Deepika Bhardwaj’s ‘Martyrs of Marriage’ shocks the viewer into the reality of how laws made with the noblest of intentions can wreck people’s lives
So, when we see a documentary on a social issue, what can be termed as a fair expectation from the filmmaker? A quick list made by me will read as follows:
1. The filmmaker should have spent some time researching the subject and that should show in the film.
2. If the documentary is about a particular group of society and injustices done with them, a section of that should be represented in the documentary.
3. Scholars in that particular field and other stakeholders like social activists, lawyers and academics should give the viewer a holistic view of the issue at hand. All sides of the argument should be represented.
4. Rather than assigning blame, the focus of the project should be on seeking solutions.
5. While it is perfectly fair for the filmmaker to lean towards one side of the issue (indeed it might even be the motivation for them to make the film in first place), he/she should maintain an appropriately dispassionate balance to prevent the documentary from turning into propaganda.
Martyrs of Marriage (MoM), by the Delhi-based activist Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj, a documentary about misuse of the dreaded IPC section 498-A (which addresses the harassment faced by a married woman from her husband’s family), passes the muster very successfully on all the above counts. Searing, unflinching and thought provoking, the film takes us on a journey of hell suffered by thousands of families accused of cruelty by the women their sons/brothers married.
Section 498-A is cognizable, non-compoundable (complaint once made cannot be withdrawn) and non-bailable. This means that a mere accusation on part of the woman turns the Blackstone formulation of "it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer" on its head. It forces the accused and his family (ranging from a 2 month old toddler to octogenarians in wheelchairs) to prove their innocence, rather than asking the accusers to prove their guilt. Loss of reputation, peace of mind and financial stability follows, and very often the man plunges into a vortex of despair that ends in him taking his own life.
From Makhdoom , a young man who, unable to bear the harassment at the hands of law and his ex-wife’s family, hung himself after making a video clip, to Uma Challa , a woman who was arrested along with her brother on the complaint of a woman he was married to for barely 10 days, we see victims after innocent victims narrate the tales of indignities, torture and hardships they were made to suffer at the hands of a system. A system with a myopic view of marital problems, i.e. the man and his family is always guilty. No-nonsense lawyers like Mrinalini Deshmukh and K K Bhati tell us about how the entire system works to systematically deny any chance for the husband’s family to seek justice, and how a law, originally designed to protect women, has actually become (to quote a court judgement) ‘an assassin’s weapon’.
In one of the highlights of the documentary, the erudite Prof Madhu Kishwar makes two very important points:
One, women often think of 498-A as a tool that will increase their bargaining power in their husband’s family whereas in reality the moment they file a complaint under this section the possibility of reconciliation ends completely, thereby reducing their bargaining power.
Two, people who oppose any changes in the law need to decide for themselves whether they want equality of justice or a tool for extortion. Justice S N Dhingra (retired), former Gurgaon Police Commissioner Alok Mittal and former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar all talk about how judges and politicians are aware of the evils of this section and yet find themselves powerless to bring about a change due to the extremely vocal, aggressive and adamant women’s rights lobby. We are reminded that women’s rights activists actually ransacked a court because a judgement stressed on the need to change the law. We also see the same stubbornness in person when a leading activist tells that no change should be made to the law till the time ‘even one girl dies due to dowry’ in the country. She probably refrains from mentioning that a hundred men dying instead is an acceptable outcome. Another activist and a former functionary of the Women’s Commission tells us – fake cases are not such a large problem, may be just 2-3 per cent’. No supporting statistics for this claim is provided.
It is important to understand that the misuse of 498-A is most certainly not a gender issue. The women in the husband’s families, very often either married sisters or aged mothers, also get dragged to jails and suffer unspeakable indignities as a result of this section. On the other hand (as we get to hear from a couple of recorded conversations), the woman making the complaint, more often than not, has male relatives or lawyers as instigators and co-conspirators. Therefore, it is most certainly not an injustice to a gender, but an injustice to a section of the society stigmatized by a nexus of activists, lawyers and lawmakers.
If you are a married man, or if you are related to a married man, this could happen to you, and in the current scenario, short of giving into the blackmail of the woman and her family members, suicide might be the only other way out. What left me shocked was the utterly resigned tone with which lawyers and activists narrated the ordeals. Surely we cannot accept this as a status quo.
The solutions suggested range from making the section bailable, to making it gender neutral. I do not have sufficient knowledge to really make a comment on this topic. What I do know is that this needs to change. The men ending their lives are citizens of a free and democratic country, and giving them justice should not be debated.
MoM boasts of excellent production values. Deepika Bhardwaj who doubles up as the narrator is at once detached yet commanding of our attention. Without a doubt Martyrs of Marriage is one of the most important documentary of our times, and the young film-maker deserves our admiration and attention.