A dialogue in the second episode of Paatal Lok has caused an uproar amongst the Nepali speaking community in India. Almost everywhere on social media groups and platforms, there are online petitions and posts being circulated against the makers of Paatal Lok, especially against the producer of the series. The protestors are alleging that the makers of Paatal Lok have offended their feelings by making a racially abusive remark towards the Nepali community. This takes place in the second episode when one of the suspects of an attempted crime, with a ‘Mongoloid’ face is being interrogated by a female police officer. She calls the character a ‘Nepali whore’ during the interrogation scene. A 40 second video clip taken from this particular instance, which is being circulated, has offended the sentiments of many Nepali speakers for which some of them want the show to be banned, some want the particular scene to be edited or omitted and everybody wants an apology from the makers of the series.
At first when I came across that particular remark from a Whatsapp message with a video clip, I couldn’t help but feel offended as many others did. I am one among almost 10 crores of Nepali speaking citizens of India, whose lingua franca ‘Nepali’ is recognised in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution with other 21 languages. I felt that it was extremely unfair towards our community given our lived experiences and vulnerabilities. We are racially abused in our day to day lives, branded as “chinki”, “chowmein”, to name a few, along with “corona”, during this Covid-19 pandemic. To add to that, we have witnessed the stereotyping of our community in Bollywood movies, advertisements etc as “chowkidars”, so this was not a new thing for me. I felt enraged and wanted to know in what context they had used such a racist remark so I decided the only way I could find out was to watch the series myself.
As I watched the series, the episodes were so gripping that I ended up binge watching it. My views regarding the particular remark changed. From being enraged about the remark it switched to feeling good as I hadn’t watched such an intriguing series for a long time. This timely series addresses several issues ailing our society. The hunt for the background of the four suspects of an uncommitted crime reveals how they themselves have been a victim or rather a survivor of different atrocities. For instance, the series demonstrates how caste atrocities occur in North Indian villages, how rapes are easily committed to settles scores between two families, how it feels to be a Muslim in India especially at a time when Islamophobia is rampant, how mob lynching takes place and its after effects, how racism works in mainland India, how the Indian prisons do not have separate cell for the transgender. The series basically delves into the plight of various oppressed sections and shows how the system which seems impeccable on the outside is rotten to the core from the inside. However, as I am not here to review the entire series, I don’t want to delve deeper into these issues put forth by Paatal Lok. I would only like to put forth my personal views regarding the particular remark in question.
At the very outset, I acknowledge the fact that Paatal Lok is a part of the popular culture and a product of the entertainment industry. I am neither under the illusion that Paatal Lok is here for social transformation purpose. Despite its limitations I think that it has efficaciously reflected how marginalized communities are viewed through the lens of the mainland Indians.
First of all, the entire series is a reflection of the ugly realities of the society we are living in. So the dialogue about ‘Nepali whore’ is not fictional but rather a lived reality for women from certain communities, one of them being the Nepali women. It reveals how people with ‘Mongoloid’ features are readily assumed to be from Nepal by the mainlanders. Rather than stereotyping a particular community, I think it demonstrates the ignorance and meagre knowledge of the mainland Indians about the diversity that exists. The dialogue of the female police where she says that “Singing and dancing are hobbies but how can collecting foreign currency be a hobby?” only makes it apparent how uninformed is the character. There are ample other instances in the series which shows the insensitivity of the police. So in such a scenario, how can we conclude that the dialogue delivered by the female police is an endorsement of the act of racism. It rather reflects the average mainland Indians’ racial presuppositions and biases towards a ‘Mongoloid’ face.
Secondly, we are aware about how hundreds of women are trafficked from Nepal and even from our regions especially Dooars and Terai, by luring them with well-paying jobs but ultimately forcing them into prostitution. The denial to accept this vulnerability on part of our community, that women from our community are engaged in prostitution due to sheer poverty or by compulsion is nothing but to live in a bubble. So, how can we even solve a problem when we are not even willing to accept its existence at the first place? Given this, how are makers of any movie or series supposed to portray such vulnerabilities? How is one supposed to show issues that are wrong, unjust or undesirable? In Paatal Lok, one of the characters (a Dalit man) is shown being harassed by upper caste men, calling him casteist slurs relating to his ‘Manjaar’ caste, another character (a Muslim man) is offensively called “Katwa”. So by these kind of portrayals, does the series glorify such casteist and communal slurs? No, it doesn’t. Rather it bursts the bubble for those who think that caste atrocities only existed in the past, exposing the prevalent caste based atrocities and the sheer undesirability of such acts. Likewise, an act of racism is demonstrated through the same process in the series by using prejudiced and ill-informed characters to enact and display it in a crude form. The series certainly does not provide warnings mid scenes that these acts are wrong for it is understood of the viewers to read between lines.
