A short film directed by a woman and starring another woman, has become the eye of a storm on the internet. Titled Memories Of A Machine, the film has a woman coyly narrating her first sexual experience, as an eight year old, to her husband who is recording it on a video camera. The woman, played by actress Kani Kusruthi, gives a graphic detailing of the incident, adding that the paedophile, who was the peon at the school where she studied, was a ‘gentle and sweet’ man who didn’t ‘force’ her to do anything.
Originally released in February this year, Memories Of Machine was screened at Seattle South Asian Film Festival and Bangalore Queer Film Festival 2016, before it finally made its way to YouTube and social media recently. The film received more brickbats than bouquets for its experimentative style and unconventional theme, and there are calls for a ban on the film. The outrage on social media against the film grew manifolds; enough to prompt the director, Shailaja Padindala, to release another video where she defended the film and Kani’s decision to play the part.
The short film is shot like a private home video, and features a conversation between the wife and the husband. The ‘interviewee’ is the wife, and the husband who poses questions makes his presence felt only through his voice. The protagonist is asked if she was scarred or traumatised by her childhood experience, and she shakes her head and says “No.”
A YouTube user commented under the video, “This is dangerous in that it legitimizes pedophilia. Whether a young girl likes or does not like a sexual experience she ought to be protected from it, any child should. When the film fails to point this out, when it fails to carry the message that an adult who attempts to create sexual encounters with a child is a criminal irrespective of the child’s understanding of the situation, it is dangerous and horrible.”
Well-known writer NS Madhavan went one step ahead and demanded that the video be taken down from YouTube as it pardoned paedophilia.
‘Memories of a machine’ is a short film directed by&acted in by sensitive souls, but @YouTube should take it down as it pardons paedophelia.
— N.S. Madhavan (@NSMlive) November 24, 2016
Vidya Reddy, the executive director of Tulir, an organization working on the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse in India, has a different take on it. “Had it been a video of a man talking about his first sexual experience, recorded by his wife, would the general outrage been this huge? I suspect that the problem here is, a woman unabashedly opening up about her sexual experience. Our society has this strange fascination about female sexuality”.
The actress, Kani Kusruthi, was slammed for playing the role, and on November 26, her Facebook account was deactivated for sometime, thanks to mass reporting by her critics. In a recent interview with Newsminute, she admitted that the film ‘could have engaged with the discourse with more nuance and complexity’. “I’d imagined that a film on sexuality would inspire a wide range of readings and critiques from very diverse audiences. I had not expected the film to polarise audiences between those imposing a binary interpretation and those willing to engage with the grayscale. I was most definitely not expecting some individuals, otherwise defenders of free speech, to arbitrarily call for a ban, based on their own subjective reading of the film,” she said in the interview.
“I feel very certain that the film doesn’t normalise or defend abuse of any kind, whatsoever. So I don’t think it’s a fair assessment at all,” she added.
There were voices that sided with Kani and the film. Poet Sharanya Manivannan tweeted
What an amazing performance in this short film about sexuality. So natural you won’t believe she’s an actor. https://t.co/Q8UwjVyX2p
— Sharanya Manivannan (@ranyamanivannan) November 23, 2016
Sreebala K Menon, filmmaker and winner of Kerala State Film Award for best debut film in 2015, says, “For years, filmmakers and activists have been trying to fight censor board which decides what to show and what not to show. It’s surprising that even so-called advocates of freedom of speech have called for a ban on this short film. That is very much what censor board has been doing to Indian cinema all these years”.
The major criticism against Memories Of A Machine was that it tries to ‘romanticize rape and child abuse’. That it almost blurs the line between a romantic liaison and an act of paedophilia, which, many considers, dangerous.
Shailaja Padindala, director of the film, in an interview to Narada News said, ” I do not support child abuse or rape. I know the pain. If I ever see a child being abused, I would protect him/her with brickbats. Memories of a Machine does not intend to send a message or to romanticise child abuse. It is an attempt to portray a child’s natural thought towards sexual pleasure. Of what a child might feel before it is confronted with societal norms and morals.”
Vidya Reddy says she is glad that the short film opened up a discussion. “I hope it triggers a conversation about children being sexual beings”. This is echoed by writer-academician-activist Devika Jayakumari. She wrote on her Facebook page, “First, it is absolutely certain that children have sexual pleasure and they are not simple either. Children know it, and so do adults, and the myth of the sexless pristine child is produced through the heaviest possible cultural interventions.”
Although a number of Indian films like Monsoon Wedding, Highway, Anchu Sundarikal, and I am have tried to address the traumatic aftereffects of child abuse, rarely has there been a counter-argument.
“The pleasure for a touch is a reflex action of the body. It’s not necessarily a sexual arousal,” says Vidya Reddy. “In some cases, the child doesn’t ever realise it was a case of sexual abuse. Not all acts of paedophilia are traumatic to children.”
“In the film, all she is talking about is the aspect of’ touch’. What an eight year old is touched in a particular way, she gets stimulated. That’s her body’s reaction,” says Vidya. “The most interesting aspect of the movie, for me, was when she says the peon stops touching her when he gets an impression that she is getting scared. That’s a brilliant insight into the mind of an abuser. An abuser will always be solicitous and caring about the person they are abusing, and it often confuses the victims that it is an act of love and affection.”
However, Vidya finds the film too ‘distractive and amateurish’ in its portrayal of the lead character. “Overall, it comes across as an asinine, clumsy attempt. My problem with the film was its subtext where the woman peels a raw orange and curls up on the bed. Everything is too much on your face, and it distracts the audience’ attention. Thus the message is lost”.