Sexual harassment, the question of sexual consent, emotional and mental harassment at the workplace, female outrage resulting from being undermined and sidelined in hegemonic and patriarchal institutions observing status-quoist hierarchies, problems festering in highly masculinised work spaces, gender-based discrimination at the workplace, negation of unconventional working theories and counter-hegemonic approaches to resolving a crisis. These are some of the issues season 2 of Hostages integrates through its many sub-plots, making it a refreshingly textured crime thriller.
Among others, the series shows four working women in four different contexts: two serving in state-run institutions, one from the corporate sector and one from the press, who are repeatedly sidelined and undermined – sometimes, because of their distinctly feminine attributes and approaches to problem solving, and sometimes also because they are women.
Isha Andrews (Shibani Dandekar), the high-profile vice president of a multinational company, is blindsided by her muscleman more than once when he goes on a killing spree, contrary to her plan. Her authority is noticeably undermined as she finds herself cornered and seduces him to safeguard herself for the time being. She survives only to be shot by him shortly afterwards, making it more than obvious that she is no more than a pawn in the larger design and terminating her is a prerequisite for the deal which the company wants to be clinched.
Ayesha Khan (Divya Dutta) of the anti-terrorism squad (ATS), the chief negotiator in the hostage crisis and a far cry from the stereotypical Indian Muslim woman, is conspicuously targeted by her male counterparts for her soft and patient approach as a hostage negotiator. A striking contrast to her resilient femininity is S.P. Ashwini Dutt (Sachin Khurana) and his propensityfor strong-arm tactics who wants to take the bull by the horns and even further than that is the brazen masculinity of Dutt’s second-in-command ATS officer Chaudhary (Mahesh Balraj), who constantly berates Khan, calling her “kitty party” and uses other reprehensible verbal and non-verbal expressions to display his contempt for her.
Yet, despite being at the receiving end of his jibes, Ayesha is nonetheless interested in Chaudhary’s point of view too and his approach to the case. It is Ayesha’s intuitive abilities and her calm disposition which perhaps enables her to absorb and process the events and helps her connect the dots to arrive at the truth of the hostage crisis.
Ayesha Khan thus, in many ways, is the “new woman”. She operates in a male space, serves a patriarchal system but exercises her feminine energy and instinct or what is considered conventionally feminine. She believes in collaboration and not aggression, dialogue and not dominance. She is patient and willing to listen. She is empathetic and a committed negotiator. She is also someone who constantly reminds the others that the hostages being held are humans and not numerical figures.
These are essentially feminine attributes which have been and are regularly dismissed by servers in patriarchal institutions that do not normally believe in resolving issues or in problem-solving approaches that involve dialogue and not force. Ayesha’s character thus validates the “feminist ethics of care” that in Rosemary Tong’s summation of care-focused feminism can be thought of as a substitute for “a traditional ethics of justice”. This is however not to say that the men are uniformly painted in shades of the dominating or the oppressor. Just like there is an S.P. Dutt and a Chaudhry who believe in an arm-twisting approach, there are others like the head of ATS Karnail Singh (Kanwaljit Singh) and Ayesha’s subordinate who are willing to rely on her competence.
In another highly charged professional space, we have Shikha Pandey (Shweta Basu Prasad), an intelligence officer who is the target of sexual harassment at the workplace by her controlling and possessive boss-boyfriend, who does his best to take liberties with her whenever and wherever possible and turns vindictive when denied. Shikha’s analysis of a supposedly “open-and-shut” murder case is continually dismissed by him as a “hunch” or a “conspiracy theory” because of this personal vendetta and by superiors in the institution, ostentatiously, because she is a woman and a junior employee.
True, a male colleague helps Shikha work through her hunches, but interestingly the intermittent incredulity he inadvertently displays makes it clear that this benevolent assistance is not because he believes in her theory but because he “likes” her. Though this trajectory remains insufficiently problematised in the narrative, it does foreground a very common cultural trait, widely prevalent in the professional and social heteronormative space, where men are often willing to go an extra mile to help a female colleague or a friend, not because they believe in her cause or goal or professional caliber but because it will help fetch brownie points and legitimise their infatuation in the eyes of the woman. To cite two very easy and memorable examples, this trait is pivotal to the underlying sexual and romantic tension in the Aditya-Geet (Shahid-Kareena) and Alu-Pinky (Rajkumar Rao-Fatima Sana Shaikh) relationships in the films Jab We Met and Ludo respectively.
Season 2 further depicts women as individuals who have no qualms about exercising their sexual autonomy without in any way sexualising or objectifying them. Neither does it associate any kind of taboo or stereotype with women who display sexual autonomy. Bodies are not merely biological truths but discursively produced entities and this attempt to change the discourse by severing notions of shame and modesty from the female body certainly deserves more than a mention.
The narrative introduces Ayesha Khan in a very urban, upper middle class space with a stranger on a date, which is prematurely interrupted by work. This depiction of a single, middle-aged working, Muslim woman refrains from the common stereotyping of the single woman as excessively prude or excessively promiscuous and the Muslim woman as either submissive, victimised or vindictive. The fact that Ayesha inhabits an extremely masculinised workplace but nevertheless uses her feminine sensibilities to crack the crisis adds another nuance to her depiction.
Similarly the sub-text problematises the question of “consent” through Shikha’s situation by highlighting her right to say “no” when she wants to, despite being in a sexual relationship with her boss-cum-boyfriend who she eventually breaks up with. Professionally, Shikha, like Ayesha subverts the system, in her commitment to following her “gut” rather than what her juniors, seniors or superiors (all men) tell her. Suspended for not following her boss/ex’s orders and approaching someone higher up in the hierarchy, Shikha continues to function outside the system and is able to prevent a high profile assassination.
Similarly there is also the brief appearance of Kanika (Himanshi Choudhry), a journalist who starts connecting the dots pretty early on in the hostage crisis but when she approaches S.P. Dutt with her theory, he dismisses her. Through the hand Kanika is dealt, the series puts adequate focus on the very patriarchal state-corporate-media nexus and the curbs on the freedom of the press as the fourth estate in a democracy even as Kanika finds herself wrongly implicated and has to forego the truth of the larger plot the hostage crisis is a small part of, thereby disappearing from the narrative.
Hostages Season 2 may be far from compact, linear and unidirectional with a maze work of sub plots that regularly interrupt the central narrative of a hostage crisis which was the sole focus of Season 1. However what is applause-worthy in the series is the delineation of largely invisibilised institutional realities through certain feminine constructs, that are certainly eye-opening in the way they are brought to the fore.
Dr. Shyaonti Talwar is an academician, researcher and a writer whose areas of interest include art, culture, lifestyle, social inequality, literature, mythology and gender.