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Rasbhari, a series starring Swara Bhasker has us hopeful but is merely a disappointing mess made through and for the male gaze disguised as a n ‘adult sex comedy’.
Is it possible for an adult ‘sex comedy’ to also be a progressive coming of age tale with feminist undertones? It certainly is an intriguing concept, and if it could be pulled off, it would be a triumph as it would unite seemingly incompatible genres.
The trailer for Rasbhari, a series that dropped on Amazon on the 25th of June, promised exactly that. The fact that Swara Bhasker, a vocal advocate of feminism, who has done brilliant work in movies as diverse as Nil Battey Sannata and Anarkali of Aarah, was playing the titular Rasbhari, had me hopeful.
Unfortunately, it is all smoke and mirrors. While Rasbhari does incorporate some feminist messages, it seems to be done in a lazy, copy-paste manner. It is as if it is trying to speak the language of feminism, without actually understanding what it means.
The male gaze is strong in Rasbhari, and is expressed mainly through the character of Nand (Ayushmaan Saxena), a schoolboy, who is discovering his sexuality and is eager to lose his virginity. He goes around ‘accidentally’ looking up the skirts of random female classmates, and has a crush on one particular girl in his class, Priyanka (Rashmi Agdekar). Even as he tries to get her to forget that she is his ‘rakhi sister’ and tries to get her to become ‘friends,’ a new teacher. Ms Shanoo (Swara Bhasker) arrives.
Shanoo is extremely attractive, and needless to say every male in the vicinity, including Nand ogles her. Rumours soon start to spread that in spite of being a married woman, she is promiscuous and will sleep with literally anyone. Nand decides to take private tuitions from her, hoping that he too will get the opportunity to have sex with her. During one class, he kisses her. Shanoo reacts by slapping him and throwing him out of her house. Though he is initially regretful, he later decides that she needs to be “taught a lesson.” He approaches her husband, with the intention of causing problems in her marriage, but discovers instead, that Shanoo has Dissociative Identity Disorder, and has a separate personality, Rasbhari, who is a seductress.
Thus, from the teacher fantasy, to the bhabhi fantasy, the series indulges it all!
The rest of the series deals with how Nand learns to express his feelings appropriately, and how Rasbhari’s actions affect Shanoo.
In an attempt to not be just another slapstick sex comedy, the series makes observations about how hypocritical we are about sex and relationships, and how much more women have to bear the burden of being judged. With flashbacks to Shanoo’s life before marriage, it shows up how girls are taught to repress their sexuality, and how society holds the ‘other woman’ responsible, but not raise a finger at the man who is equally responsible.
It also tries to show via Shanoo, who teaches Nand how to reconcile with Priyanka after a fight, about how boys can be taught to have healthy expectations from relationships, based on honesty and respect.
Unfortunately, all of these feel like surface level messages that don’t have any depth. Other aspects of the series are so problematic, that in the end, these few positives end up being discounted.
Firstly, the ‘locker room talk’ in the series is actually quite disturbing, especially in the first few episodes. While it reduces as Nand becomes more self-aware, and at one point even shows Nand shutting down such talk among his friends, it is too little, too late.
By using a transwoman character, (not once, but twice) to elicit laughter, the series is also predictably, transphobic. I guess the writer and film maker don’t believe that transwomen are women. It also uses Rasbhari’s bisexuality as a ‘joke.’ And this is Pride Month (face palm).
In its attempts to make a feminist statement, the series falls back on stereotypes like ‘all men are perverts,’ ‘all women are jealous shrews’ and ‘women are a woman’s worst enemy – all of which are the exact opposite of what feminism actually advocates.
It doesn’t seem to know what to do with its women. Even though there are multiple scenes of women speaking to each other, it is always about a man or in criticism of other women. Even when the women talk about sex, it is in the context of keeping their husbands happy. In this, the movie spectacularly fails the Bechdel test.
Had the characters of Shanoo and Rasbhari been given any substantial arc of their own, the series would at least have passed the Mako Mori test. However, both these personalities exist only in the service of men. Rasbhari, in particular, could have been more than just a ‘sex bomb,’ and could have been used to make a powerful statement about sex positivity and consent, and female desire. Given Swara Bhasker’s Anarkali of Aarah credentials, this would have been perfect! Instead, except for one scene (where once again, it is all about Nand), we barely get to understand what she thinks or feels.
In fact, the very existence of Rasbhari, is an indication that the series isn’t willing to be truly progressive. It had to give Shanoo an acceptable ‘reason’ for her adultery in the form of Rasbhari, because god forbid a ‘good Indian wife’ ever have sex with anyone other than her husband for purely selfish reasons.
Given that Rasbhari exists, it could have been an opportunity to go deeper into the issue of mental health. However, here too, the series disappoints. Dissociative Identity Disorder is used only as a convenient plot twist and nothing more. In fact, the series even goes on to suggest that it wasn’t a psychological issue at all, but a case of possession, by the ghost of a tawaif. Sigh!
It wraps up all the misogyny with a big red bow in the form of a male saviour narrative. It falls on Nand, and his friends to save Shanoo, not from the men who constantly take advantage of her, but from the angry housewives who want to drag her through the streets.
These however, are not even the most problematic part of the show. It is absolutely baffling how the film makers thought it was okay to show a grown adult seducing and kissing teenagers. Even if one assumes that the younger characters are 18+ year old, and therefore legally adults, it is still extremely inappropriate, given that they share a teacher-student relationship. One may argue that it is the ‘Rasbhari’ personality, who does the seducing, and not Shanoo, who is the teacher. In a final twist however, the show suggests that Shanoo and Rasbhari are not separate personalities at all – making that argument invalid.
To say that Rasbhari is a disappointment is an understatement. It is, somehow, even more problematic than most standard ‘adult’ comedies. Skip this, and save yourself a good chunk of time, and your mental health.
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