WASHINGTON -- Can India, a country struggling to combat an increasingly high-profile rape culture, envision a society where women feel safe in the company of unknown men?
A new short film on women's empowerment, "Going Home," urges its audience to imagine such a place, focusing on a young woman who stumbles upon a group of men after her car breaks down late at night. Starring Alia Bhatt, a rising actress in India's film industry, the video was posted to YouTube last week and has since gone viral with nearly 2 million views.
The film opens with Bhatt driving alone at night on a deserted road. Moments after she tells her concerned mother over the phone that she will be home in 10 minutes, Bhatt's car breaks down. As she vainly tries to restart the car, an SUV with five men lurks in the distance and eventually pulls up next to her.
Bhatt approaches the men herself to ask for help. Unable to resolve the issue with her car, she asks the men for a ride home. She makes it unscathed, even though the tension in the five-minute film suggests the men might attack her at any moment.
The film closes with the text, "Can we give her the world that she believes exists?"
Watch the film above.
It's a simple question fraught with complications in India, where the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus in 2012 sparked a national outcry and protests demanding an overhaul of the country's sexual assault laws. Frustration over politicians' refusal to take action appeared to reach a fever pitch this year, when rape emerged for the first time as a wedge issue in India's general elections.
Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make violence against women a core piece of his agenda, women's rights advocates have launched a series of campaigns to ensure that the issue is not forgotten.
"Going Home" was released in collaboration with #VogueEmpower, a social awareness initiative launched this month by Vogue India to place a national spotlight on women's empowerment. The film's director, Vikas Bahl, said he wanted the audience to "visualize a utopia for women, where, unlike today, mistrust and fear don’t dictate actions and decisions."
For that reason, it is Bhatt in the film who seeks help from the men on her own terms. She hugs the strangers goodbye when they drop her home, thanking them profusely and even blowing them a kiss. The men, for their part, say nothing -- although they appear to be gesturing among themselves about the attractive, young woman they've stumbled across. They certainly ogle at Bhatt, who is wearing a leather skirt, tank top and heels.
The men almost seem dumbfounded that Bhatt is so trusting of them, but that drives home the director's point. A woman's actions, or what she is wearing, should simply not be up for debate when the subject is sexual assault. It's the behavior of men, particularly in a country inclined to blame the victim at the highest levels of authority, that should be scrutinized and reformed.
The same approach drives another short film under the #VogueEmpower campaign, "Start With The Boys," released on Tuesday. It features an endless series of adults scolding boys, from the moment they are born through adolescence, for crying.
"Boys don't cry" and "stop crying like a girl" are common phrases in India, and according to the film, render women inferior in the minds of young boys. The film closes with a man suppressing his tears and taking his anger out on a battered woman. Alex Kuruvilla, managing director of Condé Nast India, said the film was inspired by actress Susan Sarandon's comments to "start with the boys" at an Indian film festival last year.
"The idea of the film is centered around the fundamental truth that women's empowerment is not about women alone, which is why I pledged to create a short film that communicates clearly the need to change the mindset of boys before they become men," Kuruvilla said.