Paatal Lok, Mirzapur, Sacred Games: Has sexual violence become a common trope for 'edgy' streaming shows?

If a story line involving the brutalisation of a female character is inevitable, the questions that arise are: How is it treated? Is the act gratuitous?

Karishma Upadhyay May 31, 2020 16:04:20 IST
Paatal Lok, Mirzapur, Sacred Games: Has sexual violence become a common trope for 'edgy' streaming shows?

[some spoilers ahead]

Raise your hand if the last Indian show you watched on a streaming platform featured a scene depicting violence against a female character. Raise both if the show had a rape scene. Yeah, I thought so.

When OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime started their Indian operations a few years ago, there was a wave of joy that ran through Bollywood. Beyond the boundaries of television or demands of Bollywood, this new medium promised creators an unfettered license to tell their stories in any way they wanted, just as long as the audience was mainlining episode after episode. ‘Edgy’ soon became the buzzword that’s become shorthand for dramas with cusses, sex and violence. And, when the creators want to up the ante of their edginess, there’s always rape.

Amazon Prime’s recent hit Paatal Lok is being hailed for its unflinching look at the dehumanisation of a large cross section of Indian society. In the show’s third episode, aptly titled 'A History of Violence,' a schoolteacher very casually explains the local slang for the different kinds of violence perpetuated on women. There is chhota kaam (molestation), bada kaam (rape) and pura kaam (rape and murder). Two men discuss how much it would cost to rape three sisters with one asking for a ‘bulk discount’. The girls are raped and this traumatic backstory is explained as the trigger for a character’s descent into the world of crime.

Paatal Lok Mirzapur Sacred Games Has sexual violence become a common trope for edgy streaming shows

A still from episode 3 of Pataal Lok, 'A History of Violence'. Amazon Prime Video image.

This is not all.

Earlier in the same episode, a dozen gun-toting upper caste men storm into a lower caste family’s home in Punjab. They are there to take revenge for a crime committed by the son of the family. The leader of the group tells the boy’s mother his ten men will also avenge the crime committed by her son. Even before we see her being raped, the mother’s anguished moans and the rhythmic creaking of the charpoy ring in the courtyard as a young upper caste man looks on unblinkingly and her much older-relative cries in the background.

And, there is more.

Two episodes later, a young boy is abandoned by his relatives in a train. He is ‘adopted’ by a ragtag group of kids who live along the railway tracks and make their living running cons, pickpocketing and begging. Shaakal, a rickshaw-puller and known paedophile rapes the young boy.

No matter how brilliant a show is, at some point you’ve got to ask, ‘how much rape is too much rape’?

While talking about the bloodshed and carnage that’s ubiquitous in the show in an interview with Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra, Paatal Lok’s creator Sudip Sharma said, “The idea is not for the violence to be glorified; not have fun with the violence. But to make people flinch; to make you realise what violence can do or how horrific real violence can be”.

Don’t get me wrong; Paatal Lok isn’t the only drama streaming right now that portrays sexual violence. Also, it doesn’t always have to be rape. There’s attempted rape, persistent threats of rape, coerced sex, other kinds of sexual assault or any kind of ‘unwanted sexual contact’. In Jamtara, a local politician threatens to rape a young girl because he thinks she’s wronged him. In Made in Heaven, an erstwhile royal-politician-hotelier molests a young mehndi wali and his daughter-in-law to-be pays her off. In Sacred Games, a gangster hits an actress in bed when he realises that she might be spying on him. And, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Paatal Lok Mirzapur Sacred Games Has sexual violence become a common trope for edgy streaming shows

Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Netflix's Sacred Games. Facebook

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2018, there were 33,356 incidents of rape reported during the year with 89 rapes daily. Every fourth rape victim across the country was a minor. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, an estimated four Dalit women get raped every day. There is no doubt that India has a huge problem on their hands when it comes to gender-based attacks. Our deeply patriarchal society treats women as second-class citizens. Writers and show-runners of these and every other series would argue that they are just holding up a mirror to the society we live in today. Or, that people in cities like Mumbai and Delhi don’t really know what the reality is in Muzaffarpur or Alwar. Only, in a lot of our shows, the sexual assault seems to be shorthand for a backstory, to propel the drama forward or character development.

