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What is the similarity between Sridevi, Claudia Kim, Mouni Roy, Taylor Swift and my ex-best friend?—A few days ago, an odd film poster stuck on a roadside wall came to my notice. It was not odd because the movie was clearly not very popular with no big names as the leads, it was also not odd because of the miserable editing or the garish costumes. It was odd on a subconscious level simply because it had done a gender reversal which had caught me off guard. It was the poster of a film about a shapeshifter snake, where the shapeshifter was not a woman but a man. In a surprising change, a man had cyan blue eyes and a menacing look on his face, the menace clearly directed towards the innocent young woman with a pleading look in the poster. 

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(Reena Roy in Nagin, picture courtesy: zulm.net)

This reversal reminded me of the existing gothic, mythological, fictional subculture in movies (not just Bollywood, but almost all the movie industries in India) and television who love to portray a beautiful but a cunning, vengeful woman as a shapeshifter snake. 

Having perused through the extensive collection of movies and TV series made about these “Naagin/Naagina/Nagini”, one can conclude that these shapeshifter ladies only enter human lives for the following reasons:

These costumes, the seductive but aggressive dance steps, the excessive makeup and overacting—all these elements in popular culture together contribute to a narrative in India of equating snakes with evil women. 

  1. To avenge her dead spouse/lover (Sridevi in Nagina; Reena Roy in Nagin)
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(Sridevi in Naginac picture courtesy: youtube)

2. To take revenge/simply wreak havoc, both the actions being complementary, (Manisha Koirala in Jaani Dushman-Ek Anokhi Kahani, and Dimpy Mahajan in Kahani Chandrakanta Ki)

A notable Bengali film title would be “Bishe Bhora Naagin” (trans: poison filled female-serpent). Bhojpuri films have an abundance of snake-themed movies—Naag Raja, Naag Mera Rakshak, Naag Naagin. Some South Indian films would include—Nindu Pournami (trans, Zehreeli Naagin), Naagin Kanchana 2, Nagodi Nagin II, Ichchhadhari Naag Naagin, Nagini. 

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(Bishe Bhora Nagin, picture courtesy: youtube.com)
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(picture courtesy: youtube)

What makes all these movies and roles iconic is not just in how outlandish they are in their plot but also because of the scintillating dance moves that these Naagins have to do, whether it is because they are being forced by the evil snake charmer, or because they want to profess their love. The costumes for these women also follow the same trend of a small, ornately decorated, colorful blouse, a knee-length skirt and a dupatta, with extravagant headdresses. They also sport elaborate bindi styles on their forehead, the more twisted they are, the eviler are their intentions. 

The Bindi style also influenced numerous TV serial villains where the conniving, vicious mother-in-law or sister-in-law more often than not wore these bindis which quite often blatantly looked like a snake drawn on their foreheads. In contrast with the “Sati-Savitri” or pure and pious, heroine’s simple red bindi, the audience have no difficulty in distinguishing who the villain is. 

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(some iconic villains from TV serials, picture courtesy: Times of India)

These costumes, the seductive but aggressive dance steps, the excessive makeup and overacting—all these elements in popular culture together contribute to a narrative in India of equating snakes with evil women. 

Indian mythology is however more complex in nature with varying approaches towards snakes and serpents. Most of this mythology has always portrayed snakes in a respectful manner, worthy of devotion and worship. Shesha-Naag (the king of the Nagas) had many cruel brothers but he maintained such an austere penance for their sins that he even got a boon from Brahma and now shields the earth and Vishnu with his hood.

Indian mythology is however more complex in nature with varying approaches towards snakes and serpents. Most of this mythology has always portrayed snakes in a respectful manner, worthy of devotion and worship.

Nag Panchami is also a celebrated Hindu festival where Hindus worship live Cobra snakes or images of them in the month of Shravana. The stories behind the festival seems complex as in one story, the snakes were enraged because their living space was compromised and are thus pacified through prayers. In another story, snakes voluntarily gave away their powers but demanded to be worshipped in return. 

The story of a snake deity demanding to be worshipped resonates with a popular Bengali folktale—the tale of Behula and her dead husband. Behula, a young girl is married to the son of influential merchant Chaand Saudagar. Maa Manasha (the local snake goddess) wants to be worshipped by Chaand but he adamantly refuses. In rage, she kills all his sons only at the end, to be worshipped in an almost irreverent manner (Chaand throws a few flowers at her idol with his left hand) but being satisfied with it nonetheless. The story highlights Behula as the purest wife whose love and devotion brought her husband back from death but paints Manasha as the demanding, heartless villain. 

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(poster of the film ‘Sati Behula’, picture courtesy: youtube.com)

Also read: The Evolution Of Hindi Television And Their Portrayal Of ‘Indian Values’

The West

The West, in comparison, has a more straightforward vision of snakes or serpents—they are evil. From Eve getting lured by Satan in the form of a serpent to bite the Biblical apple to Nagini being a formidable villain in JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ universe to more recently, Taylor Swift getting bombarded with snake emojis on all her social media profiles after she had falsely accused Kanye West and Kim Kardashian of misusing her image and not asking her for permission in Kanye’s music video “Famous”. 

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(Claudia Kim as Nagini in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2, picture courtesy: junkee.com)

Taylor’s relationship with snakes ran deeper than that. If there was ever a person who owned a “negative”/” evil” characteristic as painted by media and press and made it hers, it was Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ era. Following the severe criticism she faced post the Kanye-Kim debacle, Swift used the snake imagery to its fullest. Her lead single from Reputation, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ was full of references to snakes and snake accessories, truly a look what you made her do. She is over that phase now though, as her snakes quite literally turned to colorful butterflies in the lead single ‘Me!’ from her newest album ‘Lover’. 

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(Taylor Swift and her snake motifs, picture courtesy: consequenceofsound.net)

It is fascinating to find out at exactly what point did snakes become such an integral part of a woman, almost an extension of herself, representative of all her evil qualities but are they really evil if all they do is seek justified revenge for their lost lovers? Just like the evil men and snake charmers who often kill the Naagini’s lover or want to kill her too, has society also subconsciously taught us that women who are bold, brave and audacious are like a poisonous, lethal, and often deadly reptile? 

For the longest time, like every other thing, society has tried to sequester women into the binaries of black and white, good or bad. When complex characters like these Naaginis come up, who have bad intentions for good reasons, art often fails to truly portray the myriad personality that they have rather, finding it easy to paint them in a negative light just like they paint on a convoluted bindi on their foreheads. 

Also read: Why Is Women’s Laughter Always Loud, Immoral, and Unsanskari?

So what is the similarity between Sridevi, Claudia Kim, Mouni Roy, Taylor Swift and my ex-best friend? 

They have all played snakes, or were snakes at one point of time.


Featured Image Source: Hindi Rush

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