The Hindi film industry has been a dominant entertainment force for almost a century across India. It is often mentioned as an Indian soft power with its increasing popularity worldwide. As noted in my article on Hindu-Muslim relationships, most films have advanced the progressive values of communal harmony and secularism,
“Several films in which Hindus and Muslims appear not only as friends in their personal lives but also work in the service of nationalism, such as Saat Hindustani (1969), Kranti (1981), Deshpremee (1982), Karma (1986), China Gate (1998), Lagaan (2001), Imaan Dharam (1977), Insaniyat (1994), and Jodhaa Akbar (2008). These are all overtly or covertly nationalistic in their themes. However, this nationalism, although it uses some Hindu myths and legends in its narrative (as shown in the case of Karma in Derne (1995:191-216) and of Lagaan in Wright (2007:143-165)), cannot complete its project of nation-building without incorporating Muslims (and other minority groups). Instead of treating the minorities as second-class citizens or creating a Hindu-only nation, these nation-building projects are Gandhian, treating all religions and castes equally.”
However, Dahaad, a recent web series, presents an old stereotypical view of women in Northern India.
Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have become extremely popular in India and are witnessing a change in the entertainment landscape, both in content and audience composition. More specifically, OTT platforms offer diverse content showcasing stories from small towns and rural areas in India that were earlier missing from the dominant narratives in mainstream Hindi films and television soaps. The audience for this OTT content is receptive to fresh storylines. OTT series have merged the format of TV soaps with the aesthetics of Hindi films, which has given OTT a certain legitimacy, attracting film stars to this medium. However, the recent web series, Dahaad, follows the generic template of crime thrillers and combines it with the gender and caste discourse, informing its audience of how patriarchy shapes our ideas and lives.
In a shocking and unsettling series of events, a teacher’s life turns dark and sinister as they transform into a serial killer. This teacher, whose identity remains undisclosed, goes through a disturbing metamorphosis, crossing the line from educator to murderer. The details surrounding their transformation and motives are not specified in the prompt. Still, this individual engages in a pattern of killing multiple victims, typically following a particular method or signature. This chilling tale serves as a reminder of the capacity for darkness within seemingly ordinary individuals. The antagonist has been inspired by the real-life serial killer Cyanide Mohan, though his motivation appeared unrelated to caste dynamics. The series Dahaad inserts the caste dimension in the narrative to enhance its sensational appeal. Mohan gained notoriety for his heinous crimes, which involved luring women into relationships before drugging and murdering them with cyanide. His modus operandi led to his moniker, “Cyanide Mohan”. By delving into this dark aspect of reality, it aims to raise awareness about the dangers of manipulation and the need for vigilance in relationships. The story challenges the role of romantic relationships and marriage in the context of rural India. One can witness the changing landscape of romance and emotional intimacy. This shifting dynamic becomes a driving force, fuelling the narrative’s exploration of the complexities that arise within relationships.
However, the web series fails to capture the complexity that adds to our understanding of gender discrimination. For instance, it focuses on the low female-male ratio, though there has been improvement. The current demographic landscape in India has undergone a noteworthy transformation as females now surpass males in number. Despite this significant shift, most of the population still needs to acknowledge it. Therefore, Dahaad’s focus on associating the declining gender ratio to persistent gender disparities seems irrelevant in the contemporary world, though it was the case earlier.
Similarly, there is a need to recognise and address all aspects of gender-based challenges to create a more inclusive and equitable society – Especially true when considering the need to address violence against men, which has never been the focus of any media portrayal in India. Moreover, focusing solely on the rural-urban divide in the context of gender disparities can overlook the interplay of socioeconomic, cultural, and regional factors, collectively shaping the complex landscape of gender inequality. Considering these diverse factors, a nuanced approach can lead to more effective strategies for achieving gender equity.
The series is an essential commentary on education’s seemingly transformative societal role. Much of pre-colonial India’s social evils were attributed to the absence of education. So, when formal schooling emerged in India, it was hailed as a promising catalyst for societal transformation. The political leadership believed that it had the potential to eradicate the social ills that plagued colonial India. Education was envisioned as a beacon of hope, signifying liberalism. The belief that marrying into educated families could ensure a better life for daughters became deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric. Yet, time and again, it is not uncommon to come across disturbing instances that expose the stark dichotomy between education as a symbol of enlightenment and the persistence of regressive practices within educated households.
It is heartening to see the young cop, played by Sonakshi Sinha, portray a different perspective of a new emerging section of India—the educated and ambitious career woman. Unlike the conventional societal expectations that often bind women to the confines of a marital institution, this character breaks free from such trappings. She consciously chooses not to be defined by the traditional notion of marriage and lives life on her terms instead. Her focus is on her career and personal growth. She unapologetically shuns the pressures of conforming to societal norms of marriage and companionship. The role of a progressive father in her upbringing shapes her ideologies and identity. Dahaad’s take on the protagonist’s education and career points to the GPI (Gender Parity) trend that has increased incrementally, from being equal in 2017-18 to going up to 1.05 females for every male in 2020-21. Even in STEM education, India has surpassed other developed nations like the United States, Canada, and the UK. This change is further visible as women make inroads in career aspects. For instance, the number of female teachers exceeds the number of males. Interestingly, India is the leading nation in the percentage of female pilots. While these statistics are promising, they push us to think alternatively about the lived gender inequalities rather than narrating a story through certain gender stereotypes.