Paurashpur wants to be progressive; instead, it has problematic takes on queer love, transness and the patriarchy
All those visuals in Paurashpur of a bare-chested Milind Soman with atmospheric lighting seem to be completely out of place, knowing that trans people’s bodies are perpetually watched, policed and violated in cis-heteronormative societies.
Paurashpur, the latest period drama streaming on Zee5 and ALTBalaji, is a sleazefest lightly disguised as social commentary. Erotica does have its uses especially during a pandemic when people are isolated from their partners, emotionally vulnerable, and starved of pleasure. However, I doubt that Paurashpur will gratify anyone, no matter how atmanirbhar they might want to be — either as a political choice or as a preventive measure. It has been compared to Mira Nair’s film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), but she may not be happy to hear that.
The story unfolds over seven episodes in a fictional kingdom called Paurashpur set in the 16th century. Written by Baljit Singh Chaddha, Rajesh Tripathi and Chital Rajesh Tripathi, with dialogues by Ranveer Pratap Singh and direction by Shachindra Vats, it is being promoted as “an epic tale of lust and revenge”. The grandeur of the sets is certainly dazzling thanks to Nitin Chandrakant Desai but not enough to make up for the absence of solid characterisation, memorable performances, and a plot with substance.
Annu Kapoor plays Maharaja Bhadrapratap, an ageing patriarchal despot struggling with erectile dysfunction. He remains unsatisifed during consexual sex with every young wife brought into the palace, and achieves orgasm only when he rapes a woman. This conflation of pleasure and violence in Paurashpur is most disturbing because the scenes have been shot in a manner that makes them look aesthetically rich, not gruesome or reprehensible. Where do the discarded wives go? You will have to watch the series to find out.
Without going into explicit detail, I must warn you about a bizarre monologue where the king speaks to his flaccid penis out of sheer frustration. His body is partially submerged in water, and he is surrounded by rose petals, but the sensory stimulation fails to provide any joy or release. This is a rare moment of weakness in a man who is otherwise drunk on power but the writers of the series provide hardly any insight into his anguish. He is portrayed as a sex maniac with no back story. His cruelty is presented with no justification.
Feeling let down by his own body, Bhadrapratap takes his anger out on the young wives who are tasked with ensuring that his physical needs are taken care of. He feels no affection or respect towards them, so it is easy for him to overlook the fact that they are human beings like him. He pours molten wax on their bodies as a form of punishment, and brands them with a hot iron, so that they never forget the day when they failed in their supposed duty.
Women in this kingdom are expected to wear a “yoni bandhak” — a desi chastity belt — so that their sexuality is kept under a literal lock and key. Those who stray are punished with death. The harbingers of their fate are women in red saris who appear out of nowhere and begin to whirl like dervishes. They are also oddly reminiscent of the Gulabi Gang, a women’s vigilante group in Uttar Pradesh, and of the jauhar ceremony in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat (2018).
There is ample scope in Paurashpur for the writers to flesh out how patriarchy is upheld by people of various genders but they miss out on that opportunity. They settle for the more simplistic narrative of a proverbial war of the sexes. Shilpa Shinde plays Meerawati, the most senior among Bhadrapratap’s queens, who is power-hungry in her own way. She meddles in the affairs of others, particularly younger women who seem threatening to her own influence.
The strands of grey in her personality are hastily tied up towards the end of the series instead of being drawn out in all their complexity. The fact that she tricks a palace maid into marrying the king — who is actually the father of the man she loves — is forgiven just as easily as her murder of a lover who is found consorting with another man. Meerawati is portrayed as a messiah of sorts for all women in the kingdom when she is pretty much a foot soldier of patriarchy.
It is likely that the creators of Paurashpur got bored of their own characters, so they did not invest enough time and energy in mapping out a journey for them. This can be said not only of Meerawati but also of Boris — the character played by Milind Soman — who is introduced as “neither man, nor woman” and is subsequently addressed as “kinnar” and “hijra”. These terms have specific historical and cultural meanings within communities, and may or may not be used interchangeably. Some research on trans and intersex identities would have come in handy.
This is exactly why trans people ask that they be involved in scripting, casting, acting and direction. Paurashpur uses transness as a trope — not a lived reality — to make you believe that Boris exists outside the rules of patriarchy. All those visuals of a bare-chested Soman with atmospheric lighting seem to be completely out of place, knowing that trans people’s bodies are perpetually watched, policed and violated in cis-heteronormative societies.
I was shocked to read a review of the show that stated, “He [Soman] makes a decent attempt to behave like a transgender but ends up looking smoking hot in that look too”. Where do these stereotypical ideas come from? How are trans people meant to behave? Why is it difficult to think of a trans person as attractive? Paurashpur is not interested in these questions. It depicts Boris as a person who evokes fear even in the king.
It might seem that a fictional show set in the 16th century has no bearing on the lives of trans people who live in India in 2021 but that may not be true. Books, films and web series often shape attitudes towards trans people in homes, workplaces and the streets. Boris is described as someone who has been cursed by God. This is hardly the kind of representation that affirms trans people who are not accepted by their own families and friends.
Speaking of the finale in greater detail might give away some spoilers, so I will avoid going down that route. However, it must be noted that showing a trans person in a heroic light does not take away from the inherent transphobic or transnegative quality of the show. Men in Paurashpur who have been unable to impregnate their wives, are deemed as lacking in masculinity. This supposed lack is equated with transness, pitied and mocked.
Paurashpur also fails to do justice to all the instances of queer lovemaking that pop up between characters in various episodes. It is suggested that people explore alternatives to heteronormativity only when they are unfulfilled and desperate. These scenes have been inserted to spice up the show but they fall flat. There is hardly any chemistry between the actors, who look awkward and uncomfortable.
There is an elaborate sequence in Paurashpur wherein two men who are sexually attracted to each other perform a mating dance instead of holding each other and making love. The series also includes orgies but they are not integrated into the plot: They seem straight out of César Benítez, Juan Carlos Cueto and Rocío Martínez Llano’s series Toy Boy (2019) rather than a kingdom in the 16th century. If you have an appetite for more, there is an item number called ‘Chandni ki Chatak Chunariya’. Of course, all this happens out of Bhadrapratap’s sight.
What you must watch out for, however, is a scene between Nrityaguru Bhanu (played by Sahil Salathia) and Boris. It is much quieter than the rest of the series, and comes off as a lot more sincere than everything else. Boris says, “Pyaar stree aur purush mein hota hai. Main na stree hoon na purush, tum mujhse pyaar kyun karte ho? (Love happens between a woman and a man. I am neither, why do you love me?)” Bhanu replies, “Tum stree aur purush ke farq se paray ek aise insaan ho jiska wajood apne aap mein poora hai. (Beyond the binary of woman and man, you are a person whose identity is complete in itself.)” This deserves applause.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
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