Is Bollywood failing cause of rape victims?

Even as the gargantuan Hindi film industry struggles to shed its escapist tag, its latest attempt to recreate a real life rape has set off a debate on where cinematic social comment ends and exploitation begins.

"Jaago", a film by Mehul Kumar, is based on the shocking rape of a disabled girl in full view of commuters in a moving train in Mumbai in 2002. The film is drawing flak for its allegedly distasteful depiction of the gang rape of the 10-year-old.

The rape scenes are repeatedly shown through the film and to cap it all, the mother of the victim rather ludicrously tries to nab the culprits by luring them home.

Critics and social observers say the film started out with good intensions but might cause more harm than good to rape victims.

Mehul Kumar of "Karantiveer" and "Tiranga" fame has cast popular and critically acclaimed stars like Raveena Tandon and Manoj Bajpai in the lead roles of a bereaved mother and a cop with a cause respectively.

Says Bajpai of the film: "'Jaago' is a wake-up call. It revolts audiences into taking action. This is what cinema was always meant to be."

This would be the umpteenth time Bollywood has picked on the sensitive subject of rape.

In kitsch Hindi films, rape scenes are like an "item" and picturised in a way clearly meant to thrill the predominantly male audiences.

However, "Jagao" is the first movie belonging to the genre of low-budget new wave realistic cinema to deal with the subject.

Social activists say that with finance becoming available to any and everyone wanting to wield the megaphone, filmmakers need to exercise more maturity in their craft.

If "Jagao" turns out to be a hit, 10 more wannabe filmmakers will want to jump on the bandwagon and that would be the rape of the cause, says activist Nafisa Ali.

"Our filmmakers defend the mindless excesses of commercial cinema by saying that they provide entertainment to the masses," says columnist Deepa Gahlot.

"Sure, escapism is a perfectly valid need, no problem with that. But the backdrop is used simply to add as much crudity and titillating violence as possible."

Against this, there was Jagmohan Mundhra's well-intentioned "Bawandar" that told the true story of a Rajasthani saathin or rural welfare worker who was raped by upper caste males for trying to stop child marriages in her village but was denied justice due to political pressure.

Then, there was "Bandit Queen", in which Shekhar Kapur depicted the stripping and rape of dacoit Phoolan Devi.

Mundhra was accused of pandering to viewers who would "enjoy" watching rapes when he cast young Nandita Das in far too colourful clothes as the middle-aged Bhanwari and recreated every shocking detail of the incident.

"Bawandar" shifted the focus from the aftermath of the rape that exposed miscarriage of justice -- the rapists were acquitted on flimsy grounds due to political pressure -- to the actual rape, contends columnist Gahlot.

The crux of the story was the fact that feudal values still run so deep in our society and that it is next to impossible for a poor lower caste woman to get justice, she maintains.

Similarly, many men went to watch "Bandit Queen" only to see a nude woman and greeted the gut-wrenching rape scene with whistles and catcalls.

Clearly, great care needs to go into how the issue is handled.

Films like Shyam Benegal's "Aadmi", B.R. Chopra's "Sadhna" and Chetan Anand's "Hanste Zakhm" had no trace of vulgarity but more impact.

Last year, the big-budget directorial debut of Chandra Prakash Dwivedi - "Pinjar" - came close to striking the right balance. The film, a pre-partition drama, was based on Amrita Pritam's novel of the same name.