‘Rasbhari’ Is a Tongue‑In‑Cheek Look at How We Demonize, Justify Infidelity
If you thought you knew the many ways to say ‘Whore’ in Hindi, Rasbhari‘s writers will out-slur you, and how. The series, a vibrant play on Giuseppe Tomatore’s Malena (2000), follows the life of Nand (Ayushmaan Saxena), a school-going teenager, and his encounters with Shanu Bansal (Swara Bhasker), his English teacher. Though the show is primarily told through the lens of a young boy’s adventures with love and sex, the show’s major themes revolve around the fearsome homewrecker, and how more societally reputable women perceive her.
Bansal and her husband move to Meerut, a small city near Delhi. Tales of her beauty and promiscuity float about, beguiling every boy and man in town. Seeing her as easy, Nand makes plans to lose his virginity to her, but, to his shock, discovers that she has no awareness of either the rumors or the men she’s supposedly slept with. As he realizes this, he also finds out that the city’s women, including his own mother, had grown increasingly irate at the ‘whore’ and had made plans to shame her publicly, and on the local news. Confusion ensues, and Nand vows to protect his teacher from the impending mob violence.
Infidelity, in Rasbhari, is a community affair, and so is slut-shaming. Young Bansal grows up seeing how women were dragged out of their homes, beaten, and had their faces blackened because they fell in love with and pursued affairs with married men. Later, she faces her own social boycott, where groups of women whisper about her wherever she goes, and drive her away from religious spaces, calling her a witch, or a whore who will take their men.
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The women who decide to shame Bansal initially do it with no proof of Bansal’s misdemeanor. Bansal is ‘sexy,’ which makes women instinctively mistrust her. For these women, depicted as frumpy homemakers, an employed, well-dressed, and sexually enticing woman brings out double the insecurity, targeting both the homemakers’ lack of financial independence and the supposed ‘sanctity’ of their family.
This is further demonstrated when the women intent on demonizing Bansal admit to being familiar with other infidelities. In a kitty party hosted by Nand’s mother, many women own up to excusing some cheating from their men, because they occurred away from home, often with sex workers. The main grouse that women have with Bansal isn’t infidelity in itself, but that the perceived betrayal would have happened within their close-knit community.
When a man commits infidelity with a woman within the same, close community, news spreads fast. His wife must then bear the shame and mockery, as she could not ‘control’ her husband or keep her family together. The women who see Bansal as a threat band together to remove her because they want to protect their families from the mark of such societal shame, and because they believe they cannot compete with her.
Thus, in Rasbhari, infidelity is a man’s passing thought or act, but remains a woman’s war.
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Bansal knows this mistrust and slut-shaming all too well. She undergoes it so often that it dramatically impacts her psyche. She has strong, visceral reactions to sexual harassment — she slaps, yells, and threatens to call the cops — because she knows the fate that awaits women who are viewed as promiscuous. She finds a rock in a steady, trustworthy and respectful husband as she endures social scrutiny. Most importantly, she knows mindsets need to change, which is why she takes time to teach young boys to view honesty and respect as important, rather than making assumptions about a woman’s character.
Because of these lessons, Nand, the show’s male protagonist, grows from a lecherous little brat into an empathetic, responsible young adult. Though he initially signs up to take extra classes from her only to hook up with her, Bansal changes how he views women completely. At first, he’s unable to understand why his teacher won’t sleep with him, and why his close female friend ignores him. Over time he learns that both women felt disrespected by him, and therefore disengaged. Once he apologizes to Bansal, she takes him under her wing and he begins to confide in her. She teaches him about the value of respect and vulnerability. Then, he acts upon his newfound character growth, by teaching his friends to behave better, apologizing to his close female friend and by protecting his teacher from an irate mob of women who feel wronged. Through a mix of his teacher’s world-weariness and hope, Nand comes of age.
Rashbhari’s multiple plot points, ranging from young love to mental illness, tend to come across as a little over-the-top, if not absurd. Mental illness is treated as a throwaway plot point, and the sole trans character is reduced to a punchline that the show could have done without. The major climax in itself seems over-the-top and unnecessary, as if the writers did not believe their audience was ready for a more nuanced exploration of infidelity beyond absurdist, paranormal storylines. Yet, its light-hearted exploration of non-metropolitan perspectives, love, and a young boy’s coming of age make it a fairly fun, introspective watch.