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Women of Paatal Lok – the noteworthy female characters are more due to the strong performances, rather than because the roles themselves are meaty. In fact, in many places, the show is downright misogynistic.
Note: This post contains major spoilers.
The very first few minutes of Paatal Lok show the police responding to a domestic violence call in a slum – a woman is being beaten by her husband. The moment the police separate them and start beating up the husband, the woman starts attacking the policemen. “How dare you touch my man?” she curses, as she claws at them.
Immediately after that the scene changes and we forget about this woman. The other female characters in Paatal Lok, are much less forgettable, but ultimately, even their stories are all about the men. They either support and help them, or suffer because of them, and even their rebellions are in response to the actions of the men.
The women of Paatal Lok exist to be useful to the men.
There is of course the tired cliché -the rape of female relatives being used as a weapon to settle scores, or to ‘motivate’ the men into avenging them. Usually, shows just forget about these women, but in Paatal Lok, we do hear about some of these women later —Tyagi’s sisters, whose rape becomes the reason that he becomes a murderer. However, that is not necessarily a good thing. We come to know, in the process of Hathiram’s investigation, that they’ve been married off, to men who treat them like ‘spoilt goods.’
Sadly, it happens far too often in real life as well. Which is why it would have been nice to see the show treat this with a bit more sensitivity. For example, when Tyagi’s brother-in-law attempts to raise his hand on his wife (Tyagi’s sister), Haathiram does stop him, but only with a “Not when a cop is around.”
The message that gets sent, whether or not the makers intend it, by having the ‘hero’ mouth that line, is that it’s okay to hit your wife, as long as you don’t get caught. It also helps, that once again, they show the woman beseeching the police to leave her husband alone.
Violence is also visited often and quite brutally over the transwoman character, Mary, played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh. It is commendable that Paatal Lok bucked the trend of ‘dressing up’ straight actors to play queer ones, and instead got an actual transwoman to play the role, and that it uses her character to comment upon the ways in which our law enforcement and judicial systems are transphobic. Coming in the context of the ‘dehumanizing’ and heavily criticized Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019, this representation was much needed.
However, it is also disappointing that the series never allows her to shed her victimhood. At the end, the motivation for her involvement in a crime is revealed to be that she wanted to earn enough money to get a sex change operation done –not for herself, but as a ‘surprise’ for the man she loves and wants to marry.
When it comes to the character of Renu, Hathiram’s wife, played so wonderfully by Gul Panag, one begins to wonder if the makers are genuinely trying really hard to justify domestic violence.
She has a contentious relationship with her husband. She recognizes that being physically abused by his father has damaged her husband and is determined that she won’t let him do the same to their son. The fact that she often financially supports her brother’s ill-advised business ventures is another thing that comes between the couple.
When she tries to stop him from taking her son, who has been beaten up, to the very people who hurt him, he slaps her, ‘in the heat of the moment.’ She slaps him back when he returns. How nice of the makers to anticipate the needs of the passionate defenders of the man’s slap, who I’m sure will use the excuse “but she slapped him too, so it’s not abuse,” to make their point (like they did for Kabir Singh.)
Miraculously, these slaps fix the entire relationship. She sends her brother packing, and becomes unquestioningly supportive of her husband like a ‘good Indian wife.’
Once again, Indian pop culture, in a show that has been labelled ‘progressive,’ lends credence to the twisted idea that, “hitting/slapping each other is an expression of love.” This seems really insensitive, especially given the meteoric rise in domestic violence under the lockdown.
Niharika Lyra Dutt, plays Sara Matthews, a journalist who reports to Neeraj Kabi’s Sanjeev Mehra, and who has an affair with him. Considering that the series is supposedly based on the Tarun Tejpal novel, The Story of My Assassins, which in turn is based on real events in his life, this just becomes creepy, given that he is currently out on bail after being accused of rape by a junior female colleague.
Even more frustrating is the fact that it is she who is shown to approach him, and initiate physical contact with him. When she kisses him for the first time, he pushes her away, and gestures to his marriage ring. Of course, she is a temptress, so he gets ‘convinced’ by her to have an affair.
Not that there is anything wrong with women initiating relationships, but in the context of conversations around #MeToo, where women are already being disbelieved, the fact that the show so conveniently ignores the realistic power imbalances in the work place, that make it unlikely, is infuriating. Somehow here, it is perfectly okay to sacrifice ‘realism.’
Even when she goes against Sanjeev, she ends up becoming useful to Hathiram, by providing him with crucial clues and contacts, and then conveniently receding into the background while he investigates further.
In the hands of a less accomplished actor, the character of Dolly, Sanjeev’s wife, played by Swastika Mukherjee, would have come across as whiny, clingy and annoying. It is to Swastika’s credit, that she actually manages to get the audience to feel empathetic towards her. She is shown to suffer from anxiety, but the show never really gets into her perspective on it. Instead, it is simply presented to us as the reason why her husband is pulling away from her. After all, who wouldn’t have an affair if they were married to someone like her, right? (cringe)
When she finds about her husband’s affair, her reaction is to try and have one of her own, and when she finds herself unable to do that, to go ahead and attempt to rape her husband in order to have a baby! Because babies are the solution to bad marriages, right? And marital rape, again, is largely initiated by women and not by men, right? So much realism. Much wow! (more cringe)
While the show never clarifies if she has chosen to not be a mother, it does make her mouth the lines, “I made a mistake. I should have been a mother by now,” because according to this ‘progressive’ show, not having children cannot be anything else other than a mistake. (cringing so much my face hurts)
Even when she adopts a dog, it is driven partly by the need to spite her husband. It is not purely for herself. It is extremely satisfying though, to see her finally stand up for herself.
An argument that is sure to come is that the two main characters of the show are men. So obviously, the women have to play a supporting role only, right?
My answer would be that even supporting roles can be written with greater richness, allowing them to be full personalities, instead of just props. In Delhi Crime for example, the two leads are women. However, the show did not shortchange the men, and they get equally meaty and well-rounded roles. The female leads do not become the be all and end all of their existence.
Even Sacred Games, led by two men, which has been accused of ‘fridging’ female characters to keep the plot moving, managed to give its female characters, played by actors like Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Amruta Subhash, Kalki Koechlin etc, elaborate backstories that had nothing to do with the male leads.
As if it weren’t enough that the existence of human women in the series is for the sake of men, the show even did a female dog the same injustice. Wasn’t enough that dear Savitri be a well-loved pet? Why did even she have to justify her existence on the show, by being, like her mythical namesake, the reason why a man was saved from an untimely death?
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