The real-life story of serial killer Mohan Kumar, also known as Cyanide Mohan, who is imprisoned for raping and killing 20 women in Karnataka, is repulsive at best. As a serial killer — his pattern is boringly repetitive.
Mohan Kumar would approach single women from impoverished backgrounds, women who are burdened by dowry demands, befriend them, and then ensnare them into physical intimacy. After a night of revelry in a hotel, he would kill them by asking them to take contraceptive pills laced with cyanide, in the confines of public lavatories, so as to avoid unplanned pregnancies. He would rob them of jewelry, their cell phones, and he was eventually caught in Mangalore in 2009. Despite killing 20 women, his death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, and he stays confined in Belgaum prison.
Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar, as producers, pick up this serial killing pattern of Cyanide Mohan, and have created a brilliant narrative around it in a recent series titled as ‘Dahaad’.
Before you howl ‘spoiler alert’ — and as a reader lament that I have given away the plot, let me tell you that Dahaad is not really about the killer or his modus operandi. In fact, the methods deployed by the killer is the most uninteresting aspect of this series.
Dahaad is a dark tale that takes a hard look, and at multiple levels, on the socio-political landscape of India, by delving deeper into relatedness and relationships between men, between men and women, between fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers, and daughters … The serial killer becomes insignificant as it ought to be as the narrative unfolds.
I am penning down some of the creative brilliance and poignant brushes that Kagti and Akhtar, embellish this narrative with …
Lens 1: The Desert as the Canvas
Dahaad is embedded in a small town in Rajasthan — and the camera accompanies the serial killer, across small towns, mofussil villages, hamlets, and the desert sands of Rajasthan — the eerie sense of barrenness of the landscape is all pervading. The arid lands thirst for a wetness that never comes, and remains captive to the dryness within, famished, and unreciprocated.
It is this coarse dryness and an unsatiated thirst for love that draws out the women — only to be predated upon by a trickster who perhaps understands their yearning better than other men.
The predator appears to be soft, gentle, loving, vulnerable, and expressive — there is an ease with poetry, a play with expression, and a promise to stand up against traditional patriarchy, and its accompanying ills of caste, dowry, captivity, objectification of women et al. It is this promise of love from a man that is so alluring, and which lures the women away — from the misery and the dryness that women feel.
The desert gets filmed in various hues — some of the background shots are brilliant from small roads meandering through sandy hillocks at sunset, to shadowy nights, and of course the brightness of the merciless sun.
The opening credits are worth a watch — eerie, mesmerizing, and somber — and enhanced by great music. Violence against women gets etched with the barren structures, the use of local symbols including masks, pots, and dolls is fascinating.
Lens 2: Resurgently lurking within decrepit structures — Patriarchy, Caste, and Religion
Staying true to the theme of violence against women, Dahaad explores how caste and religion are leveraged by the powerful (men) and patriarchy.
Episode 1 starts with a sub-plot involving the elopement of an upper caste Hindu girl from a Haveli, with a lower caste Muslim boy — and how the rich and politically powerful convert this episode into a brouhaha of ‘love-jihad’, and with violent protests at the local police station that are prime TV material. Later, the Dharmic army kidnap the boy and leave him to die on the railway tracks — the party renders justice in its quaint way.
The scriptwriters imbue this farcical debacle with further black humor, when a father of a missing girl who has not been listened to by the authorities, jumps on the political bandwagon of loud protests outside the police station, and garners the attention from the police for the first time. It is this politically motivated meeting around the missing girl that initiates the discovery of a series of missing women and the possibility of a serial killer.
The protagonist — Anjali Bhaati — a woman sub-inspector, who takes on the case, gets introduced to the audience. Sonakshi Sinha brings alive an intrepid, intensely passionate, and intuitive hard-nosed character whose life as a police SI and as a woman gets challenged each day. She comes from a lower caste (“neech jaati”) — and it takes her an enormous journey to discover and embrace her own caste identity in the very end — no longer clinging on to a name that her father had imposed on her, in his duty to protect her.
Each of the episodes highlight the interplay of men in power with caste and religion politics and how women are mere ‘objects’ to be possessed, abused, and preserved.
However, the writers do not paint all men as evil patriarchs.
