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Saturday, Dec 10, 2022

Delhi Crime: Changing the constructs of gendered Indian content

Cinema and popular culture have always portrayed female cops more as diluted versions of male cops. They walk differently, act aggressive, wear dark glasses, and actively work towards distinguishing themselves from regular women with their mannerisms and attitude.

delhi crime 2Shefali Shah's Vartika is almost stripped of her gender in the workplace, leaving her to be only a cop, only a team leader, only a boss or colleague.

Women have always been slotted into tropes and stereotypes when playing characters in specific genres. In love stories, they are talkative, cutesy, clueless and very often hopeless romantics. In dramas, they usually begin as some version of the above before morphing into a sanskaari post-marriage woman who realises the value of mangalsutra and ek chutki sindoor. In horror films, they are often damsels in distress or the kavach to their haunted better halves.

But police procedurals or films where women actors play police officers, are perhaps where they get a really raw deal. Cinema and popular culture have always portrayed female cops more as diluted versions of male cops. They walk differently, act aggressive, wear dark glasses, and actively work towards distinguishing themselves from regular women with their mannerisms and attitude.

The template was perhaps created by the iconic Vijayashanti whose film Kartavyam was one of the early films featuring a tough female cop.  In Bollywood, we have had Priyanka Chopra Jonas in Jai Gangajal, Tabu in Drishyam, Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani and Raveena Tandon in Aranyak, who have all played female cops. While the women all performed with sincerity, the pressure to be ‘mardani’ or literally like a man looms large. Sushmita Sen in Samay, and more recently Soni, a small budget film that streamed on Netflix have perhaps been the only exceptions, where the characters were written like real women dealing with a physically and
emotionally demanding job.

But it was Delhi Crime, perhaps thanks to the scale, script and sheer acting talent, that threw out the manual for writing a female cop character or writing a female character itself. At no point in Season 1 or 2 is there an emphasis on the fact that Vartika Chaturvedi is a ‘female’ cop, or more importantly a woman in charge. In both seasons of the show, Vartika is almost stripped of her gender in the workplace, leaving her to be only a cop, only a team leader, only a boss or colleague. In fact, when her team calls her Madam Sir, it almost seems like an androgynous title that looks at her purely as an IPS officer and nothing else.

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It’s heartening to see how unapologetically Vartika wields her power and the authority of her rank to get the job done. Apart from one moment in Season 2 where she loses her cool, and then course corrects, Vartika is never allowed to feel guilty or second guess any of her actions because she is worried about how the world will react to a woman having acted in a certain way.

Most importantly, she doesn’t waste a single minute trying to be likeable. She never minces her words or overcompensates with jokes or friendliness with her team. Vartika is so confident in her abilities as a police officer that her team respects her without her ever having to demand it. This isn’t to say that she has never faced challenges or had to deal with discrimination while rising up the ranks. But her struggles don’t define her, her attitude and accomplishments do.

In addition to being a police officer, Vartika is also a mother and a wife. She has a supportive husband and a rebellious but good-hearted teenage daughter who challenges her frequently. Thankfully the makers do away with mom guilt and dialogues on how a woman balances work and family. Because let’s face it, no one will ask a male DCP that question. Even Vartika’s daughter Chandni, or Chandu as she fondly calls her, has ideological differences with her mother, but at no point does she expect Vartika to do things differently because she is a woman or a mother.

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Vartika’s subordinate Neeti Singh starts off idolising her but grows to hold her own in her towering presence. She is still new to the job, idealistic, earnest, and relatively untouched by the ugliness of the world. But Neeti is never allowed to lapse into being a cute millennial, or an aspiring mardani. Instead, she becomes our eyes into the world of police procedures and the world of crime. It’s interesting how even while dealing with her team, Vartika never brings gender into the picture. Men and women work equal hours and are held to the same standards of discipline. So Neeti is not cut any slack for having a husband or mother-in-law who expect her to be a good bahu while hunting down serial killers. Nor is she ever judged or shamed either for being busy or unavailable. It’s her husband instead who comes across as unreasonable and chauvinistic.

While in Season 1 the story was based on a real crime where a woman was the victim, in Season 2, the makers interestingly choose a story with a female antagonist. Karishma or Lata Solanki is the sad product of patriarchy, poverty and psychosis. Not only is Karishma poor, but she is also a woman, making her doubly oppressed. Her wrongdoings are like an eruption of rage from the wide chasms of disparity that plague large cities like Delhi and Mumbai. All she wants is to open a beauty parlour, a means to economic independence and an escape from her past life. She literally wants to bring sparkle into her life, but the darkness inside her doesn’t allow it.

In that hard-hitting scene in the police car when Vartika asks her how she could leave her child behind, Karishma says she never wanted one, but nobody asked her what she wanted. Perhaps not allowing herself to empathise with Karishma is one of the hardest things Vartika has to do. In a dark upside-down version of Vartika’s world, Karishma also believes she is fighting injustice by punishing those who have what she doesn’t. Like Vartika, she goes after her objective with dogged determination, but sadly violence and murder are never the answer.

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By rejecting stereotypes and cinematic traditions with which women have been characterised in cinema and digital content, Delhi Crime has rewritten the rules of how gender can or should impact female characters and their portrayal. Richie Mehta, Tanuj Chopra and their team of writers and associates have to be congratulated for giving us women who have ambition, agency and a unique voice of their own. But most importantly they are not celebrated or apologetic for any of these, because that truly is the greatest crime we commit while depicting women in the workplace.

First published on: 25-09-2022 at 08:19:36 am
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