Director: Nikhil Nagesh Bhat
Creator: Shantanu Srivastava, Tanveer Bookwala
Writer: Shantanu Srivastava
Editor: Ajay Sharma
Cinematographer: Piyush Puty
Cast: Swara Bhasker, Ayushmaan Saxena, Rashmi Agdekar
Producer: Sameer Nair, Deepak Segal, Tanveer Bookwala
Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime
There is Shanoo Bansal (Swara Bhasker, with an inconsistent accent), the prim high school English teacher with straightened hair in Meerut. And then there is the frizzy-haired 'nympho', Rasbhari (Also Bhasker). Are they one and the same? Or is one a creature of small-town gossip? Or is Rasbhari, Shanoo's rationalization of her inner sex siren? The story is constructed as a movement from one possibility to another, and how the main character, her student Nand Kishore Tyagi (Ayushmaan Saxena, armed with a more convincing accent and character) vacillates with the theories.
Bhasker plays the two ends of the spectrum of social acceptability- an educator, and a seductress. But of course an educator being a seductress means saris with backless blouses as seen here, or thin chiffon material (Main Hoon Na), or low cut blouses (Karan Johar's short in Lust Stories). This is not a nuanced intersection that we have grappled with often. (The closest perhaps was the unnerving professor from Anurag Kashyap's short in Lust Stories.) I get that this series is meant to tint in nostalgia, the first adolescent flushes of lust towards teachers that many have felt. But surely there must be a more charming, less obvious way to show that.
Now, add to this, the arbitrary messaging. In one scene, when Nand gives Shanoo a box of Son Papri as an apology, she tells him to first ask what she wants before giving it to her. This is supposed to be a thinly veiled attempt at describing consent or a more reciprocal, equal idea of sex. At another point she delivers a life altering monologue about replacing adolescent lust with respect. Then at another point, she speaks about how in adultery it is often the woman who faces the burnt edge of the stick. These sermons, while morally upright, come out of nowhere; contextless platitudes that make the show feel like an accumulation of moral tirades. Besides, nothing here feels fresh, neither the moral nor its treatment.
But where Rasbhari falters most is in its cardboard characterization- of both space and person. Apart from Priyanka (Rashmi Agdekar), the girl who falls in love with Nandu after calling him out for being cheap and making him tie her a rakhi, all the characters take themselves too seriously. All of Shanoo's history is delivered through hurried, incoherent vignettes before the opening credits roll. These moments, meant to add heft to a character, don't do much. (I think a moment needs to be considered in the making of every show, of how to place the opening credits. It jars when it comes out of nowhere, as if attached to a scene that hasn't made its point yet, or has made such a pat point, it doesn't feel complete.) Nand is arced with a drastic, but questionable transformation from lecherous to respectful. All this changes from one sermon and one roohafza shared with the teacher whose petticoat troubled his wet dreams till yesterday? I don't buy it.
Meerut is divided into the men who lust after Rasbhari, and their wives who collectively plot to catch her red-handed, anxious about their husbands infidelity, but resigned to being cuckqueaned as a collective.
Despite taking 4 hours, packaged into 8 episodes, the small town Meerut is also never brought to life. There is the sense of everyone-knows-everything, the paanwala referred to as Pandit, and the one spot, the tall water tank, where Nand and his coterie can come to let their hair down. But these feel like embellishments over a dish that… doesn't exist.
The show stacks its citizens into flat stereotypes, and which cardboard character has ever had affections for its roots? Meerut is thus divided into the men who lust after Shanoo/Rasbhari, and their wives who collectively plot to catch her red-handed, anxious about their husbands infidelity, but resigned to being cuckqueaned as a collective. At one point all the men are infested with hickeys, and one woman too- this seductress is bisexual! The assumption is that they all originated from the same place, and it is this woman and not all the men who must be shown her place. It's the same reflection of regressive society that we have seen become excuses for dated social commentary. (How does one put the goddess on a pedestal with the same hands that cup themselves around ears transmitting sexist gossip?)
I can see why this would have made for an alluring story- a small-town, sexless men stuck in doubtful marriages that have mistaken duty for love, crude boys waiting to be taught discipline and fragility, and enter an educator in English (the aspirational tongue) who might be moonlighting as one's most erotic fantasy (the other aspirational tongue). But when have good ideas ever been enough?