and developing obsessive-compulsive behavior. The survivor guilt consuming Naina is visualized in nightmarish visions of Malini’s reanimated corpse. At other times, Naina constructs mental notes to Malini and reads them in voice-over. The justice system may be prejudiced against women, but in this case, there is irrefutable evidence which condemns Prasad to death by hanging. At the same time, Naina discovers she is pregnant.
The great strength of Sen’s screenplay is the realistic manner in which it depicts Naina and Aftab’s reactions to events that challenge firmly held beliefs and threaten their marriage. From being avowedly against the death penalty, Aftab now wants to see his wife’s rapist hang. At first horrified by the thought of carrying Prasad’s child, Naina changes her mind after talking to her housemaid, Savitri (Semma Azmi), who is terrified of being exposed as a Muslim in her poor neighborhood.
Savitri’s tale of being raped before marriage and finding happiness in motherhood is just one of many scenes highlighting the differences between Naina’s well-educated and financially comfortable life and stark realities affecting women from the lower classes. “It’s OK if you’re a rich Muslim, but in the slums …” says Savitri. Similar realities exist when it comes to justice. As pointed out by Aftab’s lawyer friend Subhash (Sukesh Arora), the death penalty is almost exclusively carried out on the poor and poorly educated.
Crucially, Sen does not attempt to suggest one outlook or solution is more valid or noble than another. Her mission is to raise every uncomfortable issue this scenario contains and allow them to be talked about, debated and wrestled with by characters who are sometimes calm and clear-headed, and at other times enraged and inflamed with emotion that causes opinions to change suddenly and dramatically. As a richly layered discussion starter, “The Rapist” succeeds very well.
The biggest question Naina wants answered is “why.” As the clock ticks on her pregnancy, Naina decides to interview Prasad as part of a professional study into the mindset and motivations of men who rape. With her camera recording everything, Naina unearths the story of Prasad’s pitiful life, which has been defined by violence and misogyny. Dhanania comes into his own in these long sequences. He delivers a beautifully understated performance as a man whose apparent desire to at least express some remorse and attain a measure of redemption comes with a huge sting in the tail.
The ending of “The Rapist” may satisfy some viewers more than others but in no way diminishes all that’s come before. The only real imperfections to the film are visual, with some scenes being drained of most color for no immediately apparent reason.