The recently-released Civic Studios short film Vakeel Babu is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which a self-centred man learns how to care for others through his interactions with women. While this can be seen as a problem (why are women being made to do emotional labour for men?), the film manages to do this fairly gracefully.
At the end of the film, Shiraz’s (ably portrayed by Abhishek Banerjee of Paatal Lok and Mirzapur fame) exchange with one of the women (Malti) makes it clear why the women are taking on the responsibility for the men in their lives. It is not because they think it is their duty to do so, nor is it out of some unfounded and misguided notion of love for men. The women are doing it for themselves. It is not possible to make a society without men and if men are not going to improve by themselves, then women will help them improve, because in the end, they want a good society to live in, and if to achieve that they must care for wayward men and nurse them back to civility, then so be it.
This line of thought echoes American writer James Baldwin’s suggestion for Black Americans to love their white compatriots and take the responsibility to improve them because they cannot form a society apart from them.
The women in the film are neither fetishised nor rendered for the male gaze. No violence or overt suffering is shown even as it is alluded to throughout the film. The subtlety with which that is done can teach many filmmakers how to portray sensitive issues without sensationalising them, and without exploiting characters for sympathy and attention.
Through its women, the film raises some important points and questions about our current situation. I will tackle them one by one in the rest of the review.
First woman: The student
Due to Shiraz’s social media presence, a group of law students has come to him for a special session. While he is telling them about domestic abuse laws and how to go about such cases, he says that laws like Sections 304B (dowry death) and 498A (husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty) of the Indian Penal Code have been made to favour women, to which one of the female students raises an objection that Shiraz clearly does not have a good reply for — have these laws been made to favour women or to give them equal rights in an unequal society?
This question can be asked for all sorts of affirmative action, like reservations for historically marginalised castes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and laws protecting the rights of minorities through special endowments and exceptions given to them to practice their culture and traditions. Do we have reservations to favour Dalits or do we have reservations to give them equal rights? The student even brings up the famous example of the uneven field to make her point.
“Imagine the runner starting the race five steps behind,” she begins, before Shiraz cuts her short and says these examples are fine for the sake of conversation, but the ground reality is different, and that there are women who take advantage of such laws. But then, does the misuse of such laws by some women refute the situation of the majority of women who need these laws to lead a dignified life? Does the fact that some Dalits take ‘unfair’ advantage of reservations or game the system thereby become enough of a reason to get rid of the entire thing? Are there any laws that are not misused by those who are intent on misusing them? If laws were judged by their being misused by some, could we have laws at all?
When the powerful take undue advantage of some law, it is never argued that the law itself should be removed. Why is it that this argument is only put forward against laws meant to benefit historically oppressed sections of society like women, Adivasis, religious minorities and underprivileged castes?
Second woman: Janki
Janki is the first domestic abuse victim in the film to come to Shiraz. She does not ask him any questions directly but becomes an occasion for him to examine himself. Her case is relatively simple, but she does not have enough money to pay Shiraz. So, in lieu of legal fees, Shiraz asks her to participate in a video and talk about what a great lawyer he is.
In the pursuit to get more subscribers for his YouTube channel, he forgets what this public presence might mean for the woman who has come to him behind the back of her family, to lodge a case against the very people with whom she lives, and who already abuse her and are liable to abuse her more in the future when they learn what she has been up to. As events play out and he realises what a grave mistake he has made, he begins to question his obsession with social media. He begins to understand the nature of the virtual space and the real effect it can have on people’s lives.
The interplay between our social media selves and ‘real’ life is made apparent here. Janki has come to Advocate Shiraz Hussain to fight her case, he makes use of her to promote his online avatar ‘Vakeel Babu’, but she suffers because the world (her family) doesn’t differentiate between Vakeel Babu and Advocate Shiraz Hussain. While he is able to separate Vakeel Babu from Shiraz Hussain, and put one identity in the service of another, the world is not that simple.
Social media is not a separate ‘virtual’ space that cannot sometimes have heavy repercussions on social reality. It is not a safe space because you never know who will see what you have put up, how they will understand it and how they will react to it.
He was trying to win subscribers but he ended up hurting an already vulnerable person irrevocably. Does ‘advertising’ on social media justify putting his client at risk? While Shiraz thinks it does at the beginning, his view changes definitely after he sees the consequences. While he thinks at the beginning that praise by people means he is a good lawyer, we can see he has changed after the Janki debacle. He realises that it is not praise but getting people justice that is the hallmark of a good lawyer.
Third woman: Maryam aunty’s daughter
The questioning of social media that begins with Janki is taken to its logical conclusion by Shiraz’s interaction with his cousin. The cousin is meeting him because she is inspired by him. She has seen all his videos and wants to start a channel of her own while in college. He is by then already questioning his own video-making, and so he tells his cousin that social media and videos are just distractions; to be a good lawyer she must study hard and remember all the laws by heart. She rejects this advice and tells him she wants to be just like him — famous.
By the bad example he has set for his cousin, he realises his own mistake. Social media is not central; the real work of a lawyer has remained the same since his mother’s time – it is done in classrooms, in courts, and on the street. One should not confuse popularity on social media with real work
This interaction also raises important questions for all of us, questions that Shiraz also certainly has to deal with. Why do we want to do something? Is it because we want to be famous or because we think it is worth doing in and of itself? Why do we write? Why do we make movies? Why do we protest or engage in activism? Is it because we want fame and money? Or is it because we enjoy facing and surmounting the challenges involved in any of these activities? Do we want to protest because we want to be famous like, say, political activist Kanhaiya Kumar? Or do we want to protest because it is the right thing to do? Are we ready for the prison sentence? Unless we are, won’t we betray the resistance when we are imprisoned?
