In Netflix’s Delhi Crime (based on the infamous Nirbhaya case), DSP Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah in fine form), who heads the case, meets Deepika, the victim, on day three of the investigation. Chaturvedi first introduces herself and assures Deepika that she will get hold of all the perpetrators. She then asks if Deepika needed anything else – a television?
The scene is telling for multiple reasons: it serves as one of the first instances when Chaturvedi’s steely gaze falters and she visibly struggles with the way she is ought to conduct herself and the way she wants to. Asking the girl if she needed anything else in her room almost becomes a way of recovering from the jolt, of buying time to put her hitherto fallen guard up. But the scene stands out most for what follows immediately after that – Chaturvedi, fatigued and dazed, sits with Neeti Singh (Rasika Duggal), a trainee police officer, on the verge of a breakdown. “I don’t want to see a woman in a situation like this, ever again,” Chaturvedi says, hanging her head, partly in shame and partly in grief.
In this brief moment, the abiding power structure between the two women collapses and a sense of solidarity, stemming from their shared gender, is forged. As if realising this, Chaturvedi regains her composure soon and citing protocol, dismisses Singh when the latter offers comfort.
Power as a gendered concept
In the seven-episode series, that makes a case for the police and shows what went behind arresting the convicts while the nation was coping with the shock, Vartika Chaturvedi headlines the investigation. A woman leading the way might not be an anomaly, but it is not a norm either.
A privileged, powerful woman, Chaturvedi is the quintessential ‘hard cop’. She dishes out orders and sees to it that they are executed to her liking. There is a quiet restraint in her, a measured approach in her actions and a deliberate attempt to be identified as ‘powerful’.
Power, with all its neutral connotations, has come to be coloured by the hues of gender and gender, in turn, serves as a convenient parameter to identify who is powerful and who is powerless. The narrative of a powerful individual then ultimately resembles the journey of a powerful man.
Exhibiting an impenetrable gaze and unyielding attitude, Chaturvedi, for the most part, falls prey to this existing discourse. She conducts herself the way perhaps a man, albeit a compassionate one, were to behave in her place. She refuses to be swayed by emotions and quickly swallows the lump in her throat in the hospital room. And in the rare moments when she is vulnerable (like the time she is sitting with Singh at the hospital after meeting the girl), she seems almost disappointed with herself for caving in. She snaps immediately.
Chaturvedi might be a woman in a man’s world but she speaks in their rhetoric to be recognised as powerful. She does that because this is what is expected of her, and she is not the only one.
Gender as a performance and performative gender
In Soni, directed by Ivan Ayr and also streaming on Netflix, Kalpana Ummat (a compelling Saloni Batra) an IPS officer with the Delhi Police is chided by her husband, a police commissioner, after she asks him if he can prevent the transfer of her colleague Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan). Soni had got herself involved in a brawl during an operation and it was not the first time. “Why did you choose to be an IPS officer if you cannot behave like one,” he replies.
Viewing her empathy towards her fellow officer as a sign of weakness, the reprimand is his way of telling her how to behave — like he does, like he would have if he were in her place. In another scene in the film, angry with her subordinates, Ummat, as if realising the worth of her husband’s advice, says, “It is as if orders are not orders, until I raise my voice.”
The idea of power, for those on whom it is exerted and those holding positions, is identified in a gendered way. Ummat’s gender and the attributes, in this case, seem to be in direct conflict with her profession and the code of behaviour expected of her. She might be a powerful, assertive woman but she is expected to follow the diktat developed, moulded and modified by men holding similar positions of power in order to be taken seriously. Ummat needs to then depart from who she is and adhere to who she is expected to be. In her professional space, she needs to imitate the way her husband behaves or asks her to behave, in order to be deemed as an IPS officer.
This play-acting, in fact, is what theorist Judith Butler refers to as performative gender in her essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Butler not only recognises gender as a performance — one that is not stable, from the start, rather is constructed over time, “an identity instituted through a stylised repetition of acts,” — but also acknowledges the concept of performative gender, in which, much like a performance, the way one walks, talks, speaks, behaves further reaffirms their identity, their gender as a man or a woman.
For both Chaturvedi and Ummat, their gender and gender performativity seem to be at odds with each other. To arrive at a confluence then becomes a struggle. The conflict might be more evident in Ummat, but it is no less prevalent in Chaturvedi, even though it might seem imperceptible. Her eyes, jaded and tired, tell a different story than the one she would narrate. She breaks character just once after all the accused are nabbed. In a rare moment, she hugs another officer without exchanging a word. She defies protocol.
No narrative for powerful women
Both of them might not deny their gender but they compromise on it to fit into an existing narrative. They are expected to behave less like professionals and more like those who have been in the profession. It is not incidental that both Ummat and Chaturvedi are referred to as Madam Sir- a mishmash of pronouns, a sort of conflation of who they are and who they are expected to be.
These are powerful, assertive women ambling through narratives which are not theirs. They play or are compelled to play their own game by somebody else’s rules. They do that because they are might be characters in their own story but they are still not writing it. They do not have a narrative of their own wherein the apparent feminine qualities are no longer considered antithetical to the idea of being powerful; where being sensitive as Hannah Gadsby in Nanette says is considered a strength. “I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength. I know that.”
Power, perhaps much like gender, is a dynamic concept and one adds meaning to it rather than letting the pre-existing meaning of the word add to (or deny) who they are.