Sanakeithel: In Search of the Proverbial ‘Gold’ – Part 1

By FrontierManipur | Published On 15th May, 2021, 11:01 GMT+0530

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A scene from Sanakeithel; Photo courtesy: Th. Doren Singh

Is rape a matter of honour as it is often made out to be? Sanakeithel (1983) does not seem to think so in the way that the film addresses it in the aftermath of the violent act on the life of the person on whom it is committed.

By Rekha Konsam

Some things leave a lasting impression. They keep coming back to haunt the mind. It is unsettling because it is difficult to decide what you feel about it. This perhaps would best be the way to describe my feelings about the movie Sanakeithel (1983) after watching it as an adult. It left me with a gamut of feelings and a deep impression.

Based on a story written by N. Pahari Singh and directed by M. Amuthoi Singh, the film is premised on the lives of a handful of people dwelling in and around the market. It approaches the keithel (market) through Nungshi and her son Ibungobi. The film neither judges nor condemns; it does not stand on moral high grounds to preach nor does it make attempts to squeeze tears out of the audience. All events and situations, good or bad, are presented as part of life in a large busy impersonal marketplace where life goes on no matter what happens. However, it leaves a lot to think about.  

In contrast to the quaint feel that the title seemingly conveys, ‘Sanakeithel’ (literally, golden/royal market) is anything but that. It does not give respite from the harshness of real-life situations. There are no heroes standing tall. There are no saviours nor are there any warriors fighting for justice or deliverance nor are there protectors. There are no cinematic solutions offered.

Watching the film as a child (a distracted one at that), the image of Sanakeithel that stayed on was that of an unkempt hair-strewn woman who loses her mind, the cycle thief and of pilfering potatoes inside the guitar as they saunter around the busy market. At that point, I did not understand how and why Nungshi went mad and came to be separated from her son nor why she did not return home. I did not understand what gang rape was then.

It was in 1990 that I first came across the word ‘rape’ through the tragic case of R.K. Tamphasana Devi. The word was hushed; because it was supposed to be a ‘bad word’. It was veiled or rather we, as young girls, were shielded from it. What we heard at the time were mostly filtered or overheard bits of news and rumours doing the round among the girls in school. Being in a strict school, we cherished every free period or even a five minutes delay in the teacher entering the class. We were initially elated at the possibility of unforeseen day-offs and disrupted classes. But then it turned out that it was due to a death, later we learnt that it was a murder and a brutal one at that. As time passed, we heard more and more sordid details that were unimaginably gruesome.  

We heard of the pains and cries of people expressing their grief. We heard of the victim’s parents who initially thought that their daughter might have eloped and were looking forward to welcoming her back. School was disrupted by the unrest of agitated people protesting over the state inaction. There was a list of women being talked about who had thus met similar unfortunate ends – Rose and Neelam were a couple more names in that list. Dread was etched on worried parents of daughters. Girls were told to be even more careful and constrained more than they already were.    

Looking back today, I would tell my younger self and my friends that it is not the word that is bad but the very act itself. It is not the word from which one needs to be shielded from but that the very act is contemptuous; that rather than victim-blaming, it is the perpetrator that is at fault – always; and that rape is but the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, what constitutes rape and what it entails still remain under thick curtains of politeness, etiquette, honour and societal norms to be talked about. Much less can be said about gangrape, threat and the violence of it or the lasting repercussions such actions can have on the victims. There is still very little understanding or acknowledgement of consent or of sexuality or inequitable power in gender relations while toxic masculinity is not recognized for what it is. This coupled with misogyny and the rare (if at all) voices speaking of/from women’s lived experiences that often faces severe backlash is a potent mix waiting to explode. 

There is still very little understanding that it is not just the act of rape itself that is condemnable but that it is part of an entire corpus of behaviours and societal attitudes towards sexuality that normalizes such acts – something that is broadly referred to as rape culture. And this is something one needs to educate oneself on at the very basic level. In this sense, Sanakeithel can be considered a bold film for its time to engage with the issue of gang-rape. Unfortunately, the dialogue that it initiated appears to have remained suspended even after nearly 30 years of its release.

A lone woman walking down the road is not safe. It was not safe then and it is not safe today. But it is not the roads that are to be blamed. And neither is the woman at fault. Nungshi is apprehended by a group of men on her way back from the market. They are strangers to her and she to them. She just happened to be around at that point of time around that otherwise empty area. She is carried off and violated by four men. She is then left off, disposed, at the same place while they drive off nonchalantly. The act is a sheer display of power. There is no other reason. They take her just because they can.

The space where the violent act takes place is between the crowded market and her home. The scene where it happens is a place of low rising hill slope overlooking the low-lying fields amidst the natural growths of bushes and plants – the imageries paint a picture of wilderness away from domesticity perhaps suggesting a wild side(?) just as the violence of rape is suggested rather than shown. But is rape so distant as to be construed as something away in the far off wild?

The question begs more thought, today more than ever, considering the fact that rape cases are often either not reported or are compromised through socially acceptable means. Marriage of the victim to the culprit being one such measure. Such compromises may be able to strike a return to status quo in society, however, it hardly can be seen as denying the fact that the violent act did happen neither does it undo the violence.   

It would not be stretching the imagination to say that every woman lives with the threat of violence hanging over their heads; for almost every caution she is told is a caution to prevent the possibility of such an act from happening to her. She is often warned of the consequent loss of her own social status that would entail if such an event befalls on her and how she would be damned. Her dressing, her thinking, her body, her own self – are guarded towards ‘not provoking such actions’. Because she is a woman – she is told to dress in a certain way, talk in a certain way, cover herself up – as to not provoke men sexually or otherwise.

Nungshi is prim and proper in all respects: she remains devoted to her late husband and lives the life of a respectable young widow. She is pious, dutiful, caring, behaves appropriately and dresses carefully. However, this does not stop her from being subjected to rape. The violence of the act and the crossing of boundaries on the part of the perpetrator is rarely, if ever, brought into question. They go scot-free while she is left with a devastating impact on her mental state from which she never emerges out of.

Home is no longer a place to return to. The market place becomes her haunt where she randomly wanders about. It is here that her son Ingobi bumps into Nungshi several years later. Separated for years, they do not recognize each other initially. He later realizes that the mentally challenged woman for whom he used to buy biddi was his estranged biological mother. He is torn between the love for his mother and his helpless anger at the state she finds her in.

The violence of the gang-rape leaves a family shattered. The woman loses her sanity. She loses the dignity of life. It separates a child from a mother. A child loses his family and his childhood. On the flip side, here is a thought worth considering – what if Nungshi had not lost her sanity? Would society have seen her with sympathetic gaze or would she have been slut-shamed? She was, after all, a young woman in the prime of her life and single. What if she had been left pregnant, would society have still allowed her to return back to her home or driven her out as a woman without moral character?

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