Warning: Major spoilers ahead
Actor Swara Bhasker’s web series Rasbhari, directed by Nikhil Bhat and written by Shantanu Srivastava, released on June 24 on Amazon Prime Video, and has been the subject of debate on social media ever since. Although the series received several rave reviews which called it feminist and progressive, it has also been downvoted on IMDb to a sad 2.4. Some of the negative responses to the series can no doubt be attributed to trolls who routinely target Swara for her political views, but there have also been others who have taken exception to the content of the show for its depiction of a woman's sexuality.
Having watched Rasbhari though, I found that the series is indeed problematic but not in the way that those threatened by women's sexuality think it is.
Rasbhari’s story unfolds in Meerut. The protagonist is Nand Kishore Tyagi (played Ayushmaan Saxena) who is in class 11, and feels he's ready for his first sexual experience. He and his friends start lusting after their new English teacher – Shanoo Bansal (Swara Bhasker). Also in the picture is Priyanka (Rashmi Agdekar), Nand’s classmate, who shows romantic interest in him.
Shanoo and her husband Naveen’s (Pradhuman Singh) arrival in town creates gossip in the way you’d expect in a place where everyone knows everyone. Rumours run amok further when word spreads that Shanoo is seducing and sleeping with several men in town, regardless of their marital status, while her husband is away on business. And when she sleeps with these men, Shanoo – who is otherwise a straightforward woman and doting wife – transforms into a seductress, in appearance and in demeanour. This seductress, as we later learn in the series, is called Rasbhari, who becomes the fantasy of the men, and the terror and subject of hatred for the women in the town.
While Rasbhari is a bold and refreshing take on adolescent and female sexuality and captures the feel of the Indian small town well, there are points where the narrative tries to be progressive in one respect, and loses track of other contentious factors.
The series will likely make you uncomfortable in the beginning, seeing Nand and his friends talk about sex and wanting to have a sexual experience. Their language isn’t pretty either, with plenty of innuendo and suggestive gestures. For me, this was easier to get past – we hear teenagers talk about these things all the time without batting an eyelid, especially in English language shows. That doesn’t mean Indian teens (especially non-English speaking ones from small towns) do not have sexual feelings, it's just that they aren't represented as much.
Swara is great as Rasbhari, a woman who’s all sensuality, but also more. She is smart, mischievous and unabashed about her desire. We also see Priyanka flirt and attempt to woo Nand, and become frustrated by the invisible lines drawn on how girls can show their desire and affection.
The first major problem arises when we learn about Rasbhari for the first time. Naveen reveals to Nand that Rasbhari is a witch, a ghost that has followed him and Shanoo to Meerut. He then gives a half-baked explanation that Shanoo has dissociative identity disorder (DID). Previously known as multiple personality disorder, DID is characterised by the existence of two or more distinct identities who have their own traits, behaviours, memories and thinking. DID is often a result of trauma or abuse in childhood. In that sense, Rasbhari is understood to be an alter of Shanoo’s. When Rasbhari fronts Shanoo’s system, Shanoo is unaware of her actions. Naveen explains that it is Rasbhari who is having sexual relationships with the men and not Shanoo, who is aware of Rasbhari but not of her actions.
While loss of memory is not uncommon between alter switches (which would explain why Shanoo seems unaware of what Rasbhari is doing), it is never entirely established whether Shanoo actually has DID. In an interview, Swara Bhasker said that Rasbhari’s character is open to interpretation. “Maybe all the rational explanations that we are trying to find around it, they are just ways to deal with the fact that Rasbhari’s character is actually a part of female sexuality which is repressed by the larger society that we live in,” she told Outlook. And we do see some of this repression for Shanoo through flashbacks of her childhood and younger days.
This ambiguity would have been more palatable had Rasbhari not made a pass at Nand. While Nand does fantasise about and fetishise ‘Shanoo madam’, and later, Rasbhari, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he is a minor. The first time Rasbhari fronts and comes on to Nand, he runs away from the house. The second time that happens however, Priyanka is with him at Shanoo’s house. Rasbhari then kisses both Priyanka and Nand – not forcibly, but without explicit consent – and then leaves when the young couple starts making out.
This, in real-life, would make Rasbhari – or Shanoo – liable to be booked under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Though their age is not mentioned, in class 11, the students would be around 17 years old. As minors, even Nand and Priyanka could be booked under POCSO for kissing because the law doesn’t take into account teen sexuality (which it ideally should). However, Rasbhari kissing the teenagers or seducing them is at best a moral grey area and illegal at worst because the equation – in terms of both age and power – is quite skewed between the teenagers and Rasbhari in the latter's favour. Even if, for argument's sake, we were to say that they're over 18, a teacher seducing her students is still sexual harassment because she's in a position of power over them.
The treatment of the scene is also problematic – it is underscored by romantic music and the gaze of the camera is voyeuristic. This is not to say that such scenarios shouldn’t be depicted in films. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Haramkhor, for instance, also looks at a relationship between an older man and his student. At no point though does the film romanticise it.
Later in the series, Nand debates if Shanoo was aware of Rasbhari’s actions the whole time because Rasbhari knows of Nand going for tuition to Shanoo’s house. While it is possible for one alter in a DID system to know something that another alter doesn’t, one could argue that with this knowledge, Shanoo does not actually have DID. Perhaps Rasbhari was a character she played to express her sexuality since it was repressed by her family and society. Rasbhari, after all, is a sex worker from Lucknow after whom men from far and wide lust, which is far removed from Shanoo’s relatively unexciting job as a school teacher and the moral codes that come with marriage. And while a woman having to create a whole character just so she is able to express her sexuality makes the hypocrisy and patriarchy amply clear, it still wouldn’t absolve Rasbhari/Shanoo of seducing a minor.
Overall, Rasbhari attempts to address many pertinent social and gender-related issues. It reveals the double standards of the society which blames and shames only the woman for having a relationship with a married man, though he is equally if not more involved. It does a really good job of showing just how uncomfortable a confident, sexually free woman makes the society. However, in furthering that motive, it slips up in other ways that a truly progressive series should not.