Warning: Spoilers ahead.
In Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, Tahir Raj Bhasin plays hapless Vikrant from Onkara, a fictional town in Uttar Pradesh, and grows up listening to his father’s stories of how powerful the local politician Akheraj Awasthi is. Akheraj’s daughter Purva (Anchal Singh) has apparently been obsessed with Vikrant since they were at least in Class 4. Fast forward to the present, Vikrant is now an engineer, and is in a relationship with Shikha (Shweta Tripathi), and aims to work in Bhilai. However, after his father Suryakant (Brijendra Kala) – Akheraj’s accountant – insists on Vikrant working with Akheraj, Vikrant’s life takes a turn for the worse. An older Purva is intent on marrying Vikrant and spending her life with him, while Vikrant is made helpless by his father’s greed to be Akheraj’s samdhi, and Akheraj’s own clout. Through different episodes, we see Vikrant trying to find ways to escape Akheraj and his men, and try to dupe and kill Purva for revenge. Throughout the show, there is an uncomfortable feeling where we find ourselves almost rooting for Vikrant’s plan to kill Purva to succeed, just to end his helplessness.
It is clear that Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein is unapologetically from Vikrant’s perspective, given that he is the narrator. At the beginning he describes how money, power and a woman can ruin people’s lives – even though it’s actually Akheraj’s power either on its own or when he backs Purva with it, that truly makes Vikrant’s life difficult through the different episodes.
In fact, Vikrant laps up the support of the other female characters – his girlfriend who is quite understanding throughout this ordeal, his sister who serves him food, Golden’s girlfriend who agrees to be captured in an intimate picture with Vikrant, and the immense care work that his mother is constantly seen doing (there are remarkably few – if any – scenes where his mother is present and not working). However, the support of these women is invisibilised, to emphasize Purva’s villainy in Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein. Purva is described as a crazy, obsessed ‘vulture’, who will stop at nothing to destroy Vikrant’s relationship with Shikha. And even though she actually displays significant empathy for Shikha based on a single conversation with her (and wants to genuinely apologise and offer help for her wedding), the show – and Vikrant as the narrator – is content to portray her as the Evil Vulture Woman. There was clearly scope for some more depth to her character. In fact, she displays this again when she says to Suryakant in one of the initial scenes, that she wants Vikrant to accompany her to the dam only if he wants to, not out of compulsion. And then again, when she asks if Vikrant actually wants to marry her, because she senses that he might like someone else. She cares enough to ask Vikrant if he actually loves her.
In these scenes in Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein (and to an extent) Purva breaks Vikrant’s narrative as an unreasonable woman, and presents herself as somewhat relatable. Throughout this show, it’s quite difficult to understand why Purva is still obsessed with him (so obsessed that she remembers the exact number of days they’ve spent apart when most of us struggle to remember our loved ones’ birthdays). Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein devotes little time to unravelling Purva’s obsession, and is happy to paint her as a one-dimensional evil character.
This also makes one think of Shah Rukh in Darr, another obsessive lover who will go to great lengths to ruin Juhi Chawla’s life. However, in Darr we end up feeling bad for the glorified Shah Rukh in at least some scenes, while obsessive women like Purva are dealt a far worse hand. The background score changes even when Purva appears to say something reasonable, and together with Vikrant’s narrative we are made to believe she is actually manipulating Vikrant all along the way. Ultimately, Vikrant’s obsessive and unreasonable actions – including when he says yes to a marriage just for revenge, tries to ensure Shikha doesn’t marry someone else (even as he’s causing immense hardship to her family), hires a contract killer to have his wife murdered (in a bomb blast no less), and agrees to have countless innocent audience members killed – are given a free pass. The only instance when it is questioned, comes too little too late when Golden points out that Vikrant is becoming like Purva.
In terms of positives, interestingly, in some ways, Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein has flipped gender roles – when Dharmesh comes to Vikrant’s house, Suryakant asks Vikrant to serve him tea, instead of asking Vikrant’s sister Pallavi. Vikrant is the one forcibly married off and his family doesn’t even bother asking him if he wants to marry Purva, reminiscent of countless marriages where women’s consent matters little. Vikrant is seen as powerless, and dominated by Akheraj’s men who literally move him around, and even dress him for the wedding function when he is too emotionally stunned to do anything. Purva is also shown as a woman with sexual desires and as someone not afraid to ask for what she wants.
