Caution: spoilers ahead.
The streaming giant Amazon Prime Video, which usually publicises its original series before releasing them, was uncharacteristically coy about its latest show Rasbhari. The eight-episode Rasbhari emerged on the platform soon after the trailer was released on June 25 without much fanfare. Yet, the chatter about Rasbhari has only grown louder and louder, most likely because of its lead actor, the outspoken and highly political Swara Bhasker.
In Rasbhari, Bhasker plays Shanoo, a schoolteacher in Meerut. With a husband who frequently travels out of town for work, the attractive Shanoo becomes an object of lust for Meerut’s men and boys and a never-ending headache for their wives and mothers.
The trailer lit the first spark, with people claiming to be offended with the mild sexual content, which included shots of Shanoo seducing or getting into bed with a bunch of characters. “Pls boycott Rasbhari due swara Bhaskar attitude against sanatan Hindus #boycottrasbhari retweet pls She was against CAA,” said a typical tweet.
Another person tweeted that the low Internet Movie Database rating of Rasbhari is for “mocking India legacy and Hindus”. Its rating currently stands at 2.7 out of 10, with 70% voting for the lowest possible score: one.
This is not the first time this has happened to IMDb ratings of films and shows that have upset the Hindutva brigade. At the height of the anti-NRC protests in December 2019, Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan told Scroll.in how Hindutva supporters run organised campaigns to downvote what they do not like on websites like IMDb, thus creating fear among producers wishing to back such subjects. Filmmaker Anubhav Sinha, another opponent of the Central government, recently made the same point on his Twitter handle.
Swara Bhasker is one of the most vocal critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the Hindi film industry. She is one of the few celebrities who has consistently condemned the Citizen Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens. This has made her an obvious bugbear for the Hindutva crowd.
Additionally, Bhasker is often slutshamed ever since she wrote an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, condemning him for viewing the lead character of his 2018 film Padmaavat through a regressive lens and noting that she had been “reduced to a vagina”.
Months later, the controversial hit Veere Di Wedding had a scene featuring Bhasker’s sexually bold character pleasuring herself. The portrayal of Bhasker’s Rasbhari character as a small-town temptress has reignited the attacks against her.
Central Board of Film Certification chairperson Prasoon Joshi expressed his dismay about the show on social media, tweeting in English and Hindi that he was “saddened” by an “irresponsible” scene of a little girl dancing in front of a group of drunk men. Bhasker responded by pointing that the scene actually critiques the idea of sexualising a little girl whose dance is innocuous in itself.
On Wednesday, Joshi wrote an opinion piece in The Indian Express expressing his disappointment that streaming platforms were peddling sensational content. “In commercial art, there are instances of staggering self-expression and many of them are deliciously poised between art and commerce,” Joshi wrote without naming any specific streamer. “But there is undoubtedly a difference when you tailor-make an entertainment product after analysing and pressing convenient buttons aimed to please or cater to the lowest common denominator.”
Indians of all ages are consuming material on the internet, more so during the ongoing lockdown, Joshi added. “Shouldn’t cognisance be taken of the share of voice of the people, whose wallets’ share is desired?” he wrote.
Streaming platforms are – for now – free from the CBFC’s restrictions, and are expected to practise self-regulation. The Digital Content Complaint Council, a branch of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, has asked streamers to police their own content.
Much of the debate over web series has less to do with explicit scenes and more to do with political subjects. Hindutva followers have frequently attacked films and web series for alleged anti-Hindu sentiments. Their targets include Netflix’s Sacred Games and Leila and Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok. After the Telugu film Krishna and his Leela was released on Netflix on June 25, #BoycottNetflix began trending on Twitter, with people appearing to be angry about the depiction of characters named Krishna and Radha as a romantic couple.
Hindutva Twitter warriors also expressed anger over the use of the Bengali folk song Kalankini Radha in the Netflix original film Bulbbul. They alleged that the song, written by Bangladeshi baul singer Shah Abdul Karim, is an attack on Hinduism as it calls “Kanu” or Krishna “haramzada”, translated here as a despicable person. The song is actually the work of 19th-century lyricist and composer Radharaman Dutta.
Rasbhari seems to have disturbed the moralists, but what exactly is the series trying to say about sexual desire?
Written by Tanveer Bookwala (Ragini MMS 2) and Shantanu Srivastava (Kaushiki), Rasbhari aims to be both a sex comedy and a feminism 101 session. The first half is Malena set in Meerut. Shanoo is a young married woman in a provincial town with conservative values. An army of hot-under-the-collar males lands up at her doorstep, particularly her student Nand (Ayushmaan Saxena), who is desperate to lose his virginity.
Shanoo is initially sexualised through camera angles that focus on her svelte frame and low-backed blouses. The series gradually turns the tables, revealing itself as an expose of hypocrisy and sexual repression.
Midway through the series, there’s a further act of rug-pulling: it turns out that Shanoo is possessed by the ghost of a courtesan from Lucknow named Rasbhari. When she becomes Rasbhari, Shanoo conforms to the Savita Bhabi image that her neighbours have of her.
The series suddenly introduces a commentary on mental illness. Nand Googles “multiple personality disorder” and becomes a white knight at school, scolding his friends for lusting over his favourite teacher and stunning anybody who had heard him wanting to “open” his “account” with Shanoo madam.
A final twist brings us right back to where we began, and cancels out the feminist themes that the series claims to explore. Perhaps the controversy about Rasbhari is the best thing to have happened to it.