Sonakshi Sinha’s Dahaad looks at crime through the lens of gender and caste

While ‘Dahaad’ places a serial killer before us in the end, the series is also an audit of our systemic prejudice which it suggests is the real killer.
Sonakshi Sinha in the TV show Dahaad
Sonakshi Sinha in the TV show Dahaad
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In Dahaad, whenever her mother brings up marriage talk, Sub-Inspector Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha) evades the conversation. Anjali is posted in rural Rajasthan’s Mandawa police station, and it is through her that the Amazon Prime series based on the infamous serial killer Cyanide Mohan unfolds. In a particular scene, when Anjali’s mother lays photographs of prospective grooms before her, she responds with pictures of the female victims of a killer who she is trying to track. This angry outburst comes after three long days of investigating the killer who targets unmarried women from marginalised communities, preying on their vulnerabilities. Anjali fumes at her mother, explaining how such pressure to marry pushes women to leave their homes with the first person who throws any crumb of affection towards them, and how they are entrapped by sexual predators, like the women in the pictures. If one was to summarise the narrative crux of Dahaad, this scene would be it.

Created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, and directed by Reema and Ruchika Oberoi, the eight-episode series loosely references Cyanide Mohan who targetted women from lower-income households in Karnataka, tricked them into having sexual relations with him under the pretext of marriage, and killed them with cyanide. Vijay Varma and Gulshan Devaiah also play lead roles in the series which has sparked various conversations on how the Indian media approaches themes like caste and inter-faith relationships, especially against the country’s politically charged climate.

As a genre, police crime procedurals have gained much prominence on OTT platforms in recent times. The success of Pataal Lok and Delhi Crime has further widened the financial and thematic possibilities of the genre. What makes Dahaad significantly different is perhaps its gaze. While most of the true-crime series out there capitalise on the sex and scandal in the narrative, Dahaad rarely has any such scene despite having a plotline involving the sexual exploitation and murder of nearly 27 female victims. The women are neither vilified for their sexual desire nor are their death scenes voyeuristic. Every time a victim is shown, the visuals are blurred, the shots are unsteady, and the camera does not linger on the woman’s body. This is in direct contrast with other shows like Dancing on the Grave and Indian Predator: The Beast of Bangalore, where gory dramatic reenactments form the anchor of the visual narrative. Many a time, Anjali’s handling of the case in Dahaad reminds one of Netflix’s Unbelievable, which chronicles how having female officers investigate a sexual crime monumentally changes the course of the proceeding.

Another significant achievement of Dahaad is its interpretation of how caste identity intermingles with gender and crime in a system that is rigged against the marginalised. At the beginning of the show, we see Murli Chandal (Yogi Sinha) walk into the Mandawa police station to enquire about his missing sister Krishna Chandal. Murli is dismissed by officers and mistreated because he hails from a Schedule Caste. Parallely, a Muslim man is brought to the same police station by members of a Hindu right-wing organisation for courting a dominant caste Hindu woman named  Rajni Thakur. Murli, who witnesses this, pleads with the men to persuade the police to look for his sister, but they ignore him. He then lies that his sister eloped with a Muslim man, and his complaint is taken seriously.

Even Anjali Bhatti is a woman police officer from a lowered caste. Despite being relatively better  than her colleagues, she is unable to escape casteism and sexism. The outspoken police officer makes no attempt to hide her caste location but her late father had earlier changed their surnames on paper so that Anjali could lead a life of lesser discrimination. This venture is anything but successful. For instance, when Devi Lal (Gulshan Devaiah), the Station House Officer (SHO) and she go to Rajni Thakur’s house to meet her, her father invites only the SHO and sternly tells him not to allow her inside. Devi Lal tries to explain that caste discrimination is illegal, only to be ignored.

In another instance, when the police officers search the ancestral house of Anand Swarnakar’s (Vijay Varma) father, he says that Anjali cannot enter. Anjali says that she has a warrant to search the property, and adds that the law can punish him for caste discrimination and obstructing an ongoing police investigation.

Anjali’s character is constantly jeopardised by her double marginalisation – that of caste and gender. But Dahaad also does not homogenise women’s experiences owing to their gender or caste. It highlights how some of them are more vulnerable than others to violent crimes with nuance.

Vijay Varma really pulls the show off with his composed, chilling performance. When Anand meets Lata (Rytasha Rathore) in a cafe, he builds an elaborate web of lies claiming that his parents are forcing him to marry someone else because her family is able to pay a dowry. He senses Lata’s discomfort and suggests that they elope and get married. While Lata is hesitant, she eventually gives in because there seems to be no other way they can be together. Anand follows the same pattern with all of his victims, except one. Anand’s modus operandi taps into the anxieties surrounding marriage that are largely prevalent among the parents of women in lower-income households. As their daughters grow older, parents worry that they will not be able to marry them off, especially if a large sum of dowry is demanded. Soon enough, women pick up these anxieties as well and want to rid their parents of the ‘burden’ and marry anyone who comes their way.

But it is not the women’s anxieties alone that helped Anand get away with his murders for years. Even as Anjali investigates the disappearances of women, there is a montage of the women’s families claiming that they made no attempt to contact them because they had disgraced the family. Some of them say that their daughters were as good as dead to them. Krishna Chandal’s mother even goes on to say that she does care whether her daughter is alive or dead because her daughter has humiliated the family by running away. Honour is closely tied to women’s bodies and parents are ashamed to lodge missing complaints for their daughters fearing that their reputation would be ruined. Dahaad captures all these layers, highlighting how patriarchy pushes women into violence in the name of pride and virtue.

Dahaad does have its share of flaws, and has drawn criticism for being a ‘copaganda’ – a narrative that valourises police officers. But it deserves appreciation for going beyond the ‘who dunnit’ format of crime procedurals and looking at our criminal justice system through an intersectional lens.

At a time when one-sided propagandist narratives on crime like The Kerala Story make waves, Dahaad’s inward-looking gaze asks the right questions about justice and culpability. While the show places a serial killer before us in the end, it is also an audit of our systemic prejudice which it suggests, is the real killer.

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