What prompts heroism, that thing which spins an ordinary person into an extraordinary personality?
The Trial: Pyaar, Kanoon, Dhokha begins with a sex scandal being debated on national television, with images of Additional Judge Rajeev Sengupta (Jisshu Sengupta) furiously necking a woman — the accusation is that he traded in sexual favours. The ultimate indignity, fodder for television. Not just infidelity, but illegality, too.
The camera lingers on the disturbed face of his wife Noyonika Sengupta (Kajol), looking out of the window at the press and police pooling in droves. With hurt and worry, anger and fear, the camera zooms into her to catch the melodramatic thrum of Noyonika slapping Rajeev as she bids him a bitter farewell when he is taken into custody. Beware. A character transformation is buffering.
Over eight, ear-ringing episodes, The Trial traces Noyonika’s thorny journey from a formerly successful lawyer who, after marrying Rajeev, turned to tending the house, her husband and two daughters. The sex scandal and his imprisonment forces her to join the workforce again — she has bills to pay and the assets she held with Rajeev have been frozen. Defrosted out of domesticity, Noyonika returns as the lawyer with a fiery personality, arguing the lives of people in the drab courtroom in dull, ironed coats. And so begins her lunge into a heroism — more brainy than brawny — that is built on the inadequacy and failures of her husband. Without his weakness, there would be no reason for Noyonika to push her way back into the world and prove herself once again.
This is not unusual. Often, heroes need to be thrust towards heroism, catalysed into ripped agony and righteous monologues. From the glimpses into the past that the show offers, it doesn’t seem like heroism came innately to her. Instead, it’s a wound that festers into main-character energy and that wound is the narrative gift of her husband.
What is it about husbands? Why is their emasculation, their fumbling, central to a woman’s destiny as a hero?
In Aarya, Aarya Sareen (Sushmita Sen), is forced to wield a gun and become a gangster to protect her three children after her husband is gunned down, leaving her in debt, traps and debt traps. In Aranyak, the dynamic Kasturi Dogra (Raveena Tandon), a police officer in a small town, overcompensates for a listless husband who feels emasculated by his wife’s professional success and growing intimacy with a colleague. In Maja Ma, the emasculation is more literal, with Pallavi Patel’s (Madhuri Dixit) meek husband taking a viagra-like pill, hoping the erection would prop up their wilting marriage. (Pallavi is a lesbian.) In The Fame Game, Dixit’s character is a successful actor who is paraded about by her abusive husband. When a sleazy businessman wants to meet her, the husband arranges it, effectively pimping her out and commodifying her. Incidents like this lead to Dixit’s character staging her own abduction in order to become the protagonist of her own story.
In all these stories, to see a woman as a hero is to see her build her heroism on the foundation of, or as a response, to a masculine weakness. That all these actresses made their name in the Nineties, when women were sketched on the outline of stories, slitting through the storytelling with their ability to stoke desire, makes this feel like narrative revenge, enacted with the help of showrunners who want to tap into the residual fame of these former film stars and the present-day discourse of pop culture feminism. Wittingly or unwittingly, these shows end up reproducing the same cliché about successful women — that their success crowds out men.
Is this the only way for a woman to be a hero, a protagonist, by elbowing out the men in her life? In The Trial, Noyonika’s star rises as her husband’s dims. In the final episode, she stands on stage with him while he makes a public apology as a stunt to begin his political career. Meanwhile her character’s moral spine looks that much more appealing and clear against the dank opportunism that Rajeev embodies.
Can a story hold a middle-aged female protagonist as a female hero without it being tied so strongly to a husband’s weakness? It seems that the way we tell stories — the commercial and the artistic impulses — does not make space for two strong protagonists, with each exerting a complimentary, positively spiralling pressure on the other’s arc.
How to bestow attention on every character who passes by the gaze of the story. To look at every passing person on the page and ask — where do you want to go, whom do you want to be?
Sometimes, our insistence on reproducing these narrative inequalities of the mass film genre whip up a tense spectacle like Aarya, which blurs the theoretical apprehensions laid out earlier. Then along comes a show like The Trial, which puts on display the industrial, commodifying, cookie-cutter nature of storytelling on streaming, bringing us face to face with all that righteous flash that parades as feminism in storytelling — and something deflates.