Article Hindi

Burning issues raised in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini still remain — 25th anniversary special

On the film's 25th anniversary today (it hit the screens on 30 April 1993), we contemplate the contemporary relevance of the pertinent issues raised in the film.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In 1993, director Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini, which translates as lightning, was indeed a breakthrough film that addressed crucial issues like rape, exploitation of women in a patriarchal society, and powerlessness of the poor in a corrupt society. 

25 years after its release, the concerns raised in the film remain as we find ourselves in a legal and political quagmire. The State is unable to guarantee justice to victims of rape and sexual abuse. 

Today, we take a look at the relevance of this path-breaking film, through the lens of the present situation regarding women’s precarious position in society.  

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A guileless and trusting girl, Damini (Meenakshi Seshadri) is noticed by the son of an industrialist, Shekhar (Rishi Kapoor). Her innocence is an endearing quality for Shekhar, who decides to marry her, but ironically, it is this very quality that creates a rift between them later. The home of the in-laws brings the usual troubles for Damini, who befriends the maid, Urmi (Prajakta Kulkarni). 

On the day of Holi, Shekhar’s brother rapes Urmi along with his friends, a crime that is witnessed by Damini and her husband. In order to preserve the family’s ‘honour’, Damini is implored by her in-laws and husband to not reveal the truth to the authorities and save the culprits instead. 

This goes against the grain of all that she holds dear, but Damini reluctantly complies, only to find herself unable to tread the treacherous path of lies. While her family abandons her, an earnest, alcoholic lawyer, Govind (Sunny Deol), who knows the system all too well, decides to fight for her and takes on the vile hair-flicking barrister Indrajit Chaddha (Amrish Puri). Thus, commences the trial between truth and lies. 

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Damini is the moral compass and her innocence and commitment to the truth is established early on in the film when she chooses to tell her husband-to-be about her sister who has run away from home to get married. Not bothered about judgment, she prefers to be honest instead of beginning a relationship on the basis of lies. It is her morally upright character, anguish and will that holds the film together, as she fights her way through the web of deception spun by the functionaries of a corrupt system. 

The film recreated the success of Deol and Seshadri's first film together with director Rajkumar Santoshi, Ghayal (1990), which also marked the director’s debut. Damini also remains Seshadri's best performance and soon after the film, she chose to bid adieu to the world of cinema for good. 

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Sunny Deol's performance in the film remains legendary and he won the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a lawyer willing to take on the system with bare hands. The face-off between Deol and Amrish Puri make it to the list of any best Hindi movie scenes compilation and the dialogues in their exchanges are hard-hitting. 

The “Dhai kilo ka haath” and “Tareek par tareek” make the confrontation between good and evil engaging, reflecting on the frustration of the righteous and their refusal to bow down in the face of the machinations of the wicked. 

Sunny Deol in a courtroom scene from the film

However, the film lacks nuance as the distinction between good and evil are stark and the only character that truly contemplates his choices is Shekhar, who is torn between his duty towards the family on the one side, and the love for his wife and the path that he knows is right, on the other. 

Damini employs high melodrama to drive its points home, especially in the courtroom scenes which are way over the top to be realistic. But it nonetheless raises several pertinent systemic issues that plague us today, where in the end, everything is a business deal and wielding money is the most potent weapon.

It is deeply saddening that these issues remain acutely relevant even today and we are still fighting for the implementation of laws against rape and yet the culprits routinely get away. Protest after protest has addressed this lacuna but the situation on the ground only seems to be worsening for women in India, whose only fault is their gender. 

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The film is perceptive in portraying the false notions of respectability adopted by families of the accused and the extent to which families will go to hide the demonic culprits, while constantly tightening the noose on the women.

A particularly insightful scene is one where Chaddha is incensed by Damini’s insubordination and audacity in stepping out of the designated realm of the kitchen and taking on the men, and he says, “Main Damini ko Doosri aurton ke liye kabhi bhi misaal nahin banane doonga [I will never let Damini become an inspiration for other women]", plotting to make her appear unstable and mad instead. That seems logical because according to patriarchal norms, any woman who steps out of patriarchal authority and exercises her own agency, must be mad in any case. 

In the film, justice is delivered in the end as the culprits get their comeuppance but in reality, we still have a long, hard battle ahead of us. There is a scene in the film when Damini is being chased by goons who want to prevent her from reaching the court to give her testimony. Tired of being chased, she turns around to face her assailants, and the people watching from the building throw bricks at them and drive them away. This crucial scene reminds us that this battle can only be won if we all fight together.