Two male colleagues and policemen to the boot, evolve as warm, generous, loving, and vulnerable men who bring forth their struggles. The protagonist’s superior — Inspector Devi Lal Singh displays perhaps what an ideal manager should be — calm, collected, compassionate, fair and process centric, and yet warm, loving, forgiving, and nurturing. Devi Lal has many a poignant moment with Anjali Bhaati, and with his own children.
The other male colleague — Kailash Parghi goes through his own struggles as an ambitious man sitting on deep envy of Bhaati. It is his journey as an impending father — where Parghi expresses his human struggle — he is suffering anxiety attacks and yet having to live up to the ideal of being a man.
Both men bring alive the cliché that marriage needs continual emotional investment and hard work just as any other institution.
Nor are all men portrayed as predatory.
There are vignettes of men including the killer’s brother that are endearing, inclusive, caring, and a sheer contrast to how the system violates women. I particularly like how the husband of the main witness engages with her history and her victimhood.
Lens 3: Relatedness and Relationships
The scriptwriters do tremendous justice to the complexity of relationships and relatedness between the men and women who chase the serial killer.
Bhaati has a ‘name-less’ relationship with a perhaps a younger man — a relationship with no future and perhaps of no significance to her, and yet she is often clambering up pipes (no pun intended) for her rendezvous with her lover. She, unlike the victims, is not caught with guilt or being judged — and her escapades with her lover are just another part of her.
Devi Lal is steadily discovering in each episode, how he and his wife out of an arranged marriage are two different people with different values and perspectives. He appears to be impatient with how patriarchy has embittered and terrified his spouse, and how he feels alone as he energizes his teenage daughter to explore freedom (with responsibility). It is a ritualistic chore of lovemaking with his wife when he discovers his own feelings for the protagonist. The scriptwriters do justice to a growing attraction between the two.
Parghi is perhaps the most poignant — he struggles with the occupational hazard of being a policeman where continual engagement with the world of criminals and rapists has left him deeply cynical and terrified of living a normal life. His own journey with his spouse, parents and in-laws if offered in well-designed snippets.
But aside from these characters, it is the mother-daughter relationship that is well explored by the scriptwriters. After being relentlessly pressurized by her mother to get married, Bhaati emerges with the most hard-hitting line in the serial. She says that it is ‘the mother’, most loyal to the patriarchal chant that a woman needs to be married to a man, who has killed the 20 plus young women and it is the mother who has who has held the bloody knife.
Guilt, fear, shame, and hate are only some of the feelings that get explored by the characters in Dahaad.
Lens 4: Miscellaneous yet intriguing tensions
a) The Tension between Modernity and Tradition
Often the camera pans across wide 6 lane highways that traverse the state of Rajasthan to dusty untarred roads, from high technology aspects such as internet cafes, mobile phones, and computers to rundown old havelis (houses) — continuously inviting the viewer to look at the tension between Modernity and Tradition.
And yet, the killer seems to understand this link better than some of the other characters in the serial.
b) Sexuality and Pleasure
Intriguingly it is the killer and his victims that engage with sex with an abandonment and freedom. The killer is shown naked in sexual encounters — where he appears to be in throes of pleasure. Or it is the woman who is cheating on her husband that discovers pleasure with joy and ease.
Sex in the married homes is reduced to a ‘clothes-on’ ritual — both the man and the woman demonstrate no real intent with foreplay, and the intercourse is literally kept under the wraps of shame and decency and clothing. Pleasure is short-lived, and both the man and woman emerge unhappy and dissatisfied — with themselves or with their partners.
c) Policing — It is hard work on the ground.
It was Makarand Sahasrabuddhe who has brought this to attention — Mak talks about how policing is so different from the armchair detective (Knives out), and how it is all about hard work on the ground.
Bhaati and her colleagues ‘walk’ across the three states to capture the serial killer — it has meant many interviews, many meetings, and sheer hard work. The serial speaks of toughness and grit required of any policeman or policewoman — the serial just builds a better understanding of the profession in India.
d) The Final Gift from the Killer to Bhaati:
There is an interesting insight that the killer offers in the very end of the final episode, for despite the other stuff, he is still able to see into the hearts of the women.
This series is bingeworthy! I would like to thank Makarand S to have pushed me into watching this. I do hope that reading this blog has gotten you curious and energized to see this series. Unlike most other serial killer television series, Dahaad does leave you with a lot of things to chew upon and digest at your own pace.