The premise of Amazon Prime’s ‘Rasbhari’ starring Swara Bhaskar is this: There is an english-speaking, virtue-loving, mangalsutra-wearing wife who cooks- and sometimes turns into Rasbhari, a hornier-than-thou ‘Lucknawi tawaif’ who doesn’t remember any of her sexually charged encounters the next morning. So basically, they created a character out of every desi man’s misogynistic fantasy. A perfect wife from matrimonial ads who turns into a Savita-bhabhi-esque avatar for you with the question of consent out of the window since there will be no memory of anything that you do. What did the writers do, have a brainstorming session about what would happen if you mix an aphrodisiac along with a date rape drug in a woman’s drink? And then suddenly realize ‘oh shit, we are making this in a post #MeToo India, let’s put a feminist-looking ribbon on top of our premise’?
To explain why this dichotomy exists in this character, we get multiple reasons throughout the show, but two dominate the story. She is possessed by an evil-spirit (because it is literally demonic for a woman to have sexual desires). Or she is suffering from Dissociative identity disorder (because how can one identity have multiple parts to it when you’re a woman?). They also sporadically explore the idea of her faking her alter ego due to societal pressure, but there is nothing empowering or agency-based about it. I kept searching for the moment when we will finally see the ‘twist’ that explains why Swara Bhaskar picked this show but- spoiler alert- it does not come. Every single frame of this show drips with the male gaze. In the name of seduction we get the first two minutes of different porn videos where a cable guy or a police inspector come home for various reasons and end up in bed with ‘bhabhiji’. The dialogues are absolutely disgusting, with having sex for the first time being called ‘seal todna’- what am I, Tupperware?!
All female characters are absolutely the same- they keep giving us suggestions and advice on how to protect our men with natural cheating tendencies from ‘kulta women’ (the Bechdel test doesn’t even exist in this world). The men are all absolutely the same- they are only capable of objectifying women and being overtly and covertly sexist.There is also transphobia as Nand is paying to have sex with someone who turns out to have a male-sounding voice and therefore runs away. And oh, when Rasbhari is giving hickeys to everyone in town, she also gives one to her female househelp. This is the worst kind of portrayal of bisexuality that they could have gone for. Firstly, the fact that she sleeps with the househelp is once again, not about owning her sexuality but a proof of how hypersexual and ever-charged Rasbhari is- a stereotype that bi individuals have to deal with everyday. Secondly, this whole idea of sleeping with the ‘maid’ is another disgusting toxically masculine fantasy born out of the idea of having dominance over the women that work for you- as if there haven’t been enough instances of individuals sexually violating their househelp.
Do not even get me started on the ‘Lakhnawi Tawaif’ trope. As someone from Lucknow, I can’t not call out filmmakers and showmakers on how they use twisted versions of an Awadhi reality to get away with making women portray characters on screen in the name of ‘realism’. First of all, tawaifs were almost synonyms with nazaakat, and played a huge role in what is now called ‘Lakhnawi tehzeeb’. The women that belonged to this tradition were foremost artists and performers- painters, dancers, poets, musicians- and are responsible for quite a few artforms still being alive in the Awadhi culture today. They were also the ones that dictated social protocol and etiquettes, spoke with lyrical Urdu, and had wealth, political power, and respect. By the virtue of them being without familial households and thus not being controlled by any one man, it was the men around them that saw them hypersexually, fantasized about them and judged them for taking their sexuality into their own hands. How are the creators of the show doing anything different?!
I want to believe they tried- I really do- but I absolutely cannot. There is a teenage girl, Priyanka, who is clearly shown as being sexually attracted towards Nand, who is also her classmate and the narrator of the show. It’s very obvious from the arc that she is given that the writers believe with all their heart that they are showing a strong independent young woman in-charge of her sexuality- but that is not who she is at all! We are introduced to her through Nand telling his friends that he saw her panties while picking up a pen and she is wrong to be disgusted because why would she wear designer panties if she doesn’t want anyone to look at them. Oh, and by the way, Priyanka has been tying Nand rakhis since the last three years (the most recent one being two months ago). Think it couldn’t possibly get more problematic- wait for it- the women around her tell her that her takeaway from the panties incident is not supposed to be that he violated her space, but that he is into her- which makes her into him. She also asks Nand to pick whatever HE likes when she goes to his shop to buy lingerie, and says that girls can’t kiss first.
Now, I understand the argument that the creators of this show would probably make- they would most probably try to call it a realistic and exaggerated satire that is here to hold up a mirror to society. But if their purpose was to be satirical, they most definitely failed because there is nothing to contrast the male gaze against. The way that the camera angles function, we are not meant to be disgusted at school kids overly sexualizing their teacher- the strong POV gaze that the cinematographer takes is almost suggesting that you and I would find this relatable because that is exactly how our eyes would travel. The way that the disgusting dialogues are written into the script and are delivered with a ‘setup line-punchline’ format makes it very clear that I’m not supposed to laugh at the misogynists in the frame, but with them. The way that the Swara Bhaskar feminist two-liner dialogues are edited into the episodes don’t make them seem like the point that the showmakers were trying to make, but an afterthought that can help them get away with everything else. I believe Swara Bhaskar understands what being a feminist means- and therefore I want to believe that they set out to try to make something else- but it is tough when all evidence points to the contrary. At the end of the day, the only thing that Rasbhari is full of is the male gaze- because the show feels like a four hour patronage to it.