By Aashika Ravi
When MI5 officer Eve Polastri’s loving husband jokingly asks her how she would hypothetically kill him in the BBC America show Killing Eve, Eve (Sandra Oh) responds, “I’d paralyse you with saxitoxin and suffocate you in your sleep, chop you into the smallest bits I could manage and take you to work in a flask and flush you down a restaurant toilet.” This alongside her self-satisfied expression and his horrified one made for an, ahem, ‘killer’ comic scene. Then there is the opening scene of the show. Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is hanging out in a cafe eating ice cream. Also in the quiet cafe is a little girl. Their eyes meet and Villanelle smiles strangely at her. What you never see coming? As she leaves the café, she pushes the child’s ice cream and sweeps out.
Killing Eve is a macabre new BBC show about a cat and mouse chase between an MI5 officer and a Russian assassin that is predicated on their genius and potential for violence. The first episode hangs on the detail that Eve is the only one in MI5 able to conceive of a woman assassin. The fear of the potential violence of women usually takes absurd cultural forms such as vagina dentata, the toothy sexual organ waiting to eat men like a Venus Flytrap. The representation of violent women have never been as simple or clear-cut in pop culture as it has been of men. Damaged, Hungama’s new webseries and possibly India’s first female serial killer show, takes a refreshing new direction.
The beautiful and mysterious Lovina Birdie (Amruta Khanvilkar) is the eponymous damaged woman, who kills her lovers when they upset her. After the disappearance of a well-known artist, the Crime Branch is tasked with investigating a series of eerily similar murders. The Crime Branch’s head is an arrogant cop Abhay (Amit Sial), whose tough guy act and need to humiliate his colleagues make him deliberately unlikeable.
At first glance, Lovina’s character falls squarely into the annoyingly common femme fatale trope. She is described as being “beautiful and mysterious”, has men falling all over themselves to woo her. Whether she’s daintily sipping wine or, waltzing prettily around her house in a half-drunk daze, she manages to stay effortlessly gorgeous. She even has her own personal poet who crafts intense poetry about her ethereal beauty. While she doesn’t overtly use her charm to her advantage, in her flirtations with Abhay and acceptance of her sexuality, we see that she is not oblivious to her beauty.
Think of everyone from Mary Astor’s unforgettable Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon to Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Jennifer Garner in Alias, all leather pants and wigs and dainty pistols. Damaged could have been something of a bore leaving you mumbling about TV’s addiction to hot female killers. At one point in Killing Eve, Villanelle makes an appearance in a huge frothy pink organza dress in a therapist’s office, lobbing spit at the idea of the sexy assassin but even Villanelle is hot. Maane you may want to go around bumping people off but that doesn’t mean you can let yourself go, chiquita. Feminist film theory has had plenty of valid objections to the inherently misogynistic trope, some of which have to do with the femme fatale as a superficial challenge to male authority, as well as soothing cucumber slices for the male gaze.
Luckily, Damaged does very interesting things with the femme fatale trope. In one of the early episodes when she kills a man, it is because he has annoyed her by forgetting to mention that he has a fiancé back home in the gaon. She is also annoyed on behalf of the woman left behind. As she kills him she safely pronounces that, “Every man is the same.”
Her character brings to the trope something it truly lacks – relatability. Let us tell you that Lovina might be a psychopath, but it’s hard not to feel an alarming degree of empathy for the situations that prompt her rage. Like the ultra-needy boyfriend who recites shayari that makes her visibly uncomfortable, a butler who hangs around awkwardly while she just wants to have a good time by herself or, a stalker who has crossed the line of obsession into uncharted territory.
The femme fatale’s unattainability is one of her prized possessions. Whether it was Sharon Stone’s power moves in Basic Instinct or, even Priyanka Chopra’s sensuality in Aitraaz, the femme fatale never lets her guard down. Ultimately, she is considered truly powerful only if she counts sex as a weapon in her arsenal. Lovina on the other hand, displays so many moments of raw vulnerability, that you wonder if a facade exists at all. She dutifully takes care of her son, and loves her boyfriends freely and fully, to the extent that her brief moments of violence seem like a dark vacation from her otherwise calm and carefree self.
As I watched Damaged I kept thinking that any one of us could be a Lovina.
Essentially, Lovina fits the characteristics of a femme fatale perfectly. But in a pleasant turn of events, she seems to dispel all the stereotypes that come with it. Lovina’s life is starkly different from the bevy of beauties that have played femme fatales. There are no extravagant cocktail parties or immaculate outfits to compliment them. In fact, Lovina runs her own bakery, endearingly named “Bake ‘n’ Berry.” She seems to be the sole breadwinner of the family, and is often seen hard at work at the store.
And Lovina’s twist on the femme fatale made me wonder what else pop culture could do to represent violent women, beyond the sultry, smokey-eyed variety. To this question too, surprisingly, Damaged had an answer. Enter Inspector Meenakshi Reddy, who wears vibhooti and a stern expression at all times. She has a physically dominating presence in a completely opposite way, and happily engages in police brutality.
Meenakshi Reddy (Shruti Ulfat) is more proficient than any of her male colleagues, who spend their time participating in unnecessary action sequences and ‘accidental’ murders of innocent men. She even remains hilariously stone-faced when Abhay gives her a particularly unwarranted compliment about how she “fights just like him.”
What Damaged posits, is two women who approach violence with completely different outlooks. For Lovina, violence is the only imaginable solution to the personal betrayal she experiences at the hands of her lovers. It is a quiet, but fierce kind of violence that only seeks to maintain her inner peace of mind. For Meenakshi, violence is a way of life. She approaches it as a part of her job, and is not deterred by the worry of being physically weaker, or facing possible repercussions. As in the case of Killing Eve, the face-off between two women with a deep understanding of violence makes Damaged an unexpected treat.
Co-published with Firstpost.