TV Show Dahaad’s Men Fascinated Me More Than Its Women
Though Dahaad lays bare the compromises Indian women make, it also offers interesting portraits of Indian men, writes Priya Ramani
It’s always a relief to watch anything made by filmmakers Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar. In just-out TV series Dahaad, like always, their feminine gaze is unblinking yet not exploitative; their values are progressive; and their politics of identity and representation better than most of their colleagues. Their stories, as Creative Producer Smriti Kiran once put it, are “layered, marinated in their milieus, characters simmered for days, the landscape lived in and at the core is a profound thematic foundation”. The worlds they create linger in your head, and Dahaad, meaning roar, shot in visually incomparable Rajasthan, is no exception.
The series is closely inspired by the true story of Karnataka-based serial killer Cyanide Mohan. Nobody claimed the dead bodies of Mohan Kumar’s 20 female victims whom he tricked by offering to marry them. Their murders were logged as suicides. For years, nobody connected the dots. The filmmakers use this real-life horror story to spin a tale of everyday patriarchal pressures that women battle, often almost mechanically; and how the state largely turns a blind eye to the safety of and justice for women who don’t belong to upper castes. The series holds a mirror to the hateful and inaccurate narrative of love jihad that serves to camouflage the real problem of India’s disappearing women. Read more about these women here.
Lead character Anjali Bhaati (played by Sonakshi Sinha), an oppressed caste police officer in a small town of Rajasthan who must routinely fend off casteism and the pressure to conform, is inspiring. Those of us brought up on a diet of Prakash Jha movies keep waiting for something ‘bad’ to happen to Bhaati as she goes for late night runs or prowls deserted streets in a village where she has many upper caste enemies. Every time she succeeds, we hold our breath.
A screengrab of Dahaad. (Source: Amazon Prime)
Though Dahaad lays bare the compromises Indian women make, their unhappiness, resilience and their incredible bravery, it also offers interesting portraits of Indian men, chief among them the serial killer schoolteacher, played by Vijay Varma. He woos lonely women, who face relentless family pressure to marry, with heart-shaped pizza, penguin stuffed toys and his consummate charmer skills. He’s soft spoken, and seemingly kind. “Sorry. Will you manage?” his wife of 11 years asks him as she heads for the night shift in her hospitality industry job. “Have I ever said I couldn’t?” he replies. What an ideal husband.
Of all the male characters on the show, he’s by far the one with the most understanding of what women need and how they respond to words and gestures. “There’s nothing ordinary about him,” one police officer says. On this show, he’s the only man who understands poetry and listens to women. He wears unusual shirts with vertical prints, something that Varma told an interviewer he did to enhance his reptilian energy. He knows exactly how to elicit a yes.
Two male police officers get screen time too and they have more shades of grey than most of the women we encounter in Dahaad. That’s because, if the women are portrayed as exactly who they seem like, the men make you look again.
There’s the sensitive police officer who gives his son a lecture on consent and the problematic portrayal of women in porn. He’s a man who believes that his daughter should get as many rights and privileges as his son. “If anyone puts an impediment in your life, just say side please,” he tells her. He’s a great man to work with, not so great to live with. He’s never available to his spouse; hasn’t heard the term ‘foreplay’; ignores his partner’s desires and dismisses her when she tries to initiate sex (that is only his prerogative); and doesn’t think twice before dissing her in front of their children. He’s not the only man who doesn’t think too hard about what his spouse wants. There is at least one portrayal of marital rape in Dahaad.
And then there’s the other, not-so-amazing-at-first police officer who feels jealous of his female colleague’s success and is spying on his seniors in the hope of snagging a promotion. As the series unfolds, you realise he’s one of the few men here who understands the right to choose a partner. He vomits when he sees a murdered woman’s body. He is disturbed when he realised that a father is keeping his daughter locked up in a small room because she dared to choose who she would love and marry. When his wife gets pregnant, he’s upset. “What about my feelings. I don’t want children,” he tells his mother. “You have no idea how the world is. Why should I bring a child into this hell?” His inner conflicts are on full display. In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, he stops his bike somewhere in the dusty nowhere of Rajasthan and weeps as the sun sets gloriously, blissfully ignorant to his pain.
We all know it can be terrifying to be a woman in this country. Amidst all the dizzying battles we fight and the menacing imagery of faceless women and girl puppets hanging on trees in the opening credits, you can understand why it’s a relief to focus on the men of Dahaad. “Marriage is the biggest eyewash, sir,” one of them says. “God knows who’s convinced the world that marriage is the solution to loneliness.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.