Thirdly, I think the scene was particularly put up as a build up for the plot that develops in the later episodes. In the second and fourth episode during the interrogation scenes, the character is referred to as a ‘Nepali whore’ and ‘Nepali slut’ by the female police officer. And in the later episodes, the CBI frames the character as a Nepali citizen ‘Girija Gurung’ who is shown to be working with ISI even when the character identifies themselves as ‘Mary Lyngdoh’ in the initial phase of the series. Frequent use of the word Nepali might have been to make the CBI plot less abrupt and maintain the continuity to display the racist presumption where a ‘Mongoloid’ face can be easily framed as a citizen from Nepal.
Fourthly, there is a difference between the reference of our community in Paatal Lok and the misrepresentation that has happened in the past in several movies, advertisements etc. The typical depiction of our community men as ‘Chowkidars’ saying ‘Saabji’ who are shown as “stupid and funny” characters to serve the mainlanders with their plate of crass entertainment is something that enrages me. I don’t see any problem in someone doing the job of a ‘Chowkidar’ but to be reduced to only this character repeatedly as an object of ridicule is something unacceptable. And this kind of portrayal is what perpetuates stereotyping and racism. It is exactly because of this kind of deliberate misrepresentation in media and lived experience of incessant real life abuses that is making Indian Nepali community become increasingly suspicious of such representation in popular culture. However, if one watches the entire series Paatal Lok, the story does not legitimize the abuse of the concerned character, rather one begins to empathise with the character and the difficulties and abuse they face by virtue of their ‘Mongoloid’ features, gender identity and work. So, the series makers’ intention to malign a community, as is argued by the protestors doesn’t seem appealing to me.
Lastly, women who have been forced into sex work due to various unavoidable reasons already live in a hostile environment where they are exploited by the customers, pimps and the police. In this situation, I fear, such mass level opposition with reference to the particular scene may further propel the stigmatization of sex workers in our community. To be doubly oppressed both in terms of worse working conditions and in terms of increasing social ostracization, can make the lives of the sex workers miserable to an unimaginable extent.
I understand that for some people who are protesting against it have been genuinely offended by it as I had been earlier. However, I fail to understand how there is no mass opposition or outrage when such slurs are given in the real world, even within our community, in social media pages and other platforms in everyday lives. I remember during one of the Lok Sabha Elections in Darjeeling, how a particular female candidate’s past was exposed in a highly demeaning manner with photographs all over social media. I remember how the photos of the male political leaders were photo shopped to wearing sarees (and other clothes generally worn by women) to show how they are inefficient while belittling women in the same breath. And plenty of such derogatory and abusive comments are showered to photos where women are seen wearing ‘short’ or ‘revealing’ dresses. At the same time, sexist jokes are widely shared, enjoyed and normalised in open public sphere. And yes, I fail to understand why such cases or instances within our community are met with an eerie silence on part of the masses that are now outraged. Why don’t men of our community then show the same outrage and criticise the open misogyny, since now they seem to be the protectors of the ‘dignity’ for women of our community. Also, to further point out the contradiction, some people who are outraged by the word “Randi” being used for our community are giving the same slurs or even worse to the female producer of the series on social media platforms. Such slurs are also used by people in their everyday lives at home, at work or at public places. This begs the question, is the main concern really about racism and gender justice or simply to massage their fragile male egos? So, is there an answer to this hypocrisy?
Hence, I am not offended by the series Paatal Lok. I would rather feel offended by patriarchy, misogyny, moral policing, and racism we face in everyday lives. Shooting the messenger is the last thing we should be doing.
(Marina Rai is a research scholar based in Delhi hailing from Darjeeling and interested in issues related to political economy, public policy, social justice and gender justice. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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