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Sanjeev Verma | Updated on March 08, 2021

The rebel: ‘Dickinson’ is a dramedy that imagines the story of poet Emily Dickinson as a teenager   -  IMAGE COURTESY: APPLE TV

A cop, a poet, a wedding planner, an outraged wife: On International Women’s Day, a look at diverse stories about women characters on streaming platforms

* Dickinson is an absolute treat, a woman-oriented dramedy which has frolicking humour and imagines the story of Emily as a teenager who rebels against societal norms

* Unbelievable exposes biases and shows how unchecked power can traumatise a victim, and how empathy and good intentions can revivify the same survivor

* Run is an irresistible caper because of the charisma of Wever, who aces this adversarial, bantering, sexy relationship

* It may appear incongruous to describe a crime drama about a psychosexual serial killer as a feminist show, but methinks we would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of womanism than Gibson in The Fall

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She doesn’t want to get married. She does not want to do household chores. The teenage rebel just wants to live and write poetry. Verse, she says, just keeps entering and re-entering her head all the time.

She is Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and she is the scintillating subject of a series on the great American poet navigating the social constrictions of her gender in the 19th century. In Dickinson on Apple TV +, as a new poem — about the impermanence of fame — comes to Emily’s head, she recites it and it is scrawled across the screen in golden script:

Fame is a fickle food

Upon a shifting plate

Whose table once a

Guest but not

The second time is set

Whose crumbs the crows inspect

And with ironic caw

Flap past it to the

Farmer’s corn

Men eat of it and die

Dickinson is an absolute treat, a woman-oriented dramedy which has frolicking humour and imagines the story of Emily as a teenager who rebels against societal norms. Season 2 of the series arrived recently, and it’s even better than the first with the gorgeous Hailee Steinfeld (playing the poet) revelling in furthering this anachronistic story about the joys of anonymity.

Riffle through the libraries of streaming platforms, and you will find assorted and diverse stories about women characters. It may be somewhat inadvertent but the extraordinary rise of streaming content in India has enkindled a new wave of binge-worthy female-centric stories, charting their struggles and aspirations. A far cry from the trite stereotyped roles women played in films, and on television, in the 20th century — as lassies being serenaded by men, or as steadfast housewives.

Just once in a while in the Doordarshan era would you get Rajani, a series that had an outspoken middle-aged woman (played by the deceased Priya Tendulkar) fighting relentlessly for consumer rights. Or Kalyani in the series Udaan, which had actor-director Kavita Chaudhary playing a woman who heroically fights gender discrimination to become an IPS officer.

For the rest, the landscape was dominated by films where women were pursued aggressively by macho men, and were ever ready to make sacrifices for their family, especially for their husbands.

One film put a halt to our lives. Released on Amazon Prime during the pandemic (and in theatre earlier), it spoke up passionately against that kind of casual regressiveness. That film was Thappad, a strong renouncement of patriarchal gobbledygook. A young Delhi woman, Amrita, is slapped by her husband at a party, when she is trying to hold him back from getting into a fist fight with a senior colleague. Amrita is outraged and considers walking out of the marriage. Almost everyone close to her thinks she should not overreact; it was just one slap, just another marital spat; accept the perpetrator’s apology and move on.

Amrita doesn’t. The film is not just about her marital relationship; it’s about her maid’s, her mother’s, her mother-in-law’s as well. That slap brings home to her the truth about how it’s about entitlement that men in her immediate environment feel they have. The women dutifully serve their husbands, make the occasional sacrifice — Amrita’s mother curbed her blossoming talent for singing — and tacitly accept the man’s dominance.

The streaming content landscape has given women-oriented issues a much-needed amplification. Many web series — Indian and foreign — find women, implicitly or explicitly, rebelling against the hackneyed gender roles assigned to them and their crusade against patriarchy.

In fact, in the Indian context, it is extraordinary that even the subject of female sexual desire is being explored. Rasbhari (2019) on Amazon Prime dared to do that and it led to Swara Bhaskar — who played the part of the oomphy English teacher in Meerut, and her sex-crazed alter-ego — being trolled and viciously abused for many months. This eight-episode series directed by Nikhil Bhat may have had many flaws, but it exposed the hypocrisy in our society when it comes to female sexuality.

