Shock and awe, show and tell—if that’s at the heart of seemingly “real” reality television then Netflix’s latest outing Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is dull without any awe factor.
A show starring four middle-aged Bollywood wives—Maheep Kapoor, Bhavana Panday, Seema Khan and Neelam Kothari (surprising as this ’80s star was successful in her own right and her fame is not surname-derived)—is bound to be a bubble bath of sartorial excess and scripted emotions. No one signs up for a show that is an Indian cocktail of Keeping up with the Kardashians and Sex and the City expecting sparkling wit, riveting drama or even woke talking points.
It’s guilty pleasure; the rich know the voyeur envies their entitlement and the voyeur knows that she legitimises the rich and famous. This is dumbed down to the extent that Bhavana appears in heels for a Mahim beach clean up session. She had to sign up for this upon the insistence of Maheep and her climate consciousness. We get another such moment when Neelam exclaims that her nails would get spoilt if she cuts vegetables at a Foodhall cookery class.
This latest offering from Dharmatic Entertainment, the digital arm of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, tries to run a parallel, self-reflexive gaze voiced by none other than Johar himself appearing as a friend-host-devil’s advocate and turning the gaze on each of the four characters. Johar demands the women’s most sacrosanct fashion obeisance to him as is eminent from their conversations before the helipad mock talk-show session in Doha when Johar suddenly drops the bomb that he would meet them in the middle of their holiday. They start behaving like teenage girls ready to hit the ball and consumed by nervous energy as to how to dress to kill.
Sanjay Kapoor (married to Maheep) announces to the audience that it took 25 years for “nepotism”—one of the most debated words of 2020—to work for him as he has now finally been signed for a Karan Johar web show. What a sly marketing tool, one would wonder. Throughout the show, if at one end Neelam mulls her comeback and is worried about being stripped of her “prim and propah” image with the wrong choice of a role, then there’s Maheep and Sanjay fretting over their daughter Shanaya’s Bollywood debut of which they see the Parisian Le Bal debutants’ gala where Shanaya debuts or “comes about in society” as the starting point.
There couldn’t have a more arrogant and ill-timed bubble talk than this when the consumer of celebrity/Bollywood content would at least demand a more sincere engagement.
It is this very problematic nature of a reality show-cum-documentary that is further problematised by it being about a class of women who project themselves as hyper-real consumers of mindless bling and hyperbolic mothers who obsess over their “Bollywood” children’s career.
When empowerment is entitlement
The free-wheeling “fabulous” empowerment and entertainment that this girl gang are projected to inhabit is limited and warped in every sense of it. So much for Maheep’s eco consciousness that she happily wears loud leopard prints and for her and Seema’s mockery of the former’s house “staff” Rekha for her Hindi and lack of understanding of English. Hindi features in the show as an othering tool and the disdain for Hindi is deployed to make them stand out as an upper-class club, symbolically expressed through drone shots of Mumbai concealing its dirt and people. The flourish with which the F-word is spoken in a repetitive charade tries to legitimate them as Indian versions of the Kardashians.
Being pre-menopausal women, none of them discuss anything about their sex lives or sexual desires, or touch upon the unfulfilled arcs. Yes, we do have fake botox fears, mind-numbing Reiki talk for face-tightening and Seema’s makeup-laden unfit yoga session. Their white-feminism derived female empowerment and Neelam’s obsession of remaining chaste on ends up stereotyping them as rich women who are rather cloistered.
The attempt to humanise them as obsessive-compulsive mothers only bring out another hyperbolic dimension to their characters. As women who only care to shop and look a certain way, they fuel notions of consumerist feminism where empowerment is devoid of any awareness of privilege or empathy.
The show reeks of unbridled classism; Maheep dubs Shanaya’s Le Bal debut as a “struggle”. Chunky Pandey (married to Bhavna) drools over Ananya’s debut Filmfare trophy and reminisces his own misfortune with it. Johar reveals how difficult it is for Maheep and her family—the lesser known and unsuccessful Bollywood families—to function amid the mega successful ones with clout. This one-sided talk supposed to elicit the audience’s sympathy is tone-deaf. As “prima donna” Gauri Khan appears in the final episode with Shah Rukh Khan, the audience is shown how such “unsuccessful” families of Bollywood are legitimised through friendships with power couple SRK-Gauri.
The very title of “Bollywood wives” is flawed—if the elitism and empowerment of wives is derived from their husbands and that too in a dynasty-driven industry, there’s not much to cheer.
“We are like this only” is their vain comeback.
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.
Featured image credit: Netflix