On Bengali Women, ‘Kaala Jaadu’ and Stereotypes

A recent Aaj Tak headline screamed “Sushant par Rhea ka Kaala Jaadu” with a tackily photoshopped picture of Rhea Chakraborty over a glass orb with a smiling Sushant Singh Rajput helplessly trapped in it. News18 India, Zee TV, India TV and countless other channels quickly followed suit to discuss in ‘breaking news’ segments how black magic played a role in the suicide case.

This mockery in the name of journalism was how the media by and large decided to treat the coverage of Chakraborty’s alleged involvement in Rajput’s suicide.

Clearly, this case has turned into a literal witch hunt – glass orb et al.

Over the last few weeks, much has transpired. Conspiracy theorists are having a field day and testimonies have been discussed threadbare. But this piece doesn’t intend to break down the opinions flying fast and thick on social media around this case. Instead, let’s focus on a deeply misogynistic conversation that this bizarre coverage has inadvertently given limelight to – our problematic vilifying of Bengali women.

Bengali women have historically been outspoken, well-read and unafraid to embrace their sensuality. In a patriarchal country like ours, where having even one of these traits immediately berates you in the eyes of many, is it any surprise that after the media on black magic began circus, a Twitter thread with the hashtag #rheachakraborty started doing the rounds, warning men to steer clear of Bengali women.

Essentially, according to the tweet, Bengali women are those who ensnare good-looking rich men, only to make them their “servants and financiers” and purportedly distance them from their families.

The dudebros of the internet took the opportunity to come out with pitchforks and declare that “Bangalan ke chakkar mein phasogey, toh yehi hoga.” 

Jokes demonising Bengali women started doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups and tasteless memes reiterating age-old cliches about Bengali women being home-wreckers were gleefully shared on various social media platforms.

In order to keep my sanity intact over the years, I’ve developed mechanisms to mentally disengage with online swill at times. And while this conversation made me uncomfortable, I mostly managed to avoid thinking about it.

However, I couldn’t any longer when the topic of Rajput’s death came while I was on a group call with some friends from school. Much to my dismay, one of my friends casually said, “This is what Bengali girls are like, I’ve also dated one.”

I’ve known my friend to be rational in most other situations, so it was even more unsettling to realise that even the best of people – with ostensibly open-minded attitudes – can suffer from such deep-seated internal biases.

Also read: The ‘Chudail’ Archetype Is the Personification of Society’s Fear of Assertive Women

The first step towards unpacking this stereotype is dissecting how we view Bengali men aka the ‘Bhadralok’. Traditionally, we have relegated Bengali men to being artistic soft souls and “thinkers” who whine vocally about the government but only a handful possess the gumption to actually drive change. This depiction is also convenient since it gives further justification to their women looking to ‘entrap’ men outside of their community who have considerably more earning potential.

The trope of the dangerous Bengali woman has seen many evolutions, remaining as problematic in each rendition. The seductress who lures in men with her ample bosom delicately wrapped in tant sarees – think Komolika. The big-eyed bombshell who “weaponises her feminine wiles” to attract gullible men – Rhea Chakraborty.

For most men in the Hindi-speaking belt, urban Bengali women are drawn up as vixens who smoke, drink and party on the dime of lovers they’ve lured in with their ada. And they warn their brethren to steer clear of these purveyors of kaala-jaadu who emasculate men into serving them tea in bed forever. And the worst part? Her English is better than yours and she isn’t afraid to correct you.

Representation of Bengali women in films points to this stereotype as well. Why is it that the first word we associate with Deepika Padukone and Sridevi is ‘beautiful’ while Bipasha Basu and Riya Sen are called ‘sultry’?

This has been going on for decades. What else can you expect from a culture drenched in patriarchal hypocrisy? Where we discuss sex in hushed voices and chastise women for expressing their sexuality? From Sharmila Tagore being tagged as ‘bold’ for wearing a bikini to slut-shaming Riya Sen for her sex tape while Ashmit Patel gets to be the host of a reality show called ‘Superdude’, and countless other examples, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of a ground to cover.

This isn’t a problem exclusively faced by Bengali girls though. I’m sure we’ve all heard and been complicit in enabling some or the other form of broad-strokes judgements. Be it for other communities, like the feisty ‘Marathi Mulgi’, the aggressive ‘Sikhni’ or the docile and homely ‘Gujju chhokri‘.

Stereotypes are simply shortcuts for our brain to make snap judgements and navigate the world. However, we run into a problem when snap judgements reduce complex human beings into tropes.

We need to start viewing people as individuals more than their group identity.

I confronted my friend and told him that what he said about Bengali women was wrong and how this kind of problematic banter doesn’t reflect well on him. Predictably, he tried to justify it by calling it a “harmless joke”.

While the line between good-natured fun and offensive jibes lies in a blurry grey area where a lot can be justified, start by telling your friends one simple thing: it’s not cool.

Fuelled by bhel and her imposter syndrome, Swarnim Jain likes to spend her time escaping from any form of meaningful conversation. Follow @swarnimjain on IG for infrequent updates about her life.

Featured image credit: Facebook/Rhea Chakraborty