Shefali Shah's Delhi Crime 2 wonderfully explores the thanklessness of feminine servitude

In this edition of the weekly column Let’s Talk About Women, I break down how through its three key women, Delhi Crime 2 expertly shows the heavy price that marriage and motherhood levies on ambitious women.

Sneha Bengani September 16, 2022 15:00:02 IST
Shefali Shah's Delhi Crime 2 wonderfully explores the thanklessness of feminine servitude

In its first-ever issue in 1971, the popular American feminist magazine Ms. published an essay by Judy Brady titled I Want A Wife. It hit a raw nerve and twisted it with such aching finesse that the text strikes hard even today, over half a century later. If you have watched Netflix India’s latest instalment of Delhi Crime, it will be difficult to not draw parallels and see how brilliantly it adapts Judy’s writing to screen.

Though the second season is based on Moon Gazer, a chapter from Neeraj Kumar’s 2019 book Khaki Files, it feels as if show creator Richie Mehta and director Tanuj Chopra have used Judy’s essay to make and unmake the three key women of Delhi Crime 2. If privilege was a ladder, Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah), Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal), and Lata Solanki (Tillotama Shome), find themselves hanging on to rungs that are worlds unto their own, distinctly disparate and distanced from each other.

At the narrow top is Vartika, DCP of South Delhi, representing the rich, urban elite. She has sent her daughter to Toronto for under-graduation. She speaks in English with her husband, who calls her babes. Somewhere in the middle of the ladder is Neeti. Her soldier spouse has to use a sizeable chunk of his personal savings to plan a trip with her to Nainital. They don’t own a car, so her mother-in-law uses the one given by the government to Neeti for official purposes to buy groceries. And finally, at the broad, forgotten, festering bottom is Lata, who has to beg, steal, and kill to make things happen.

However, as starkly contrasting as their social, financial, and aspirational situations might be, Vartika, Neeti, and Lata are united by one common disadvantage; they are women. And so, albeit differently, being a woman burns all three of them a little each day, bogs them down bit by bit, and wounds them, one scar at a time.

Not that she was ever particularly pally with Vartika, but in this season, her daughter Chandni is downright hostile to her. She is angry about her always being busy; so she punishes her by ghosting her or by being bratty and unreasonable. Chandni takes her father’s calls, but not her mother’s.

The way the show builds up Neeti’s impending trip to Nainital, you pre-empt what’s coming—that she won’t be able to go. When the two prime suspects in their case flee custody under her charge, Vartika cancels her leave. Neeti’s husband’s reaction when he finds out about it is a story as old as time, something every woman endures more times than they can count. After all, how dare a woman prioritize anything over her family and household?

Usually quiet and reticent, Neeti loses her cool in the final episode when Mr. Husband snarls at her, telling her that he is ashamed of her. Why? Because she has a demanding job that involves patrolling a city gone berserk and keeping crimes and criminals under check. Because she couldn’t take a day off to entertain the her husband. Because he had to cancel his trip owing to her professional commitments. It’s funny to think how women keep on restructuring their lives relentlessly to suit the convenience of their husbands. Everyone else around them is so used to it that we take their availability for granted; it’s a mandatory given.

Sure, wives can have plans and ambition too, but only as long as it doesn’t cause inconvenience to anyone else. Even if you’re investigating a case that has stopped the national capital in its tracks, it surely cannot be more important than your wifely duties, right? If you let it, you’ve failed.

Women also don’t have the right to wish for a life beyond our means. How dare we? In a society where everyone is keen on showing us our place and ensuring that we stay there, wanting to break free is blasphemy. It’s a punishable offense. I, in no way, condone the path that Lata chooses to reach her dreams. But as Vartika says early in the season, there are no born criminals. Lata and Vartika’s four-minute conversation at the back of the police jeep right after she’s apprehended unpacks years of suppressed trauma, systemic oppression, and abject neglect. When you repeatedly try to thwart simmering ambition, it more often than not results in a raging wildfire that destroys everything in its wake.

Through Vartika, Neeti, and Lata, Delhi Crime 2 expertly shows how marriage and motherhood affect women irrevocably. Neeti is married but doesn’t have a child yet. Vartika has a teen daughter. Lata has to abandon her husband and son to pursue her dreams. In trying to hold it all together, they have let fatigue seep into their bones. Their tiredness is as physical as the city they are trying to make sense of. It touches everything they do, everywhere they go, every decision they make, every breath they take.

I’ve always found the idea of me being a wife unsettling. There’s so much to it, that it’s never been an easy conversation for me. When I first read Judy’s essay years ago in college, I finally found the words to describe my gnawing anxiety. How could I be a wife when I wanted one? I’m a millennial who has had the privilege of premium education, posh jobs, and a refined lifestyle. Why would I want to be Judy’s (or anyone’s) idea of a wife? Why would anyone? The older I get, the more I realize the needlessness and the thanklessness of it. Forget the physical labor, I’m unwilling to compromise on something as fundamental as the freedom to put myself first and spend my time the way I want. Also, I have worked (and been handsomely rewarded for it) for far too long to find meaning in unpaid slog.

Over the years, the feminist movement sure has had pivotal hoorah moments, but the reality of the words in Judy’s essay continues to sting. The concept of a wife is still not as gender fluid as it should be, the equilibrium is still a long way off, men still demand a lot more than they give, and shows such as Delhi Crime continue to hit hard in the gut for they tell us what we don’t want to hear—a lot has changed since Judy’s time, but a lot still painfully remains the same.

When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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