Director: Nupur Asthana
Cast: Rajeev Siddhartha, Manraj Singh
I’ve been on about how web-series makers first need to understand the essence of having a new medium – the limitless vacuum of the internet – at their disposal. The possibilities are endless. The world is their stage to experiment, go wild, throw paint and see what sticks. Yet, most contemporary Indian shows seem to be watered-down (or rejected) feature-film themes and genres, and regular coming-of-age rom-coms, glorified skits or feminist sagas presented episodically with a few cuss words and mandatory sexual innuendos.
Many believe this is a safe, tried-and-tested big-screen formula to attract advertisers, overlooking the fact that these mobile platforms shouldn’t serve as a short-form alternative, but an independent, parallel storytelling option for today’s tech-savvy viewers. In short, create things that don’t have any other commercial outlet. And in a country like this, where restrictions and rules and sensitive/religious/political souls run abound, there won’t be a shortage of suppressed voices. If anything, there should be an explosion of imagination and ambitions on our phone and laptop screens.
In context of medium-worthy intent, ALT Balaji – the digital wing of Ekta Kapoor’s vast empire – gets its basics right. Romil and Jugal, one of its several new web shows, is a ten-episode love story between two college-going boys. Why they needed to drag poor William Shakespeare into it, I’ll never know. Because even without being based on the Bard’s most famous tale, a gay romance inherently attracts enough conflict, melodrama and disapproving families to put the most outrageous and classic fiction to shame.
Jugal Subramanium is a dimpled ‘chocolate boy’ with typically academic Tamilian parents, who falls in love with his new neighbour, Romil Kohli, the closeted macho man and son of proudly dimwitted Punjabi parents. They live in a small town, and their story is being narrated by Jugal’s sister to a random stranger (Mandira Bedi, who serves as more of a Bollywood-referencing over-cool school-teacher prompting the audience to echo her liberal thoughts) at an airport that looks suspiciously like the decorated lobby of an Oshiwara mall.
Mood-of-nation subject aside, this is where the rightness ends. The makers would like to believe they’ve taken a big and noble risk. But this risk is coated with such thick, traditional layers of conventional safeness that it could start a flourishing condom factory. This is the kind of show that is brave only because it shouldn’t be. Nothing about its methods, craft and treatment feels honest or even thoughtful, forget brave.
Even though its two young male protagonists aren’t horrid Dostana or Madhur-Bhandarkar-ish caricatures, the sheer simplification of their complex scenario – and especially the discomforting gaze – isn’t principally very different.
Let me explain this gaze.
When male filmmakers direct Sunny Leone, erotic thrillers, lesbian dramas and even woman-oriented tentpoles, their gaze is abundantly evident – from the framing of sex scenes, the ‘seductive trumpet’ riff and stupid sound effects, specific casting of well-endowed bodies and attractive faces, the posters and marketing strategies, heightened and preachy undertones to compensate for the physicality, and an overall commercial crassness.
It is a seller’s interpretation of women, conditioned from years of artistic exposure in a patriarchal country – and an assumption that titillation is largely a female-centric portrait.
This is the kind of show that is brave only because it shouldn’t be. Nothing about its methods, craft and treatment feels honest or even thoughtful, forget brave
Most of the primary makers of Romil and Jugal are women, including its director, co-writers and producers. And this series seems to be their rebellious answer to that male gaze – a tit-for-tat reaction – instead of a solution. “If they can do it, so can we” seems to be the underlying attitude, instead of showing us how it’s really done. As a result, their semi-exploitative vision is simply a mirror reflection of their counterparts’.
It’s almost like making the two guys “normal” was so restrictive that they re-embraced the warm bosom of commercialism with the rest of the show’s templates: ‘hunky’ boys and their washboard abs, North Indian v/s South Indian culture gags, the stoner best friend (now a female) secretly in love with Jugal, the rejected bimbo, SMS-level homophobic jokes, the heroes’ corny and testosterone-mad gang of “bros,” the daft Bhangra riffs accompanying the entry of Punjabi characters (and Sitar riffs for Jugal’s side), awful stage and dance performances serving as establishment platforms…some clichés just never change, no matter where India showcases its ‘hidden stories’.
Every moment wears its black-or-white righteousness and unflinchingly mainstream credentials on its sleeve. Fair enough, and an understandable tone if they’ve to educate their trademark saas-bahu audiences. But this is the internet – I found myself writing this with gallant “This. Is. SPARTA” purpose – and the generation they cater to now deserves more than this patronizing ‘Homosexuality 101’ language.
Even when characters weep and quarrel, more than voicing their own thoughts, they voice their emotions and epiphanies and moral-of-the-story realizations in the same breath – almost as if the makers decided to make this a literal conversation with us instead of letting the craft spell out their intentions. Such a pity, because I believe they were on the verge of capturing the unique dynamics of a troubled relationship – an equation abusive not by nature, but by circumstances.
The hotheaded Romil bruises Jugal more than once, both mentally and physically, and yet one is compelled to put down these misgivings to a swirling potion of confused feelings. If it were a heterosexual love story, you’d find at least one misguided review on the repercussions of portraying toxic love on screen, on domestic violence and the weakness of submission. But none of us, including the creators, understand the deep-rooted turbulence of a same-sex relationship.
Especially a young one, where hands lashing and lips locking could belong to the same hour, where insults and affections flow in the same minute. It’s one thing to come out of the closet, and it’s another altogether to identify a likeminded soul-mate – given that you’re made to feel like a terrorist looking for another in a giant room full of civilians.
None of this is communicated by the writers, who seem to be so focused on telling an ‘abnormal’ story in a normal (formulaic) way that they conveniently forget how tired our normal idea of love is. This, in my books, a different kind of defense mechanism, not unlike Romil’s, who hides behind his image of loud, crude and lady-loving stud-ness.
One way to perhaps appreciate this series is to be thankful for its existence in a nation like ours. Maybe it’s a juvenile baby step, or maybe it’s the first and only step. But the credible way to appreciate it lies in this question: THIS is India’s first full-blown gay love story?