It’s not everyday that an Indian crime thriller accurately depicts India's casteism, sexism and xenophobia given the current climate that we are situated in, but Dahaad (2023) does so incisively. Created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, Dahaad was the first Indian web series to premier at the Berlin International Film Festival, earlier this year.
Set against the rustic backdrop of Rajasthan's small town, Mandawa, Dahaad captivates audiences right from its opening episode. Amidst the chaos of communal politics and the contentious concept of 'love jihad', an alarming trend unfolds — lower caste unmarried women are mysteriously vanishing, only to be discovered lifeless later on. While the district initially rushes to attribute these incidents to inter-religious dynamics, the series gradually reveals a more profound truth: the influence of caste realities, intricately entwined with patriarchy, which systematically marginalizes women at every turn.
At the forefront of this narrative stands Anjali Bhaati, a sub-inspector portrayed by Sonakshi Sinha. Anjali, a resilient Dalit woman, is fearless, assertive and diligently carries out her duties within the police force, despite the daily barrage of bigotry she endures on account of her gender and caste. Opposing her is Anand Swarnakar, portrayed convincingly by Vijay Varma, the serial killer whose identity is unveiled early on. Anand, an upper-caste Hindu man burdened by his wife's infidelity and his own inability to manage his family's jewelry business, leads a dual life. By day, he is a charismatic professor of Hindi at a university, but under the veil of darkness, he assumes the role of a charming yet sinister murderer. His victims are unmarried women in their late 20s and early 30s, devoid of social and familial support, making them vulnerable to his predatory advances. As their daughters vanish, consumed by shame and embarrassment, their families assume they have elope and neglect to report their disappearance.
Anand entices these unsuspecting women with promises of marriage, inviting them to hotel rooms where intimacy ensues. Exploiting their vulnerability, he manipulates them into consuming an emergency contraceptive pill, unaware that it is laced with cyanide. These women are left dying alone and abandoned in public bathrooms. Shockingly, they are discovered adorned in wedding outfits, symbolizing their unfulfilled dreams and societal expectations. This haunting image serves as a chilling testament to the absence of support from both society and their own families. The shame surrounding their unmarried status adds another layer of tragedy, as their families, assuming they have chosen to elope, fail to take immediate action. As a result, these women endure their final moments in solitude, their cries for help are drowned out by cyanide poisoning. This heart-wrenching portrayal powerfully highlights the societal indifference and lack of solidarity towards vulnerable women and underlines the dynamics of casteism and patriarchy at play.
The heart of Dahaad lies at this intersection of patriarchy and casteism, where darkness lurks. Anand Swarnakar, cast aside and marginalized, carries deep-rooted psychological trauma from his father's murder of his own mother. This traumatic upbringing fuels Anand's profound misogyny, leading him to believe that women who defy patriarchal norms and embrace their sexual liberation deserve a horrific death at his hands. While Dahaad presents a stark dichotomy of morally black and morally white characters, Anand's childhood trauma introduces shades of grey that compel us to empathize with the societal failures regarding combatting patriarchal ideas and expectations, for both men and women.
While Dahaad features a gripping yet somewhat formulaic cat-and-mouse chase between the police and Anand, its true essence lies in the interwoven narratives that connect these characters despite their darkness and ambiguity. The driving force of the plot lies in the stark contrast between Anjali's feminine rage, fueled by her quest for justice and women's agency, and Anand's masculine rage, destructive and deceitful. The weight of repression bears heavily upon both the protagonist and the antagonist, with Anjali ultimately rising above her circumstances, while Anand's double life eventually catches up with him. Both characters were victims of their circumstances — Anjali enduring casteism and sexism daily within her profession, even from her colleagues, while Anand grappled with his internal turmoil. Only one emerges triumphant.
Casteism, a deeply entrenched social hierarchy in India, although formally abolished, perpetuates discrimination and oppression against lower-caste individuals. Women from marginalized castes face a double burden as they navigate not only the patriarchal norms but also the barriers imposed by the system. According to official figures, 10 Dalit women are raped everyday. Patriarchy, another pervasive force, further exacerbates the challenges faced by women. It reinforces gender norms, restricts agency, and perpetuates violence and discrimination. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2020, there were nearly 90,000 reported cases of crimes against women, including sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence.
In Dahaad, Anjali represents the resistance against these oppressive structures, challenging the norms that seek to confine her. Her journey showcases the resilience of women who refuse to be silenced and fight for justice, both for themselves and for those whose voices have been suppressed.
You can watch Dahaad here.
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