Dahaad – A Powerful Commentary On Caste, Gender, and Marriage.

by Soumya Mathew

In Dahaad, Anjali Bhaati (played by Sonakshi Sinha), born Anjali Meghwal, says, “This man knows how little the value of the life of a girl from a backward caste is.” She is talking about the antagonist Anand Swarnakar (established as the murderer very early in the series) who is hiding in plain sight after murdering about 27 women belonging to different districts of Rajasthan. 

What ties these 27 women together, in addition to the fact that they have been befriended by Anand Swarnakar (played by Vijay Varma) is their loneliness. They belong to structurally marginalised caste communities and their families do not have the means to get them married with dowry. So they continue to age, without finding themselves a man to be tethered to. This process, when you do not have the social means, class and caste privilege to access mobility to make decisions for themselves, could make one feel lonely. And when they, whose caste and gender locations had rendered them invisible, meet a man who promises the “entire world’s happiness at their feet”, they feel hopeful.

…when you do not have the social means, class and caste privilege to access mobility to make decisions for themselves, could make one feel lonely.

Which is why Anand Swarnakar, an upper caste man, knows exactly whom to target. He preys on the loneliness of the women who have, all their lives, been relegated to a place where love, respect or simply the act of being seen, is denied. It’s easier for Anand to move on to the next woman and to the next and then to the next, because these women are structurally forgettable. So forgettable, that when they go missing, most of the families do not even bother looking for them. 

So it takes Bhaati sa’ab, whose lived experiences of being a marginalised caste woman facing the pressures of getting married resonate with those of the victims, to give the case the importance it deserves. At the same time, it is important to note that there are several markers for Sonakshi Sinha’s character to pass off as an upper caste person. For instance, her father changed their surname to Bhaati from Meghwal (an SC caste community in Rajasthan); her role is that of a senior officer in charge; and lastly, she has a comfortable and a huge house of her own. These nuances to her characterisation is important to observe, because despite all these, her character is ostracised and denied social mobility because of how her lower caste status cuts through the above-mentioned markers. 

The film also comments on performances as informed by caste and gender locations of the people. For instance, when Bhaati rides through the dusty lanes on her motorbike, she gets called ‘Lady Singham’. Anand’s father derides him for not being a dominant financial provider in his household, while Anand comments on Shiv Swarnakar’s inability to father a child. 

The film also comments on performances as informed by caste and gender locations of the people.

While Bhaati sa’ab’s act is a subversion from traditional gender performances expected by a woman and is a way of reclaiming her space in a society that has denied her the same, the other two instances comment on the conventional performances of heteromasculinity – that to provide and of the potency to reproduce. 

Interestingly, the film, inspired by the real story of Cyanide Mohan, touches upon several nuances, right from the current polarising communal political climate in India to the deeply entrenched caste hierarchy (the symbolical presentation of a fellow policeman lighting incense sticks every time Bhaati crosses his line of vision, is a splendid take on this issue). 

One aspect that came across as avoidable, especially when written by women themselves (Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti) is the setting up of women against women.

In Devi Lal Singh’s family, his wife is shown protesting their daughter’s impending trip to Delhi from school and by extension, the daughter’s autonomy. Bhaati’s mother is shown as a woman pressuring the daughter to get married and resenting her job as a cop who spends long hours at work. Since neither narratives contribute constructively to the main story-line, the makers could have put efforts to not typecast the mothers as regressive while juxtaposing them against progressive, liberal fathers. 

Overall, Dahaad makes for an interesting watch, especially since it’s packaged as a story of a murderer hiding in plain sight but in reality, is a hard-hitting commentary on the lives of women invisibilized by their socially marginalised gender and caste locations. 

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