I think I avoided watching Haraamkhor for a long time because I knew how uncomfortable it was going to be. But what was so surprising was that Haraamkhor presented a truly realistic picture of what sexual abuse and exploitation looks like when it involves abuse of power — that it’s in fact not so easy to identify and name it. In fact, in many ways, the sexual relationship between a student and an older, married teacher in this movie, appears more like a love affair. In fact, that’s what everyone else believes too. Haraamkhor is praiseworthy for precisely this point– that it makes us consider and understand the meaning of sexual abuse, what defines it, and what it may look like.
Just take a look at the way that two separate film sites describe this movie:
“An unlikely love triangle unfolds when married professor, Shyam, has an illicit affair with his student, Sandhya.”
“A selfish, manipulative schoolteacher takes advantage of a schoolgirl’s vulnerability to gratify his dark, narcissistic desires.”
So which is it? Is this the story of a love triangle, an illicit love affair where one just happens to be the teacher of the other? Or is it a case of an adult with a certain responsibility and level of power taking advantage of the one whom he has power over?
Haraamkhor is brilliant in that it delivers this message– this explanation of what sexual abuse and abuse of power looks like– without any overt or preachy attitude. If Sandhya had not been his student, and had not been below the age of 18, this could have been a story of an illicit love affair. But the fact that she is a minor, and under the influence of a teacher — who both has power over her as an authority guiding her education, but also a responsibility for her welfare and safety during the time in which she is under his supervision, is abusing this power and taking advantage of her vulnerability.
The strange part is that these things happen around us all the time, but just like the characters in this movie– we remain unaware or unwilling to acknowledge them. We interpret them as love affairs, as unfaithfulness, as immorality. But if you watched carefully and saw that when Mintu killed teacher Shyam– Sandhya hugged him. You will understand that this wasn’t a story of a girl who voluntarily had sex with her teacher. Even though it appears that way in all regards– even though she flirted with him, met alone with him, succumbed to his wishes and desires– it does not naturally follow that she did these voluntarily, uninfluenced, of her free will or with an awareness of their consequences. That’s where manipulation comes in.
The kind of abuse demonstrated in this movie is abuse perpetrated by some in positions of power. They may use the influence they hold over another to manipulate them into doing things that they want. In this case, Sandhya, a child, experiences additional vulnerability due to her solitude, the lack of affection in her life due to her family situation — the absence of her mother and the neglect of her father. And you see that when her new step-mother joins the household and starts paying attention to Sandyha and giving her affection, when her household situation attains a greater level of normalcy is Sandhya able to recognize that she has been manipulated and taken advantage of by her teacher.
Haraamkhor puts forward the important and essential principle in protecting members of our society and community, and especially the most vulnerable ones. The principle is that the individual who is experiencing these risks and vulnerabilities, and the abuse — they themselves may not be aware of them. Sandhya may not be (and is not for the most part) aware of the way she is being manipulated and taken advantage of. The role of society is not to blame her or to cover an incident of abuse as an “affair.” The role of society is to recognize when someone is being abused, and take some sort of action for their protection.
What’s more is that we also witness what women empowerment looks like in this movie– through the role of Sandhya’s step mother. She is in a position where she could take several different types of action about Sandhya’s situation. She could inform her father, scold her, reprimand the teacher and do many more things. But what she does is that she helps Sandhya deal with the situation in a way that will cause the least amount of humiliation and shame for her. She understands what’s happening and what the ideal outcome should be, but she chooses to empower Sandhya to deal with the situation in her own way while also guiding her and supporting her through the process. She not only protects Sandhya’s identity and self-respect, but she also supports her in a way that strengthens her character, makes her more capable of dealing with difficult and dangerous situations in the future. It is possibly one of the most ideal examples of how those with loved ones who survived abuse ought to approach the situation.
For delivering such strong and important messages, in such underplayed and simple ways, I think that Haraamkhor deserves accolades.