Big Little Lies doesn't blink in front of the ideal. Not. Even. Once. It looks right into the eye of what society calls the 'ideal' -- an ideal marriage, an ideal victim, an ideal crime, an ideal man, an ideal woman -- and stares it down till it shudders and crumbles. And you can finally see these for what they are -- big, little lies.
Of course, the series owes its unforgiving disdain towards traditional ideas of perfection to Liane Moriarty's fabulous novel of the same name. And one can only hope that the eagerness with which the series was consumed across the world -- especially in India -- will also translate into the busting of a few myths people cling on to about sexual and domestic violence.
Take Celeste Wright (played with gut-wrenching accuracy by Nicole Kidman) out of the American small-town idyll and place her in a middle-class or upper-middle-class living room in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Kolkata. And her story will fit right in. The facts that damaging violence thrives behind curtains drawn on lavish balconies and the perpetrators roam among us in the finest business suits have been mentioned over and over and over again by both victims and activists.
Yet, in some sort of unspoken code of honour, we often see the glaring signs and turn our faces away.
Yet, in some sort of unspoken code of honour, we often see the glaring signs and turn our faces away. We don't bother asking an extra question. We don't bother making that extra effort to make ourselves worthy of a victim's trust, so that she would confide in us, someone we know, just someone, anyone.... We look at them going about their lives -- keeping jobs, making social appearances, wearing expensive clothes, talking, and oh, laughing -- and assume if things were bad, won't she 'look' like a victim? If you were among those, you now know what a victim could also look like. Quite apart from the image of a battered hysterical woman Hindi films have drilled into your head.
When I was in middle school, a tuition mate's mother often turned up to pick her up with bruises on her body. One day on her face. One day on her neck. Another day, a burn on her hand. The little I can recollect of conversations between other mothers at study dates and birthday get-togethers, they would be a version of the following:
"She says she slipped in the washroom...
"Oh, that looks like a punch... like a really powerful punch in the face..."
"Sshhh... the kids are here."
"But, always a new saree... did you see that dhakai? Must be at least a couple of thousands naa?"
"Saw the husband in the parent-teacher meeting. Seemed very polished and sophisticated no..."
"Should we ask? No, right? I mean, after all, they are proper upper-middle-class people... these things..."
"No no, what if they are offended? What will people think..."
"What will she do anyway? Go to the police like the maids drag their drunken husbands? How will people like us show our faces in the society after that?"
"Eeesh, the children, what's their fault..."
If she indeed was a victim of violence, with signs as obvious as those, no one probably asked her if she needed help. Why? Because of our class anxiety. Because we want to believe the education and evidence of refinement we strive to achieve set ourselves apart from the uneducated and the poor, the realities of their lives. Even without realising it, we are constantly defending a homogenous, misleading idea of who we are -- an idea whose foundation lies in other-ing people. "We are not them, we are not like them, our men aren't rapists and wife-beaters," we tell ourselves, in order to un-see the reality that is right before us.
The story of Jane Chapman (played by a compelling Shailene Woodley) -- a woman who struggles to deal with the aftermath of rape -- serves a similar purpose of unmasking the cherished stereotype of the 'genteel'. Jane meets an attractive man for drinks, goes back to his hotel room without coercion and possibly with the intent of having sex, and gets raped. Take this story out of Big Little Lies, place it in an Indian context and can you already hear the enraged complainers?
"What? But she did go to his hotel room, right?"
"He didn't force her to go with him, did he?"
"She drank with him and then went to his room? And now...?"
"Rape? Did she want to have sex? Then why is she saying rape?"
"How is this rape?"
"Is she lying?"
Big Little Lies asks you -- no, demands of you -- that you know rape is rape. It's unfaltering in it's condemnation of a violent breach of consent and trust. When Jane narrates the incidents of the night, no one she speaks to expresses any doubt that she was raped. That consent can be breached and violently, even when a woman is willing to have sex, is something we are ridiculously reluctant at accepting. It's a wild hope, but could Big Little Lies make it easier?
Ask around and you'll meet women who have been subjected to some form of sexual violence or the other that they are afraid of speaking about. Why? Because they don't fall within our blinkered, conservative idea of what constitutes rape. Women who'd resisted attempts at sexual violation in their own homes -- by friends, by partners, by husbands. Women who were violently coerced into sex by men they have had sex with earlier willingly. Women forced to perform sexual acts because they were alone with the perpetrator and wanted to escape actual penetration. Women who've had sex under the threat of physical harm. Could she possibly be a victim of rape if she has slipped into an LBD and is sipping wine, you ask? Big Little Lies tells you the answer is a resounding 'yes'.
The triumph of Big Little Lies is in the way it lets its women falter, make mistakes, hesitate, hope, be angry and break down with abandon. It doesn't let you roll your eyes and walk away from Celeste when she struggles to admit she is indeed in a toxic, abusive relationship. It firmly tells you to not wonder if Jane was 'asking for it'. And if you did, it shows you the mirror -- and you see a hypocrite in it.
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