In an ideal world, we should’ve moved towards the abolishment of censorship. With the advent of the internet and access to worldwide content, it did seem we were going in that direction. But there has been a steady rise in conservatism, and hence a huge outcry for censorship, not just on the big screen but on the small screen as well. And while we can debate and argue about how much on-screen fornication is too much on-screen fornication, there’s no doubt that cutting down on the critical depiction of casteism, misogyny, sexism, and any form of oppression is wrong. Because despite their fictional nature, they create awareness about the crimes being committed via nationalism and majoritarianism and urge society to move towards an inclusive future instead of a regressive one. However, a lot of shows and movies have been scrutinized, censored, and preemptively canceled for the “wrongful portrayal” of a state or a community, with artists being forced to apologize while the real world continues to be unimaginably heinous. So, the fact that a show like Dahaad exists in this climate is a huge win.
Season 1 of Dahaad takes place in and around Rajasthan and focuses on a handful of characters. There’s Anjali Bhaati (or Meghwal), a determined police officer who faces casteism from essentially every bigot in existence and is constantly chased by her mother to get married. Devilal Singh is Anjali’s senior, and he has to do a balancing act between doing his job, appeasing politicians, and protecting his children from his wife’s regressive views. Kailash Parghi works under Anjali and Devilal, despite being older than them and for partaking in corrupt practices in the past. So, he wishes to get a promotion by doing the SP’s bidding, and he wants his wife not to give birth to a child because he thinks that no one should involuntarily live in this hell. On the other end of the moral spectrum, there’s Anand Swarnakar. He’s married to Vandana and has a son named Kapish. He teaches Hindi at the local university. He has an estranged relationship with his father as well as his brother, Shiv. Amidst all this, Anand manages to take some time to go around the state, romancing and killing women with cyanide because of his deep rooted hatred for the female gender.
The writers of Dahaad start off things on a strong note as they highlight the ongoing (and very real) trend of political parties that pride themselves on belonging to the Hindu community (to be specific, upper-caste Hindus) and gain popularity by demeaning, degrading, and harassing anyone and everyone from the Muslim community. They show how rampant and normalized casteism is in this society. While it’s true that all those who hail from a minority community, regardless of their gender, face immense amounts of discrimination, women who belong to such communities have it the worst because they are facing prejudice and the pressure of not being “marriage material.” And through Anand’s motives, they underscore the fact that if a killer capitalizes on these societal divisions to prey on women, it’s not just the killer’s fault but the bigoted society’s as well. That said, after the fourth episode, the series starts to seem more like a standard manhunt than a searing commentary on the intertwined nature of religion-heavy politics and bigotry amongst the masses. No, the showrunners don’t completely cease their jabs at everything that’s wrong with Rajasthan and India. However, they’ve probably done too good a job of integrating their themes into the narrative, thereby making Dahaad feel a little generic. It can be totally intentional due to the aforementioned reasons, by the way.
Now, even though Dahaad can feel tepid and the visuals can look a little washed out at certain points in its 8-hour running time, it never stops being engaging. Even when the primary plot about catching Anand becomes stagnant, the hurdles (which are professional and personal in nature) in Anjali, Devilal, and Kailash’s lives give the show a sense of emotional momentum. And, yes, the writing is undoubtedly responsible for the level of detail. But a huge round of applause should go out to the directors, production designers, costume designers, cinematographers, editors, sound designers, and everyone else who is silently working behind the camera to give us such an immersive and suffocating experience. I really loved the True Detectives approach to using the landscape to echo the moral emptiness of the majority community that’s populating it instead of treating the place like a tourism advertisement. Despite the familiarity, in terms of the setting and the dialect, there’s a level of finesse to the show that’s synonymous with international projects. In my opinion, that’s the right way to compete with your peers, instead of trying too hard to mimic the Western aesthetic. That said, I do have issues with the music, which seems intrusive at times. Additionally, there’s the sympathetic portrayal of the police that’ll always irk me because it contradicts the real and villainous nature of cops in India.
When it comes to the performances from the cast of Dahaad, though, I’ve no complaints. Sonakshi Sinha finally doubles down on the potential she displayed in Lootera. The way she portrays the strength and vulnerability of Anjali is wonderful to watch. There’s something so organic about the way she changes her tone as soon as she realizes who or what she’s dealing with. Also, the fact that she has taken on this role to tackle casteism while her contemporaries sign roles that are strictly upper class and upper caste is somewhat commendable. Gulshan Devaiah proves yet again that he is literally incapable of giving a bad performance. His chemistry with Sonakshi, Shruti Vyas, Mikhail Gandhi, and Sammaera Jaiswal, who are amazing on an individual level, is palpable. Sohum Shah is amazing, as always. His interactions with Swati Semwal are important. Technically, every scene he shows up in is a masterclass in acting. The same can be said about Vijay Varma, who shows that you don’t have to be maniacal and mustache-twirling to be an effective villain. In addition to the core four, everyone knocks it out of the park. Zoa Morani perfectly portrays Vandana’s unraveling. Yogi Singha is so good because he shows how radicalization happens on the ground. Jayati Bhatia’s constant pestering is too realistic to handle. Manjiri Pupala, Sanghmitra Hitaishi, Prashansa Sharma, and Rytasha Rathore manage to show victimhood without resorting to the usual stereotypes. And the list of amazing performances just goes on and on. So, while watching Dahaad, please feel free to pause and rewind every other scene so that you can truly appreciate the work that has been done by the show’s cast.
Much like how the skeptics in Dahaad cast so much doubt on Anjali and her work, it’s possible that you can watch this show and think that it’s impossible for a man to go on such an extensive and meticulously planned killing spree. You can even say that such a thing can only happen in a Hindi show streaming on Prime Video. Well, let me tell you that, even though the show doesn’t explicitly claim to take notes from any real-life incidents, there is a very obvious parallel between Anand Swarnakar and Mohan Kumar, aka Cyanide Mohan. This very real individual was responsible for the deaths of around 20 women, most of whom were lured by him because they were running away from their oppressive and regressive families. Much like Anand, Mohan used to kill them by giving them contraceptive pills laced with cyanide. So, yes, monsters like Anand do exist, and they walk between us. However, why do they get to do so? Isn’t it obvious? We are so busy creating divisions amongst ourselves and going after each other because of our identities and whatnot that we are giving the Anands and the Mohans the space to commit crimes. Yes, they are eventually caught. But the damage that they do while they’re out there is irreparable. The only way to fix this situation is by abolishing bigotry. If there’s no darkness in our hearts, there won’t be any shadows or blind spots for criminals to thrive in. It’s a long process, but we have to start somewhere if we want to get somewhere. Anyway, these are just my opinions on Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s series. Please watch it on Prime Video for yourself, form your own opinion, and share your thoughts with us.