"….violence is the best way to control an audience"
– Quentin Tarantino, The Telegraph (2010)
The recent crop of OTT releases- Mirzapur, Season 1 & 2 (Amazon Prime), Bulbul (Netflix), Raat Akeli Hain (Netflix), Tandav (Amazon Prime), The Family Man, Season 2 (Amazon Prime) or Aarya, Season 1 & 2 (Disney Hotstar)- have one thing in common. They all have strong female characters who subvert male domination and by that extension, the traditional representations of a narrow feminine role as compliant subjects of patriarchy. Undoubtedly, female anger has disruptive possibilities and transforming that anger into revenge and power has been most appealing to the female spectators (as recent estimates on OTT viewership by gender indicate). However, in this newfound revenge fantasy, sexual violence (including torture and abuse) becomes the narrative trope that makes the female protagonist's resistance legitimate. I show that by glamorising violence and masculine imageries of power, OTT-led liberalism ultimately plays out a male fantasy under the garb of being 'feminist'. At the same time, I contend, that a celebration of female bonding and shared camaraderie in these new-age dramas introduces feminist meanings that unsettle the gender status quo in unexpected ways.
Gauging the gaze
The cinematic gaze has been an important device in understanding the complex workings of gender and social class. Media theorists have argued that at the core, mainstream films duly satisfy the male unconscious since filmmakers were mostly male and hence the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is often male. Inevitably, male characters in the visual media as well as the spectators (who are again, predominantly male) make women the objects of their gaze. Hence the gaze serves as a vehicle for cinematic chauvinism that subjugates, trivializes and symbolically annihilates women. For the most part, this ubiquitous male gaze remained unchallenged till the OTT revolution took the internet by storm. Heralded as the new-age, misogyny-busting 'progressive' content, the OTT platforms introduced a brave new world of strong female characters, erotica and gender diversity, although raising questions about excessive use of objectionable language, sex, and abuse.
In these new-age dramas, I argue that the spectacle of male gaze is not radically threatened. Instead, it is achieved through the aesthetics of violence which in turn offers a superfluous 'feminist' purpose. For example, in Mirzapur, Beena – the dutiful daughter-in-law of the violently patriarchal Tripathi household- is repeatedly raped by her father-in-law. In Season 2, she uses violence and sex to bargain with the oppressive loyalties of her marriage. Another character in the same series, Golu, a witness to the violent murder of her pregnant sister and fiancé, symbolically ungenders herself and launches into an merciless revenge war. Again, in Bulbbul, a feminist retelling of the maleficent 'chudail' trope, a child bride is assaulted by her much older husband and raped violently by her brother-in-law almost leaving her crippled. She turns into an unusually stunning vigilante who goes around killing abusive men. Rebel fighter Raji's (in Family Man, Season 2) ferocious resolve is explained through a past history of sexual abuse and torture in the hands of the Sri Lankan army. In a more recent, Aarya (Season 2), a revenge drama revolving around the titular character- a mother of three children- who after the murder of her husband challenges the (masculine) machinations of hyper-violent drug cartels and old family rivalries.
In short, being wronged and sexually violated serve as a route through which redemption and 'empowerment' are actualised. One wonders if these sadistic and bloodthirsty revenge tales that use the same masculine symbols of power are really challenging patriarchy or co-opting it? Or yet, is it the testosteronic female gaze being ultimately appropriated by the male gaze? More generally, what does this shift in women's portrayal do to our understanding of feminism in popular culture? Noted American journalist, Margaret Carlson, in the aftermath of the much-celebrated, 'feminist' crime movie, Thelma & Louise (1991) reminded us that with such representations, "little ground has been won. For these [two] women, feminism never happened…They become free but only wildly, self-destructively so" (Time, June 24, 1991). In what follows, I show that the current wave of OTT-led feminism suffers from a similar dilemma.
In a country where domestic and sexual violence is rampant (the latest National Family Health Survey-5 data shows that as many as 44.5% of women experience spousal violence), the construction of this female-led revenge narrative is deeply problematic. It not only normalises violence against women (and other sexual minorities) but also makes violence an apology for female assertion. In fact, the narrative device of these new women-centered representations does not challenge or resist the typical media depictions of rape. Media theorists argue that rape or sexual violence narratives reinforce a dominant masculine ideology that routinely undermines women's experiences with rape and instead privileges stories of male power. Significantly, the voyeuristic male gaze is inherent in rape narratives.
Further, in this offering of 'feminist' dramas, men's spectacles for women's gaze find newer (and problematic) expressions. They are articulated through a forceful construction of female characters that openly and suggestively demand sexual liaisons. Think of Golu in Mirzapur who was introduced to us through an almost out-of-context self-pleasuring scene and later as a femme fatale seeking dispassionate sex with sadist underpinnings. Similarly, Madhuri (the campaigner for her Chief Minister father) in the same series, is shown to be craftily navigating provincial politics and sex with the trigger-happy ineffectual son of the rival family. While the articulation of female desire is not necessarily problematic, but slotting 'strong' women characters singularly through the lens of violence and seduction is like finding a new costume for patriarchy.
The disruptive playfulness of the female gaze is somewhat redeemed in the depiction of female friendships in many of these new releases. These friendships are not necessarily competitive or vampish- a trope that had long pandered to the male gaze of Bollywood cinema. Instead, these women are partners and close comrades who plot, kill and revel together. In Mirzapur (Season 2), the daughter-in-law, Beena and revenge seeker, Golu, develop an unfamiliar bond that aids them in throttling patriarchal subjugation. Away from the rural badlands, in the uber-sleek, Netflix series Bombay Begums (2021), female bonding over brunches, sex and corporate ruthlessness, plays an instrumental role in crafting buoyant urban women who reject male control over their lives. Similarly, in Aarya (Season 2), the attachment of the titular character with her friend, Maya, (who has met with the same fate of losing her husband to the drug war) in seeking vengeance, fits this rare imagery of female conviviality.
Further, in a powerful variation of the heterosexual myth of ultimately finding the right man or being appropriately domesticated through marriage, many of these OTT releases celebrates women's loyalty to each other without men's active role in their lives. This aspect of rendering men almost extraneous to the plot's life is an interesting articulation of the female gaze. The endings of Bombay Begums or Aarya (Season 2) that celebrate the exulted female anchoring confirms this cinematic possibility. Overall, these cinematic opportunities that validate and privilege women's connection with each other is noteworthy.
Though these images represent powerful shifts in ideology, it is important to note that a democratic gaze cannot be achieved by simple role reversals, an angle, that sadly most OTT-releases tend to believe in. Nor does a female gaze completely replace the persistent stronghold of the male gaze. Rather, it opens up the possibility of cohabiting the space that was traditionally occupied by the male gaze, while simultaneously subverting it. Decades of feminist struggles remind us that when it comes to challenging structural inequalities like gender, caste and social class, small triumphs are significant too. It can not only strengthen the last mile in achieving equality, but can also alter the road altogether. In this connection, Margaret Carlson's observation about Thelma & Louise is interesting. She calls it a "movie with legs". Indeed. The cinematic road is long, dark and prejudiced and at times, to be able to move forward is a reaffirmation that inclusive futures are possible.