Varun Grover, who adapted Sacred Games for Netflix, believes that it is up to the writers and show-creators ‘to balance reality with artistic ethics. “You can get away by saying that ‘people abuse like this and we are only reflecting society’. But I believe that your personal politics has to come into play at some point. You need to find ways to make the same comment about the rotten state of our society and misogyny in a way that is not triggering,” he says.

Sacred Games, along with Mirzapur, was one of the first big Indian OTT hits. In 2018, when both shows had dropped within months of each, there had been a lot of talk on social media about the how the dialogues on the shows were peppered with cuss words. “And, again these cuss words are all gender specific. Going back to what I said about a writer’s choice, if you read the book, you’ll notice that we have half the abuses compared to what was originally written. And, I am guessing, the amount of abuses in the book is probably half of how these characters actually speak in reality. People would tell me that Sartaj (Saif Ali Khan’s character) rarely abuses which is not how cops are but that’s a choice that we made,” Grover adds.

If a story line involving the brutalisation of a female character is inevitable, the questions that arise are: How is it treated? Is the act gratuitous?

In a particularly horrific sequence in Mirzapur, a wheel chair bound old man coerces his daughter-in-law to have sex with him before forcing her to give a hand job to another man while holding her at gunpoint. The older man then orders her to cut off the other man’s penis. One would think something as shocking as this would have a bearing on the rest of the episode but it really doesn’t. While there is no single measuring stick for when this violence against a female character is warranted but a show’s attitude towards women is a good yardstick. Most often, in these shows female characters serve as appendages to the male characters. The worlds these shows are set in are known to treat women badly but it’s the creators who choose to not critique the violence in any way. Instead it is used purely to shock or manipulate a male character into some kind of action.

Director Alankrita Srivastav, who wrote Made in Heaven along with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, cites the example of the constant ritualised rapes in the dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale. “These scenes in the show are brutal but you see the outrage and the critique of the actions constantly. That balance is struck and the scenes never seem unnecessary or glorified,” she says. In ‘A Royal Affair, the episode in Made in Heaven that dealt with the subject, not only is there consequence for the perpetrator, there is also conversation about patriarchy and privilege. She adds, “Anjum Rajabali once explained to me how in the 1970s and 80s, this was believed to be a necessary ‘element’ to attract the frontbenchers. It used to always bother me how the person raped either died or committed suicide; very rarely would they live regular lives. As a culture, Indians have a complicated relationship seeing rape on screen. We are very casual about it and that’s beginning to be reflected in our streaming shows.”

Paatal Lok Mirzapur Sacred Games Has sexual violence become a common trope for edgy streaming shows

A still from Amazon's Mirzapur.

Thanks to some heavy self-censorship on the part of the platforms, we don’t have graphic nudity in these scenes but there is enough for it to be triggering for the audience. “Cheeni’s (character on Paatal Lok) rape shook me. I don’t think we’ve had a scene like this on an Indian show before. None of the tweets or reviews of the show mentioned it,” says Priyank (name changed on request), a 28-year-old make-up artist. As an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, the scene sent him spiralling. “It just took me back there. I was just angry and sad all over again. What made it worse was that even the other instances of violence against women in the show didn’t seem to have consequences for the perpetrators. The story just moves on to the next bit of drama.”

In an ideal world, these scenes would trigger conversations about assault, understanding consent and reminding survivors that what happened was not their fault and that there is life beyond. For now, though, it seems like Indian makers have found an easy and lazy route towards creating ‘edgy’ drama. And, it’s a slippery slope.

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