Indian film and television is having a coming-of-age moment. Constantly expanding online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime have enabled writers, producers, and directors to find a home for their unconventional content. Outside the reach of the Censorship board, edgier and more realistic shows have flourished – the type that young, urban India wants and appreciates. At the same time, the Indian entertainment industry is also reckoning with another moment – #MeTooIndia. Abusers and harassers are being outed. While some have resigned, and others continue to sit tight (looking at you, Salman Khan), it is clear that the industry is taking a long hard look at itself. It must now grapple with the question of how to hold perpetrators accountable. How do we move from #MeToo to #TimesUp?
In the nexus of these twin moments is comedian Sumukhi Suresh. She is the creator and star of Pushpavalli – an eminently ‘bingeable’, nuanced series hosted on Amazon Prime. Pushpavalli fills two gaps in the Indian screen. First, it gives us a strong, central female character. And secondly, it shatters the romance of stalking that 90s and 2000s cinema has normalised (Think: yeh uska style hoinga, hoton pe na, dil mein haan hoinga).
In this way, Pushpavalli is emblematic of a new era of relatable, honest, realistic Indian television. With respect the #MeTooIndia movement, the show Better Life Foundation (BLF), in which she stars, was in the spotlight. Recently, BLF her co-star, comedian Utsav Chakraborty, was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Amid these allegations, Hotstar, which hosted BLF, took down the episodes, prompting Sumukhi and comedian Naveen Richards to release a statement on behalf of the BLF Team.
Let’s start with Sumukhi’s contributions to ‘unstereotyping’ media. Briefly, Pushpavalli chronicles the journey of a girl from Indore, who falls in love with a typical ‘nice-guy’ Nikhil, quits her job, and (secretly) follows him to Bangalore with the intention of wooing him. In her attempt to win him over, one lie leads to another, until she’s tangled in a terrible tale of deceit and manipulation.
I love so many things about this show. I love that it was directed by Debbie Rao, a female director and stars numerous women. I love how Pushapavalli switches seamlessly between English, Tamil, and Hindi, how I don’t get any of the jokes in Kannada but they still make me LOL. This banter reflects life in a multilingual country. I love how South Indians – usually portrayed as comic, or one-dimensional – are given substance and personality. Above all, I adore this show for its refreshing honesty and nuance.
Sumukhi has not only created a complex and profound personality, but also an antihero.
Sumukhi wields gender and sex effectively to turn the traditional image of stalking on its head. Here, she is the stalker, not a man. Stalking is distilled to its (gender neutral) essence. At first, you laugh at small acts of sabotage, until they escalate and you finally clap a hand over your mouth in horror. You are constantly uncomfortable. Stalking is about power, control, and manipulation. When Pushpavalli, a woman – and therefore a traditional target – possesses this power, we are stripped of our preconceptions. She manipulates Nikhil into spending time with her, feeding her fantasy of him as someone who could potentially be more than a friend. Although Pushpavalli feels justified stalking Nikhil, you realize he never actually led her on. It is unromantic and terrifying. Stalking threatens any human being, male or female, and it should never be normal.
As for the character, Sumukhi has not only created a complex and profound personality, but also an antihero. You want to cheer for her, but you just can’t. The very things that made you laugh out loud in the beginning make you squirm and cringe as episodes progress. Without hitting you over the head with it, Pushpavalli has a deep enough backstory, where you can understand that she is shy because she has always been berated about her weight. It defines her.
The show handles these difficult themes like body positivity and complicated mother-daughter relationships with sensitivity. Pushpavalli’s mother is overbearing and manipulative. She isn’t your routine villainous woman, nor is she the sanctified mother figure who can do no wrong. She is human and flawed – just like Pushapavalli. Her damage to Pushpavalli’s self-confidence, and self-worth is evident. The wingwoman of her ‘more attractive’ (read thinner) friends, Pushpavalli cannot believe that Nikhil would be attracted to her wit, charm, or sense of humour.
Her mother reinforces this idea by telling her about a suitor who “doesn’t even mind that you are chubby”. Pushpavalli is constantly pushed to settle. Every day she questions her self-worth, which her mother has tied to her looks and weight. She’s taught to be grateful that other people are ‘okay’ with her appearance. Pushpavalli is judged on this and other superficial attributes, like the fact that she grew up without a father. Patriarchy has laid thick shame on her. She is a symptom of it. You relate to Pushpavalli like you’ve known her all your life.
How do we hold perpetrators accountable? What is the right thing to do? What does #TimesUp look like?
Since I love what Sumukhi did for female characters, I was naturally interested in her reactions to the #MeTooIndia movement, especially when Better Life Foundation was in the eye of the storm. Two days ago, Sumukhi and the comedian Naveen Richard released a statement on behalf of the BLF Team
Let me be clear. I was so tempted to support Hotstar, and to poke holes in what the BLF Team was saying. But let’s think about how we (including media/streaming platforms) respond to allegations of sexual abuse. How do we hold perpetrators accountable? What is the right thing to do? What does #TimesUp look like?
One should distance oneself from perps, so I understand why Hotstar wanted to pull the show. It’s a tempting emotional response. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. BLF makes a strong point when they draw attention to the number of women given an opportunity on the show, crucial in this context. The comedy industry has always been a boy’s club, so it is refreshing to see women like Sumukhi and Kaneez Surkha dominating the scene. It is also rare to see women behind the camera. BLF2 is directed by Debbie Rao, who also directed Pushpavalli. It is critical to create an environment where female artists like them are rewarded, and feel safe to explore their potential.
One of the ways to dismantle patriarchy is by boycotting perpetrators of sexual abuse. I understand that watching Utsav may trigger so many women, just as watching House of Cards may have done the same to survivors of Kevin Spacey’s violence. Netflix responded to the allegations against Spacey by allowing the show to run without him. He got written off the show, and the central character is Claire, played by Robin Wright. You can still find the older seasons with Spacey in them.
BLF makes a strong point when they draw attention to the number of women given an opportunity on the show, crucial in this context.
In the BLF case, the writers didn’t have an opportunity for such a reaction, to write Utsav off the show. The show was already running when Hotstar pulled it. What’s more, Hotstar has left works starring other accuseds like Alok Nath untouched, as Kaneez pointed out. Hotstar’s move seems like a knee-jerk reaction, a face-saving move unanchored to any principles.
It seems Hotstar has missed the point of the #MeToo movement, choosing to also penalise the rest of the show, one that has benefited so many women. It’s time to have a real conversation about what accountability looks like – what are some of the options we have. BLF could, for example, publicly declare – and ensure – that Utsav is removed from any promotional material or interviews on the show. They could issue a statement during each episode reaffirming their solidarity to the #MeTooIndia movement, and their commitment to creating a safe space for women to work.
Hotstar could assure its customers – to whom it owes an explanation – how its sexual harassment policies have been updated, and how it is protecting survivors. They could provide explanations about the reasons behind their actions, and what action they were taking against some of the content that still remains on their platform. Unfortunately, all we are left with is something that makes Hotstar feel good, but the rest of us feeling like, once again, we are not being heard.