Mumbai, Jun 26, 2020: Amazon Prime Video’s latest 8-part coming-of-age comedy series, Rasbhari, quietly dropped on the streaming platform on Thursday. The lack of fanfare is surprising but one look at the provocative trailer is enough to understand just why the show’s IMDB rating is embarrassingly low at 2.7/10.
Starring Swara Bhasker as an English teacher with a mysterious sex-obsessed alter ego, Rasbhari is directed by Nikhil Nagesh Bhat and created by Tanveer Bookwala and Shantanu Srivastava. It also stars Ayushmaan Saxena as Nand Kishore Tyagi, a teenage boy infatuated with his teacher Shanu madam (Swara Bhasker).
When I think of the hot teacher trope in Bollywood, Chandni from Main Hoon Na, played by the gorgeous sari-clad Sushmita Sen, is the first example that comes to my mind. The one defining characteristic of Sushmita Sen’s character in the film is that she’s attractive to men (and women), and seemingly oblivious about her beauty. In Rasbhari, Swara Bhasker’s sexed-up alter ego, called ‘Rasbhari’, is the exact opposite of it.
The story begins in Uttar Pradesh. Meerut has a new English teacher named Shanu Bansal, who is happily married to her husband Naveen (Pradhuman Singh). All the boys in the school are awestruck by Shanu’s beauty, especially one boy in particular. Nand, who has been chasing the teenage fantasy of losing his virginity ASAP, suddenly becomes obsessed with Shanu and decides to pursue her. From paying people to stalk Shanu and keep tabs on her visitors to getting personally tutored just so he can get that ‘personal’ time, Nand’s desperation knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, hearsay becomes gospel in the city of Meerut as stories of Shanu’s sexual adventures, with strange men in the absence of her husband, start doing the rounds.
Eventually, Shanu’s life becomes the focal point of everyone’s life. The husbands can’t stop thinking about her, the wives can’t stop talking about her, and Nand finds himself in a sticky situation when he gets access to information from Shanu’s past.
Rasbhari does not go beyond the hot teacher trope, but it does manage to cleverly play around with it. Swara Bhasker’s Shanu/Rasbhari is a commentary on society’s inherently prurient nature and all our desperate, hypocritical attempts at trying to suppress it. In a way, Swara’s character is a metaphor for how sexually repressed Indians are. Shanu/Rasbhari is forced to become a local sex symbol against her will; she has no say in the situation. Her narrative is manipulated by pretty much everyone around her. Yet she’s the one blamed for everything.
‘Rasbhari’ is a somewhat raunchy comedy that lures you in with the false promise of erotica. If anything, it’s a mockery of human behaviour and the burden of female sexuality.
When I saw the trailer, I was convinced that Swara would occupy a lot of space in the show, but that doesn’t happen. Swara’s character(s) is impactful in all the right ways - you can’t forget her. She is the central character, no doubt. But the show itself goes beyond the roles essayed by Swara. Ayushmaan Saxena is also brilliant at portraying the various shades of teenagehood and has an important part in furthering the plot throughout.
What I personally loved about Rasbhari was its sophisticated utilisation of the hot teacher trope to make several sensible points without sacrificing on the playfulness of the plot. However, in the latter half of the show, the creators seem to take an unexpected turn by trying to humanise Rasbhari.
Most of the episodes begin with a short flashback to Shanu’s childhood. We’re provided with glimpses of the moralistic judgement that comes with female sexuality - a burden not shared by its male counterpart. A young Shanu being reproached for hanging out in a group of friends that has more boys than girls gives the perfect touch of empathy. It’s enough. But in episode 5, the creators go all out by using a mental illness to justify Shanu’s behaviour.