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In ‘The Day I Met El Chapo’, two celebrities do the unthinkable by meeting a most wanted drug lord

The fascinating story of Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn’s 2015 rendezvous with Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is now on Netflix.

The most notorious drug lord of the 21st century. A television actress who enjoys widespread popularity and acclaim in her homeland. And a globe-trotting Hollywood movie star who wants to play journalist.

Two years ago, these three individuals got together for a private meeting in a jungle in Mexico. While law enforcement officials of two countries had no idea of the location of drug smuggler Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was on the run after having escaped from prison for the second time in his life, the two most unlikely people in the world got to meet him in person. What happened next is the stuff of Netflix originals.

The three-episode documentary series The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate del Castillo Story looks at how Castillo’s life as a Mexican telenovela star changed overnight when she got the opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with Guzman. Months after Castillo met Guzman along with Sean Penn, the kingpin was finally arrested. And suddenly, Castillo and Penn’s secret meeting with Guzman was not a secret anymore.

The backlash was severe. While Penn got away with minor criticism, the Mexican news media insinuated, among other things, that Castillo had an affair with Guzman and even became pregnant with his child. The Enrique Peña Nieto government launched an investigation into money laundering deals that Castillo allegedly engaged in with Guzman. The government also suspected that Guzman was funding his own biopic that Castillo had agreed to back in addition to financing her equila business. For a year and a half, Castillo was ostracised in her country. In The Day I Met El Chapo, she tells her side of the story.

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The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate del Castillo Story

Penn got to tell his version in January last year through his article in Rolling Stone magazine. Castillo refutes many of Penn’s anecdotes. For example, Penn writes that Guzman sent flowers to Castillo, which she denies. Penn writes that they were met by military officials on the way to meet Guzman, Castillo says that is untrue.

The broad-stroke details regarding how it all began are the same: Castillo tweeted in 2012 that she would rather trust Guzman than the Mexican government. This caught Guzman’s attention. A fan of Castillo’s work, particularly the series La Reina del Sur where the actress plays a drug baroness, Guzman got in touch with Castillo and soon the two reached an agreement to make a film on his life.

Castillo needed high-profile support to get the El Chapo project off the ground. Enter Penn. He told Castillo that he was interested in making a film on Guzman, when in reality, he had been commissioned by Rolling Stone to interview Guzman after the editors got to know that he was in touch with a source, Castillo.

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Sean Penn on meeting Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán | CBS

The Day I Met El Chapo runs over a little less than three hours. The first episode, Destined to Meet, establishes the rise of Castillo as a Mexican celebrity and Guzman as a feared criminal. A sense of what these personalities mean to contemporary Mexican society is put across. The second episode, Face to Face, is the most action-packed. It chronicles the events leading up to the meeting between Penn, Castillo and Guzman, and finally the meeting itself. The final hour-long episode, The Fallout, shows how everything fell apart for Castillo and Guzman while Penn escaped unscathed having gotten his article out.

Castillo, the face of the series (and also its executive producer) comes off as incredibly transparent in the interviews. She paces around the set, huffs and puffs, cries and then gets herself together and tells her story without mincing words. Joining her in front of the camera are a bunch of journalists following the case and lawyers hired by Castillo and Guzman. The makers had contacted Penn to contribute to the film, but he never responded. Once the series was announced, the actor got his legal team to halt its release, claiming that “blood will be on their [filmmakers’] hands if this film causes bodily harm.”

By and large, nothing in The Day I Met El Chapo reveals information about Penn that could get the cartel angry. At most, Penn comes off as a liar who hid his agenda of interviewing Guzman from Castillo till the last moment and thus endangered both their lives for real at an actual villain’s lair.

Sean Penn, Joaquín Guzman and Kate del Castillo. Image credit: Kate del Castillo.
Sean Penn, Joaquín Guzman and Kate del Castillo. Image credit: Kate del Castillo.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.