Anyone who does anything because it looks good on social media, or because they think of it instrumentally — as a way of achieving some other end — is bound to break down when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, when the real grind begins, away from the limelight, away from any fame, away from any sense of gratitude or immediate gratification.
For instance, all the upper castes who enter anti-caste activism thinking they will be thanked by their Dalit comrades are bitterly disappointed when they aren’t and take a right turn. But isn’t it their mistake in the first place to have entered activism not because it was the right thing to do, but expecting gratitude or fame? Can a person who becomes a lawyer or an activist or a writer for the fame that these activities will bring ever be a good lawyer, activist or writer?
Fourth woman: Malti
When Malti calls him because she has seen his videos on social media, Shiraz is elated and thinks his social media strategy, derided by his mother and colleagues, has been vindicated. But then he gets to know that Malti is the daughter-in-law of a powerful minister, and everything falls apart for him. He loses hope of winning the case against such a powerful man who knows all the judges in the city and is even friends with the magistrate. Not only that, he is also afraid that the powerful minister will use extra-legal means to put pressure on him.
His mother points out the obvious: if Shiraz is so afraid of what the minister can do to him, what is the extent of harm that he can inflict on Malti? And if Malti is indeed in much higher danger than Shiraz, then the courage she must have had to conjure up to approach a lawyer, and save herself and her daughter from a life marred by constant violence is also much greater than the courage Shiraz is being asked to display to merely do his job.
In front of the courage shown by Malti, Shiraz is being asked to do practically nothing. How can he hold onto any self-respect if he gives up Malti’s case out of fear? He is forced by Malti to make a choice between a life of self-loathing, and a life where he takes risks for what is right and gets the chance to respect himself.
Through her actions, Malti also shows him that all the words he spews on social media, about winning cases if one has the correct legal knowhow, are just empty words unless backed by action. Similarly, the law is merely a dead letter unless there are lawyers willing to bring it alive in action.
This points to a very important issue facing us currently. While we incessantly run social awareness campaigns in the hope that awareness in itself will be able to improve conditions, an understanding is developing that it is not so much awareness that is the problem as is our inability to imagine and will change. In our age of information saturation, we are realising that remedying the lack of information is just a preliminary step; the real work begins after that.
All of us are aware of what is wrong, but we are either unable to imagine anything better or are unable to muster up the will to do what is necessary.
Fifth woman: His mother Rabiya Hasan
Shiraz’s mother, just by her mere presence, is a testament to the strength of a woman. One has to wonder about this Muslim woman, who after a life as a lawyer in a corrupt legal system in a country biased against women and Muslims, has managed to keep her sense of humour, her sense of justice, her optimism and her desire to live well without breaking down. What is her source of strength? We are broken down so easily by circumstances which can’t be more difficult than hers must have been; what are we doing wrong?
While Shiraz is despairing over his inability to put up a fight against the powerful, his mother comes to the rescue by her simple faith in the law. When Shiraz says that the entire system is corrupt, his mother tells him that while it may be so, “the laws to break such a system are within the system too”. His mother is his moral compass in dark times, the person who shows him the way no matter how heavy the storm.
The question that his mother raises and answers in the affirmative is — if the law and the system don’t work, and everybody recognises they don’t work, can then one person taking up the right fight really make that much of a difference?
India still doesn’t have legal morality, as evidenced by everyone’s easy acceptance of corruption and the minister’s extra-judicial power and influence. It is not even a matter of debate that the powerful minister will bend all appointed and elected officials to his will, and that the law will mean nothing in front of his bare might. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s analysis that we as a people have not imbibed constitutional morality and thus respect for constitutionally-mandated laws and institutions, still stands. The attempt being made by the film is to instil public morality – a desire to fight for what’s right and make changes in the law accordingly.
But one of the problems which inevitably rises in such situations is: whose public morality? Now, here the filmmaker is arguing that domestic violence should be punished according to law, no matter how powerful the accused is. Law should apply equally to all citizens of India, irrespective of their economic and political influence. Public morality here is put in the service of upholding legal morality.
But what if the law itself is discriminatory? Who gets to decide if it is or not? What if we don’t agree with the majority moral view on something? If the public holds that India is a Hindu country, should the law reflect that? Should people take it in their hands to fight for that?
It can, I think, be argued that yes, those who think India should be a Hindu country should fight to make that happen, so that these things can be debated out in the open. Everyone should do what they think is right. In the longer run, if this is inculcated in the populace, then what we have to deal with are issues of right and wrong.
We don’t have to worry about the fact that even knowing what is right, people will do what is wrong simply because of cynicism or greed, among other things. If people do what they actually believe is right, we might not agree with their morality or their judgment, but at least we can look them eye to eye as moral beings and have an honest debate with them. How are you supposed to live with a person whose words you can’t trust, who says something is right but does something else altogether for personal gain? How can a society possibly deal with that? We are always constantly working on shared values and norms, but what are we to do with people who reject the possibility of acting upon shared values and norms?
Everyone is aware that the family can do drastic things if they come to know a woman is trying to leave; a woman has no real options elsewhere. The minister knows the judges and can influence them; an honest lawyer and egalitarian laws can only do so much in a system that is corrupt. But all this is not reason enough to just give up. Attempts have to be made, so that they can build upon each other and gather mass and momentum over time
The movie makes an important intervention in the sense that it encourages us to get over our defeatist cynicism, our tendency to excuse ourselves from doing the right thing by arguing it is going to prove inconsequential anyway. To make a new beginning is our right, as Shiraz tells Malti, but it takes courage and effort to make that possible. To be able to do so, we also have to transform, as Shiraz transformed from Vakeel Babu, the armchair social media personality, to Advocate Shiraz Hussain, the lawyer who is willing to put his skin in the game for what he believes is right.