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What Does It Mean To Watch ‘The Crown’ As Commoners Who Were Once Ruled By It?

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Chronicling the life of Queen Elizabeth II — from the events leading to her coronation and after — is no mean task. It is difficult because her life as a monarch and as a Queen for an astounding period from 1952 to the present cannot be placed outside the events surrounding her, her country and the world. It cannot be placed outside the intrigue that surrounds the British royalty, the extravagance of their lifestyle, the mannerisms, the protocol and the public glare. It cannot also be placed outside the personal and the political life of Queen Elizabeth, from the members of her family to the Prime Ministers and leaders of the other nations that she’s dealt with.

Finally, it has to be placed in the Buckingham Palace. 

Given all of this, the creator and writer of The Crown series, Peter Morgan, and the rest of the crew involved in the making of this epic historical drama have done a fantastic job. Also, given that this was the very first series I saw on Netflix, coupled with the fact that I generally enjoy historical dramas, The Crown has a very special place in my heart!

I have seen historical dramas where the central characters are overshadowed by the events surrounding them — in the sense that in detailing the other aspects, what the characters feel or think in a given situation is left to be unraveled (Here, it is possible that filmmakers lack the imagination in placing themselves in the same situation as the protagonists and thinking/feeling like they would have done). In the second type of historical dramas, the story focuses so much on the personal life of its illustrious characters that the important external details are lost to the audience.

Historical dramas are tricky, but The Crown is cautious in balancing both. There is no hurry to get it done. It moves in its own time, its own pace, slowly unfolding the layers of history — the eventful and the mundane, the important and the ignored, every small detail, every angle — till we find ourselves taken back to the time where this actually happened, and grow with it. 

The passage of time is indeed a theme in the series and the Windsors do not grow with it as much as the audience does. I think the idea was to show the same, a royal family resisting changing times, and the modern world resisting to let them change. Individuals are wrapped —trapped in the caricature that the world created for them, zealously upholding and jealously guarding conventions with a sense of duty and a fear of losing significance — till they start suffocating. An inheritance that they cannot give away and a lifestyle that they have accustomed themselves to, they are now destined to impose the same on their unhappy, miserable children. 

Between the abdication by King Edward and Prince Harry, a lot of water has gone under the bridge, a lot of tragedies — big and small — afflict the members of the royal family. The Crown painstakingly invites you to witness all this — the petty conflicts, the hurt egos, the heartbreaks, the struggle to catch up with current affairs, the fear of scandals and the sheer boredom that accompanies living in the Buckingham Palace and attending endless inaugurations. 

Consider the episodes Pride and Joy and Gloriana (Season 1), Company of Men and Paterfamilias (Season 2) and Tywysog Cymru (Season 3), all of which examine the tension within and between the members of the royal family — Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, The Queen Mother and Queen herself.

Similarly, in episodes like the Scientia Potentia Est (Season 1) and Marionettes (Season 2), we see the inadequacy of the royal family in catching up with the changing times. We also see the reluctance of the political class in letting them catch up — letting Her Majesty be anything more than a titular head that adorns the nation. This arrangement allows them to fall back into the former glory of the aristocracy and the British Raj, when common people demand greater social justice or when America gets too intimidating, without letting the Crown influence or even comment on something that would really matter. 

But because it is not a one dimensional account of the Windsor family and their affairs, the events in the world larger than the Crown and which directly and indirectly affect the position and the personality of the Crown, are also mapped out. Let us take everybody’s favourite episode of Dear Mrs Kennedy (Season 2). It focuses on the visit of the American President JF Kennedy and his wife Jackie Kennedy to the Buckingham Palace.

The young couple were at the height of popularity at that time, and the presence of Jackie even threatened to overshadow the majesty of the Queen. Her forceful personality actually propels Queen Elizabeth to have a bizarre and brave adventure of her own, in a bid to outshine her. The many hypocrisies of the political families, and the Kennedys in particular, are also brought to light. Similarly, Act of God (Season 1) or Aberfan (Season 3) also focuses on historical events that took place in England during the Queen’s reign — events that are far placed from her and yet, which lead to her in some way or the other. 

My favourite episode in this context is the Assassins (Season 1).  It features Winston Churchill getting his painting done on his 80th birthday by famous painter-artist Graham Sutherland. It is my favourite because it captures the essence of the idea of the Crown — the Prime Minister unwilling to let go of his power, position and tradition even as his health starts failing and ideas turn redundant — until his self portrait is unveiled and breaks his illusion of greatness.

It is my favourite episode also because it humanises a man such as Churchill so much. For someone we admire as a great leader, a statesman and a true patriot, and for someone we cannot forgive as a racist and an imperialist, this episode instead makes us think of the vulnerabilities of an aging man. We also connect with the deep void left by the death of his daughter long ago, and the empathy he feels for his painter who has undergone a similar grief. 

Yes, there are some episodes in The Crown that completely distract you like this.

The Crown is also one of the most expensive series ever made by Netflix, with a staggering budget of $130 million. The Buckingham Palace features heavily in The Crown, but was unavailable as an actual location for the production team. Instead, the Queen’s residence was recreated with several stately homes across the country, including this elaborate Tudor estate in Wiltshire. The location for the shooting had to be carefully chosen and recreated to suit the surroundings of the aristocratic families that featured in the series.

Indeed, a lot is invested in imagining and re-creating the lived experiences of the aristocrats and the politicians, and the commoners and the foreigners alike. The investment, not of the money alone, but also in the form of research and the drive to perfection that went into painting a near accurate picture that covers the minutest of details is what makes The Crown delightful for lovers of history and art history both. 

Season four of the series, which introduces Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, is inching closer to the present times. The political environment under the Iron Lady’s rule will be juxtaposed with the tumultuous time for the royal family — the fairy tale wedding of Prince Charles and its un-fairytale ending.

As much as I am looking forward to catching up on season four, I am also dreading her death. And this makes me wonder, how real The Crown is for me, how much I feel the trials and the pain of its characters! Or is it my obsession — as a commoner — with the Monarchy of a country that ruled over us? Never mind the reason, I am downloading the episodes nevertheless. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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