Aitraaz is a 2004 thriller courtroom drama, which received widespread acclaim in Bollywood
for being brazen and unabashed. While the film addresses male sexual harassment and gives
pivotal roles to women, it lacks the nuance required to do justice to this pertinent and
sensitive issue. The plot revolves around Raj, who is falsely accused of sexually harassing his
boss and ex-girlfriend Sonia, and the resultant court case that his wife, Priya, wins for him.
As we delve deeper and try to dissect the overarching narrative, we come across a series of
flawed assumptions and stereotypes the film gives into.
Feminist Film Theory criticizes classical cinema for its representation of women which is
marred with stereotypes and aims to understand cinema as a cultural practice that reproduces
myths about gender. It believes that sexual difference is encoded in the visual and narrative
structure of the film, and seeks to analyze the ways to decode this. A post-structuralist
perspective dominates the approach to cinema, claiming that cinema is more than just a
reflection of social relations; it is a construction of such dynamics. Informed by this
perspective, Feminist Film Theory moved beyond reading the meaning of a film to examining
the deep structures upholding such meanings, which this piece seeks to do with a
deconstruction of Aitraaz.
Aitraaz features two major female characters with conflicting ideologies, who are often
juxtaposed to reinforce the societal norm of what a “good woman” is. Priya is traditional and
religious, evident in her docile demeanor and conservative semblance. She is smart but not
commanding enough to steal the spotlight from her husband. She is the subservient wife who
is devoted to her family, abandoning her desire to have a career once she meets Raj. She steps
back in the court only to fight for her husband, despite being infantilized by him every step of
Concurrently, Sonia is the exact opposite. She wears “modern” and “revealing” clothes and is
miles away from being subservient. Sonia is confident, ambitious and doesn’t shy away from
using her sexuality as a weapon. The fact that the movie demonises Sonia as a sexually
exploitative and cunning woman, whilst ascribing certain attributes to her, largely sends out
the message that such traits are the signs of a morally corrupt woman.
During the course of the film, Sonia is slut shamed and her priorities are questioned.
However, the narrative doesn’t see that as a problem, because hey, we established that she’s
evil, right? A particular court sequence, in a wonderful kharbooja (muskmelon) analogy (in
today’s episode of what object women are) demonstrates how the kharbooja was demanding
to “be cut” by dressing in a particular way and inviting a male friend over. This argument is
often used to substantiate refusal to take allegations seriously, by victim blaming and using
the nuanced logic of “she was asking for it”. The film normalises this form of blame, because
hey, remember Sonia is guilty?
The film loves talking about women in analogies, often using multiple objects to describe
them. Women are akin to rivers; if they remain within their bounds, they bring prosperity and
if they dare to cross that maryada (boundary), they cause nothing but destruction. The film
tries to subtly define what this maryada is by contrasting the lives of Sonia and Priya.
Overtly, this refers to the boundaries of consent that were crossed, but there were a few more
breaches of this threshold. Sonia, seeking to prioritise her career and ambition over having a
child and thus opting for an abortion, was vilified for her decision. The very choice of
establishing sexual relationships was questioned by Priya in the court, “passing affair mein
woh sab jisse karne se pehle ek ladki sau baar sochegi” (you did this in a passing affair, for
which a girl would think a hundred times), indicating that a righteous, within the bounds of
maryada woman, will always be afraid of her sexuality and would not have casual
relationships. This virtuous woman is devoted to her family, doesn’t care about her career and
is inconspicuously relegated to the background of her husband’s life.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre introduced the concept of le regard, the gaze,
wherein the act of gazing at another human being creates a subjective power difference,
because the person being gazed at is perceived as an object. In feminist film theory, the male
gaze is the act of viewing women and the world, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective
that displays women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the viewer. Aitraaz depicts the
female protagonists through Raj’s lens, especially Sonia’s character and her motivations. The
spectator is made to identify with the male look, because the camera films from the optical
and libidinal point of view of the male character. We see Sonia’s actions in relation to Raj
and the camera captures her sexuality from an objectifying male lens.
When it comes to talking about a sensitive subject like rape, the film creates a mockery out of
it with distasteful dialogues being used as comedic punchlines. “Hasseen hadasa, joh aaj tak
kissi mard ko naseeb nahi hua hai” (this beautiful tragedy which no man has been lucky
enough to encounter) and several other dialogues ridicule the idea of rape, especially when
the victim is male. Another dialogue by the male protagonist’s friend, Rakesh, when he
mistakenly assumes that Raj is guilty, showcases how sexual assault is perceived by the
characters. Rakesh stating that “galati kissi se bhi ho sakti hai, main teri jagah hota toh”
(anybody could have made a mistake, had I been in your place) demonstrates how sexual
violence is believed to be an innocuous mistake and not a serious crime.
The film also depicts the insecurity and double standards of males, as Raj is unable to deal
with Sonia’s sexuality and the attention it garnered. One particular scene showed him getting
enraged at a group of men sexualising and objectifying Sonia, however, he has no qualms
about indulging and being complicit in the same with his friends. The only difference being
that during the former, he was romantically involved with Sonia, illustrating how the Indian
man is only concerned about a woman’s dignity when she’s related to him.
The ending of the film, with Sonia dying by suicide, depicts her last flashbacks of Raj telling
her that her ambition is going to leave her bereft of familial bonds and attachment. With her
death, the film portrays that the choice she made back then was the wrong one and hence, a
woman choosing her career over a man is deemed to meet a similar fate.
The irony is that as the narrative progresses, these implications don’t register with the viewer,
as we are made to dislike Sonia and empathise with Raj and Priya. The audience roots for
Sonia to be brought to justice, ergo, these aberrations and problematic insinuations seem
harmless and are even encouraged. Aitraaz manages to almost get away with its entrenched
misogynistic implications because it is wrapped in a veil of empowerment. It becomes
imperative to unearth these patriarchal undertones to acknowledge and engage with
problematic cinematic structures.
- Sanjula Gupta