For an Indian viewership, yet to accept gay relationships within its legal and social ambit, the American series ‘Orange is the New Black’ couldn’t have been more irreverent, unapologetic and shamelessly candid
Orange is the colour in the rainbow palette nowadays. The Netflix original series based on the book — Orange is the New Black: My year in a women’s prison by Piper Kerman — is on its way to its fourth season in June. Several awards, nominations and critical acclaims later, it turns out to be one of the most-watched super-gay series in recent times.
Good, bad or grey, it seems to have struck a chord with viewers globally. In the context of an Indian society, which is yet to accept gay relationships within its legal and social ambit, the mainstream popular series gives you a sense of childish pleasure of breaking the rules; of watching a series that is not only irreverent, but also unapologetic and shamelessly candid.
Women, all kinds of them, are trying to do their prison time and get out of the hell hole. But, right now, the hole is the best they can do with. From inadvertent killings, drugs, rage, robbery and everything else, crime here has only one colour — orange; they all have one tag — inmates; they all have a single address: Litchfield Prison.
In the first season (2013), the viewer is initiated into the series through the story of Piper Chapman, who is sentenced to 15 months in prison for a drug crime that she had committed 10 years ago. While her fiancé (man in her life) drops her to prison, Piper’s crime is traced back to her ex-girlfriend who apparently recruited her to help around with transporting drug money.
As she starts her prison life, the focus is exclusively on the characters with flashes of who they really are, giving us glimpses of their lives where they look and behave different; where the contexts are different and the body language is different. The viewer is involved in a ‘Then and Now’ game where one — through erratic flashes of imageries — manages to link the dots.
In course, the series zooms in on the inmates’ life within the confines of the prison premises, revealing a labyrinth of dynamics between the powerful and the vulnerable. The prison authorities are cautious to avert any potential lesbian indulgence just as any straight nonsense. Yet, relationships happen; babies get made; corruption stays safe in the closet; drug rackets flourish. Verbal aggression is used as a weapon; love, sometimes, as a manipulative embedded devise is invisible but at work.
By the second season, the focus shifts more on the modus operandi of the prison along with more insight into the lives of the inmates. The individual stories are unfolded and we become party to their personal lives. By this time, we like some of them more and some of them less. By now, we develop a rapport with the characters.
The third season sees a series of change — power swaps, betrayal, manipulation — at its best and at its worst. The inedible food they are served, the Spartan bunks in which they sleep and the apology of entertainment they are offered — it all conveys a drill of restriction and gloom. One tends to get involved and scan the strands of their stories to comprehend the nuances of their lives.
Who are they?
What are they in prison for?
What do I have to do with these people?
While the first and the second question unambiguously lead us to the politics of crime as an individual offence independent of society; of a clinical positioning of the crime and the criminal, the third question is more direct and demanding. Perhaps it is this one that Orange is the New Black has been able to address. Its success lies in the fact that it manages to help the viewer to relate to the inmates’ lives, through a range of everyday stories, one of which could well be yours.
However, at the same time, it needs to be observed that as subjects, ‘prison’, ‘women’ and ‘gay’ on TV are certainly commercially viable. The stories can be as skewed as you want them to be because crime knows no limits and prison stereotypically serves as a mere extension of that mind-set.
Also, there seems to be a thread of harshness in terms of the character portrayals throughout the seasons. The evil is more often than not given a place of respect representing grit and power while the supposed good is reduced to inane silence; anything that comes in between is either a psycho, a genetic crossbreed or perhaps too much in black and white.
Gore, violence and abusive language is fine in a set up as Orange with an adult viewership. But, every point demands a counterpoint, which are few and far in between. We do see samples of human-ness, flashes of them — but not as consistent an assertion that may be prompted in a real-life situation of oppression in terms of everyday life.
To give an example, a mother-daughter’s natural relationship or two lovers’ initial infatuation is presented as punctuated sparks. In course, the regular is deduced as an aberration, while the latter is set as the routine. Building a surrogate world in a prison doesn’t imply the rules of life change so simplistically.
Even if presumed that the women are all here for their faults, they do not necessarily have to be faulty. They can be a mere representation of a truthful range and not be clubbed into a collective-singular breed of women. Orange, too, can have a multitude of shades.
Nudity is undoubtedly more defined in the series, creating a parallel visual dialect that rips open the rot of naked negotiations within the prison walls. Bodies, in all its diversity, find a way to celebrate physicality in an accumulative powerful way. That is the only way in which the inmates emerge out of their standard prison suit, asserting their presence. An array of physical contours traces a latent storyboard that triggers the vulnerability of flesh behind supposedly hard criminal minds.
Represented as a continuous motif, there are several times when the body-imagery shuttles between a power-metaphor and vulnerability. There are so many times when we see one of the inmates standing in front of the toilet mirror, scanning herself or just being herself — holding a personal and intimate dialogue within and without.
It triggers a range of questions. There is something irresistible about presenting a series where one can be projected as brazen and unabashed; about not having to cater to the social codes of conduct. And what could be a better place than a prisonful of brawny women who have nothing to lose?
Or, is it a mere act and centre-stage-bravado with the greenroom witnessing a silent surrender of selves? It is this element of paradox that the series constantly nudges at through its characters, but doesn’t push hard enough.
Viewers can only hope that the fourth season — now that the blood and aggression has been dwelt upon — will lead us into a more candid representation of a prison life, where every single day doesn’t have to be an ‘episode.’ There can be dull days too, with its share of sunrise, sunset and laze.
Only then, as we hum the title song, can we perhaps comprehend why ‘taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.’