Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl does not feel the same way. Boy stalks girl, tries to woo her. Girl is still not interested. Boy kills girl.
Now, if you thought that it escalated quickly, you haven't been paying attention to the news around you. Scorned lovers are not the only ones plotting acts of revenge anymore. Men who weren’t even a part of the picture, men who have been living lives inside their head, convinced the girl loves them, are also the ones who murder for ‘love’.
Taking a 180-degree turn from this usual plot is Sumukhi Suresh’s Pushpavalli, a web series that premiered on Amazon Prime Video on December 15, 2017.
The eight-episode series shows Pushpavalli as a seemingly normal girl-next-door who, slowly but surely, takes on darker tones – quickly becoming president of stalker-town. This unusual plot line is the result of Sumukhi questioning the unrealistic characterisation of women on screen. “I am tired of people expecting a female character to only be good. There are shades of grey as well and clearly, Pushpavalli here is the anti-hero. You empathise with her, but you never agree with her.”
Decades of Indian cinema showed us that stalking as a means to woo the opposite sex is ‘normal’. Up until a few years ago, people never understood, or discussed, the gross negligence on the storyteller’s part for promoting such actions on screen.
At this juncture, Pushpavalli is bold enough to venture into this line of thought and initiate an important dialogue. When does a seemingly normal relationship become an obsession? Are stalkers only men? Why does stalking hit the headlines only when it results in a violent crime? And do we take women stalkers seriously enough?
‘Looking up someone on social media’ (it’s stalking, guys, let’s call a spade a spade here) has become normalised in the digital world we live in. For those of us who have done that, we don’t have to take this series – that’s based on ‘true-ish events’– with a pinch of salt.
This should be our wake-up call.
Early on in the series, we get a whiff of Pushpavalli’s obsession with Nikhil, played by Manish Anand, whom she had met at a food expo in Bhopal. We also get to know that her intent to move to Bengaluru from Bhopal is to get closer to Nikhil (a lot like the American TV series, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but the similarities stop here).
The series has a nonlinear storyline that jumps from the present to the past, where we get most of the backstory from. In retrospect, we also consider the possibility that if Nihkil lead her on during their short-lived encounter in Bhopal, does that justify Pushpavalli's obsession with him?
The best part about the series is that with the anti-hero as the lead, we come to understand the shades of grey in every character. Pushpavalli’s well-meaning, conservative mother plays a part in making her daughter feel inadequate. Her roommates, who are always together and even talk at the same time, have a penchant for drama that stops at nothing. “She also turned out to be boring. Wish we could get a murderer like last year,” they say in one scene, referring to Pushpavalli.
The dark comedy in the show also tries to dispel the aura of awkwardness that surrounds periods. In one scene, single mother Swati (Preetika Chawla) questions quick-tempered Pankaj’s (Naveen Richard) insensitive explanation of a period pad to a child. This rings a bell with so many of us who have dodged uneasy questions coming from children.
The series effortlessly jumps from cringe-comedy to hard-hitting truth that culminates in the end with Pushpavalli’s breakdown. You feel sorry for her but you also don’t expect her to turn over a new leaf either. The success of the series lies in how it steers the focus away from the idea of what’s right and wrong. Instead, we look at its characters, their flaws and what makes them relatable.
The series in itself is not without glitches. We've got loud characters who are always on the cusp of breakdowns and Pankaj's overuse of swear words becomes excessive after a point. Our conditioning as viewers has long demanded that in a story, the bad character repents, quarrels come to an end and problems are resolved. As an audience, we need closure - the ‘happily ever after’.
“That is just lazy writing. Nobody turns over a new leaf just after one confrontation,” says Sumukhi. Which is true. Although, as a community, we’ve got a long way to go when it comes to identifying and fixing such behaviours, Sumukhi’s Pushpavalli creates the right kind of dialogue just in time for us to maybe start acting on it.