This is also possibly easier given that she’s one of the villains in the show, and from Priyanka Chopra’s Sonia in Aitraz, to Tabu’s Nimmi in Maqbool, we all know how comfortable Bollywood is in portraying evil women as sexually forward.
Shikha’s prospective match – the rapper/poet – actually doesn’t seem like a bad guy and doesn’t react poorly to Shikha’s relationship with Vikrant. Here the show departs slightly from how the typical side male character is portrayed – as comical, like timetable Subodh from Dil Chahta hai, rowdy like Tangaballi from Chennai Express or violent like Sushant from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Despite his poor rap game which is mildly comic, the show at least portrays him as a decent alternative to Vikrant – who genuinely believes Zumba is a disgusting dance form because men and women dance closely.
Although Vikrant almost captures pictures of him being physically intimate with Golden, to call off the wedding with Purva, the scene is salvaged by Golden’s common sense as he says living life perceived as gay men will bring even more hardship to both of them. This is a welcome reflection compared to generally queerphobic Bollywood scenes. Even Shikha’s father appears to be reasonably supportive of Shikha’s relationship with Vikrant, and faces the issue head on and logically, asking Vikrant how he plans to escape from Akheraj’s men, even if he decides to push Shikha’s wedding for 6 months or so.
There is some satisfaction in seeing Vikrant confront his dad about being selfish, especially given how the older generation has often invoked selfless sacrifices, to claim a lifetime of servitude in the name of respect. However, Suryakant’s change of heart seems quite abrupt, given that he is shown repeatedly deifying Akheraj, being forever grateful since Akheraj funded Suryakant’s stents for his heart condition and got Vikrant admission in a good school and college. So when Suryakant suddenly steals money from Akheraj without needing much convincing (or reason) from Vikrant, one is left wondering why.
Moreover, the conspicuous silence of Vikrant’s mother throughout his ordeal seems very strange – she neither cares nor bothers to ask how Vikrant is doing, even as he is visibly not doing well. This method of painting people as either simple-minded/invisible – including Vikrant’s sister, mother, in some cases his father, and Golden – or helpless – like Shikha – with only our hero Vikrant being intelligent enough to understand things as they are, was somewhat unconvincing, and stereotypical of how people from small towns are portrayed. This reminded me of how Raveena Tandon who plays Inspector Kasturi Dogra in Aranyak asks what the jugular vein is, whereas Parambrata Chatterjee’s character Inspector Angad is portrayed as much smarter.
In some ways, the underlying story of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein seems reminiscent of men’s rights activists’ complaints that women are manipulative and evil, that men are compelled into marriages against their will, and ultimately women, money and power are all equally destructive. Given that Purva is conventionally more attractive looking, compared to “Manchester” Shikha (as Vikrant’s friend Golden calls her), it seems even more in sync with men’s rights claims that it is “these attractive women” who are the Absolute Worst. This, combined with the minimal exploration of Purva’s character, leaves me uncomfortable about the storyline.
Finally, Akheraj’s power is shown through displays of gratuitious violence, from chainsawing through the SSP’s body, to randomly shooting and slashing people’s throats, and an extended shooting scene, when threats would have sufficed. The intention is to make the show ‘gritty’ and portray exactly how deeply Vikrant is trapped, although it is questionable whether the brutal scenes of hacking bodies and burning people with acid were necessary when implications would have sufficed. Most importantly, killing off Ravinder was one of the most unnecessary acts, and I wasn’t sure what was the extra point it was trying to prove, over and above the fact that Akheraj’s men are dangerous and chasing Shikha’s family. Undoubtedly, each episode had me curious about the next one – which is remarkable given how restless I am while watching shows. But the show ends in a disappointing cliffhanger, as the killer whom Vikrant has hired to kill Purva, ends up kidnapping her instead, asking for more money as ransom. The final scene of the last episode is also unsatisfactory as it doesn’t tie in with the first scene of the first episode, where Vikrant is seen shooting some men from inside a dilapidated house.
This ultimately leads me to a relevant question – will I watch Season 2 of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein? Possibly, but I will be unapologetically fast-forwarding my way through it.
Shardha is a lawyer working with the Laws of Social Reproduction Project. She can be found on Twitter.
The author would like to thank Shreyangshi Gupta for her inputs.