A year earlier the Netflix film Lust Stories had done just that with four excellent short stories directed by accomplished directors: Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. These tales of domesticity and desire focused on female sexuality, and Johar’s fourth segment explored female sexual satisfaction by focusing on a newly married couple’s sex life.

The Amazon Prime series Made in Heaven pushed the boundaries in depicting sexuality, but particularly remarkable was its focus on Tara (played by Sobhita Dhulipala), a wedding planner and her uncompromising response to the classist environment around her. She is unapologetic and fearless in dealing with it and with her adulterous husband. The series is written by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar and it tellingly shines the light on a woman’s personal and professional life.

Made in Heaven is an example of how streaming platforms are engaging more women in front of and behind the camera. The eagerly anticipated second season of the series has been delayed by the pandemic.

Living in the times of Covid-19 has meant binging on content on streaming platforms that puts women at the forefront. The Queen’s Gambit was one remarkable series, but I am going to talk about another three.

Unbelievable

Case in point: Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’ tells the story of two cops who nail the attacker of an 18-year-old sexual assault survivor no one believes   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

 

Procedural crime dramas are in plenty, but this eight-episode series of Unbelievable stands out in every respect. It’s inspired by a true story reported by ProPublica, the non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in public interest. It tells the story of Marie, an 18-year-old woman who’s suffered a violent sexual assault. Having survived a nightmare, she is put through another one as the male detective who questions her doesn’t believe her story and makes her go over it again and again. In fact, no one around believes her. Then in neighbouring Colorado precinct another rape of a college student is reported.

This time it is Detective Karen Duvall (played by the outstanding Merritt Wever) who arrives at the scene, comforts the victim and questions her in a way that illustrates that empathy for a victim is possible in a law enforcement context. The story then converges as Duvall meets and collaborates with Grace Rasmussen (played by Toni Colette), who is investigating Marie’s rape, and the two connect the dots to establish the attacker’s identity.

Unbelievable exposes biases and shows how unchecked power can traumatise a victim, and how empathy and good intentions can revivify the same survivor.

Run

Merritt Wever’s presence draws you to this series as well, a merry romp about two sophomore lovers, who decide to go their own ways. But they make a pact: If ever they need to escape the woes and wretchedness of life, they would text the word ‘run’ to each other and disappear together. Seventeen years later, she gets a text: Run. She taps back her response: Run.

The material is thin but this HBO series (on Disney Hotstar) is an irresistible caper because of the charisma of Wever, who aces this adversarial, bantering, sexy relationship. As they get on the train from the Grand Central Station, it’s a feisty, and darkly, wild ride. Run is written by Vicky Jones, who also wrote Fleabag and Killing Eve, both series with significant audience following.

The Fall

In control: In ‘The Fall’, Gillian Anderson lives her life uncompromisingly even as she takes charge of dangerous situations   -  IMAGE COURTESY: APPLE TV

 

Of all the gobs of web series I’ve ever binged on, the two I’ve loved the most have to be The Crown and The Fall. Nor is it a coincidence that both feature Gillian Anderson. She plays Police Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall, who arrives in Belfast to help nab a serial rapist and killer who’s terrorised the Northern Ireland capital city.

It may appear incongruous to describe a crime drama about a psychosexual serial killer as a feminist show, but methinks we would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of womanism than Gibson. She lives her life uncompromisingly and she just has a way of taking charge in dangerous situations. Leave the word ‘innocent’ out of a statement about the victims, she urges a colleague, saying: “What if he kills a prostitute next? Or a woman walking home drunk? The media love to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.”

Anderson is magnificent, and her Stella Gibson recalls the original television detective — Detective Inspector Jane Tennison. In Prime Suspect, Dame Helen Mirren, the grand dame of British theatre and film, plays Tennison, who investigates a series of serial murders while dealing with sexist hostility from her male comrades. That series began in 1991 and reprised seven times before closing in 2006. Television has seen its share of female cops, but never a character like Tennison. And now Gibson.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on March 08, 2021
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