The silent women of Paatal Lok: Where are the voices and backstories of female characters in the Amazon Prime series?
The women in Paatal Lok are silent. And if they speak, they are mostly unheard.
Does silence speak louder than words? I decided to check with the women of Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime’s successful, new offering.
Paatal Lok is a brilliant show. The nine-episode season tackles everything, from caste and class to religion, gender, queerness, corruption and crime. It's one of the more noteworthy Indian productions not just in terms of its content, but also its design — the script is tight, the casting is tighter. The show delivered on the basis of the excellent performances of its cast, none of whom were big stars, but instead good actors and actresses. We were shown a real protagonist, Hathi Ram, who was as much black as he was white. He has great instincts but that didn't stop him from overlooking certain things. He might be able to get out of sticky situations, but he isn’t defeating thugs ten to one. More than anything, the show achieved one of the hardest things in storytelling: it ran multiple small and big plots, and in nine episodes, tied up everything neatly, and in a way that leaves the viewer satisfied.
But that doesn’t let go of the fact that the women in Paatal Lok are silent. And if they speak, they are mostly unheard.
Let’s start with Dolly, journalist Sanjeev Mehra’s anxiety-ridden wife. Instead of acknowledging and being sympathetic to his wife’s mental health issues, Sanjeev Mehra is impatient, oblivious, and mostly fed up of her. He has many more important things to worry about, like his declining career and the people who want him dead. It is no surprise that he treats her the way he does, considering he’s one of the more abhorrent characters on the show, even though he didn’t kill anyone with a hammer. Dolly, then, is reduced to a bumbling mess of a burdensome, anxious wife, putting up with her husband’s infidelities and self-importance, and an important plot device, as we find out towards the end, with no character growth of her own.
Next up is Gul Panag as Renu, Hathi Ram’s bubbly wife. The thing is, Gul Panag is such a star performer that it’s impossible to not hear her. She’s placed in a great setting, and is a window into the personal life of Hathi Ram, of him as a family man. But what do I remember of her once the show is over? As a character, just that she’s the cute, sometimes nagging wife of the protagonist, slapping him in return once he has slapped her, which might be the only redeeming moment for women in the show.
Sara Mathews is too flat a character to be judged well. She may not have been silent, but she was the biggest journalism cliché if there ever was one: an affair with the senior boss journalist, disillusioned by the lack of ethics in her field, always at the right place at the wrong time, and yet somehow helping the cop when needed. Again, her character only served as a foil to Sanjeev Mehra. The series is supposedly based on Tarun Tejpal's book, The Story of my Assassins, and perhaps that's where the cliche emerges from.
But perhaps the woman whose silence rang the loudest of all was the unnamed woman from the series’ most shocking scene, where a lower caste woman is raped by upper caste men in an act of revenge. She stuffs her dupatta in her mouth, to avoid screaming out and bears on her person the crimes committed by the men in her family, but in the end, is only an object of sympathy and shock, shedding spotlight on Tope Singh’s dark past.
And finally, there's Cheeni, the transwoman who grew up on the streets of Delhi and found a friend in Kaaliya, managing a way to survive, getting a job as a masseuse. Perhaps no one has a fate as terrible as that of Cheeni, who remains silent through it all- where there could have been a chance to speak out, there was only silence. While her story was shown in great details and nuances, we never hear from her, only what happened to her. And so it is all the more heartbreaking when we finally hear from her, that she had been doing these odd, dangerous jobs as she was saving up to get a sex change operation.
Then there was Chanda, Tope Singh’s ex-girlfriend who was cast aside as a liar and the CBI director who was surprisingly a woman, but didn’t have any significant role.
That said, it is important to show women in fiction: good women, oppressed women, rebellious women, cunning women, sacrificial women — deleting them from fiction doesn’t deny their existence. The Bechdel-Wallace test measures the representation of women in fiction and has a simple criteria: are there two women talking to each other for a significant length of time, some say 60 seconds, about something other than a man? It’s a clever test because women in fiction are often shown in their roles of mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, and less often themselves. So if they are able to hold a conversation for a minute about something other than a man, they are talking about their life outside of these roles. Paatal Lok fails this test: I went through every scene and there is never a moment where two women talk to each other about something other than a man.
And so, here is something we can ask the creators of Paatal Lok, while congratulating them: where are the stories of the women, the circumstances that made them as they are? Where are the madwomen that could come alive on screen, the terrific women, the glorious women who occupy all the space around but somehow don’t find themselves on screen too much? The silent women of Paatal Lok remind us that the stories of women haven’t been heard, as they are yet untold.
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