Kool Kanya News / Pop Culture

Rasbhari – A Show Exploring How Female Sexuality Fares Under The Male Gaze

. 4 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Rasbhari – A Show Exploring How Female Sexuality Fares Under The Male Gaze

Amazon Prime’s latest web series, Rasbhari, follows a young high-schooler, Nand (Ayushmaan Saxena), through his coming-of-age story, as a new English teacher, Shanu Bansal (Swara Bhaskar), arrives and wreaks havoc in his small town. The series is an unabashed exploration of sexuality – female sexuality in particular. However, at its core, the series functions on a heady cocktail of the absurd comedy that stems from a society steeped in hypocrisy, superstitions, and patriarchy.

From the very title to the title song, the series seems to be branded as humorous erotica. Instead, it ends up being a mirror held up to society and the repressive and regressive ideas society continues to propagate to its children, and enforce upon its women.

The Show Highlights How Expressing Sexuality Is Not Only Inadvisable, But A Cause For Shame, For Women

As Shanu and her husband move to Meerut, tales of her promiscuity begin to make the rounds. Every man in town is beguiled by her beauty, and every woman vexed. The men begin to think it’s acceptable to be inappropriate with Shanu, given the tales of her promiscuous deeds.

The male gaze isn’t only restricted to the men, but is internalised in a veil of shame and judgement by women.

They go to their babaji for advice on how to deal with the seductress, and he offers solutions in the form of placing nimbus on the grounds of the English teacher’s house, and not letting a drop of water touch their husbands’ bodies for a month. They readily follow this advice because “apne mardo ko us kulta, chudail, daayan, kulachni se bachana hai“- we need to save our husbands from that (various cruel adjectives for) witch.

Infidelity involves two people, but the men involved are never questioned or berated. The entire community gathers, however, to drag the woman’s character through the mud and ensure she’s humiliated. Slut-shaming is a communal affair.

Leaning into one’s sexuality is a sin for women but a natural, biological necessity for men. Shanu’s mother, in a flashback, berates her son’s new wife for wearing short dresses, but says that if her son was being unfaithful to his wife, it is expected and acceptable. “Woh chora hai. Use sab allowed hai. Waise mard ki jaat aise hi hoti hai. Jab tak bahar ka na mile, tab tak ghar ka khana nahi pachta. (He’s a boy. He is allowed to do anything. Anyway this is how all men are. Unless they get to relish outside food, they can’t digest homemade food.) ”

The only way Shanu, the decorous and modest high-school teacher, can own up to her sexuality and come into herself is through her alter ego, Rasbhari.

It’s unclear till the very end whether Rasbhari is born out of Shanu being “possessed by the ghost of a prostitute”, dissociative identity disorder, or is in fact Shanu herself.  Viewers have criticised the association of female sexuality with mental illness or the supernatural. However, a woman leaning into her desires and  sexuality is treated as an illness, and the woman labelled a “daayan” or “chudail”, by society anyway. The series merely fictionalises what already exists in reality.

The Need For A More Progressive Societal And Institutional Education Of Children

 The series is largely told through the perspective of the adolescent Nand. Nand starts off as a bratty and entitled teenage boy, intent on beginning his journey of sexual awakening. He and his friends are disrespectful of the girls and women around them, to the point of being lecherous.

It’s uncomfortable to see the world through the eyes of this hugely problematic protagonist. However, as the series progresses and Nand is exposed to Shanu’s teachings – not just in English, but also on respect, consent, and empathy – his mind-set and values undergo a transformation. He slowly but surely grows into an aware and considerate young man.

The show highlights that the problem isn’t the boys, but the patriarchal space of household, societal, and institutional misogyny that they are conditioned within. Indian households continue to function in the “women serve men” realm. Schools and classrooms continue to be steeped in, and encourage, gendered discrimination.

The boys aren’t the disease, but merely symptoms of a much larger disease – generationally and systematically inherited patriarchy.

 Educating children, both girls and boys, about healthy expressions of sexuality and desire, respecting boundaries, consent, and gender equality, is imperative. Breaking the cycle of historically prevalent and socially strengthened suppression and sexism is bound to be hard, but with the right conversations, progressing away from them is not impossible – as is highlighted in Rasbhari by Nand’s transformation.

The change has to start at home and in schools, and shows like Rasbhari, as hard as they are for many to digest, are an effective catalyst to encouraging the conversation.

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