Halfway into Netflix's Masaba Masaba, there's a moment where fashion designer Masaba Gupta, who plays herself in this fictionalised take on her life, is shooting for an ad for waxing strips. She's been saddled with cheesy lines which the ad film director feels she's not saying sexily enough. "Too paavam," he says with disappointment, before creepily acting out the lines for her. Masaba has no choice but to put up with this "embarrassing product and tacky crew". Later we learn that she's not that paavam after all. Masaba nonchalantly admits to her best friend that she's "chipkaoed" the brand with one of her old, discarded designs for their new packaging because she desperately needed the money.
Although the scene is played for laughs, it put Masaba Masaba a few notches higher than other movies and shows that are set in the fashion industry. We see a young entrepreneur making hard calls, even if it's a dishonest one, because she has a company to run, salaries to pay, and an investor constantly breathing down her neck while she struggles with a creative block. Typically, the fashion industry we see on screen is run by superficial dim-wits who only talk about dress sizes and fad diets. We only see ditzy models, mean fashion editors, and poorly caricatured gay designers.
Over the past few years Bollywood has made a bunch of sports biopics or sports films that show the blood, sweat and tears that is required to be a cricketer, or a boxer or hockey player. Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance offers a layered insight into workings of the film industry and what it takes to put a movie together. There are films and shows that present keenly observed takes on the music industry, journalism and politics. But the fashion industry sadly has Madhur Bhandarkar's 2008 film Fashion which offers a one-dimensional take on the business. It's a big bad world of endless parties where everyone's high on drugs, the men are sleazy, and almost everyone is awful. We get zero insight into the creative minds that run the industry. Instead designers say things like, 'Darling you're a model. Akal istamal karne ki koi zaroorat nahi hai' and 'Jitna kam sochogi, utna zyada kamaogi'. We're constantly told that it's a business that requires no intellect.
Of course, that can't be true. Shefalee Vasudev, the editor of Voice of Fashion and author of The Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion, says this reveals the total lack of imagination on the part of writers. This is an industry which provides employment to several craftsmen, where talented designers are using their skills to make eco-friendly clothes, or making a noise at international fashion weeks. "It is completely correct that there will be the superficialities and trivialities but as an insider I can tell you that there has been less of this and more of work in the last 5 to 10 years. But all that you see in films is this nonsense about a neurotic celebrity who's misbehaving or somebody's clothes not being delivered on time. Unfortunately the strides that fashion has taken is never shown," she says. The closest one has come to acknowledging fashion's influence over our lives is probably Meryl Streep's famous 'cerulean blue sweater' speech in The Devil Wears Prada.
Masaba Masaba makes a few amends but in the end falls prey to stereotypes as well. While Masaba herself is shown to be hardworking, everyone else in the fashion industry isn't very smart. There's Mickey, the bitchy and pretentious editor of the fashion magazine Flair, who overdoes the air-kissing at parties. He says things like, 'Honey, unless it turns me on it doesn't get on the cover'. Actress Kiara Advani makes an appearance as the vacuous Bollywood star who wants a designer outfit to pick up 'kachra' at a Swachh Bharat event. The showstopper at Masaba's big show is a drama queen who has a meltdown minutes before walking the ramp because she's having boyfriend troubles. Celebrity stylist Nitasha Gaurav, who works with actor Ranveer Singh, says she enjoyed the show, inspite of the cliches, because it was evident that they were being mined for laughs. "These things do exist. You do have a lot of people who will be nice to your face and the moment you pass by say something nasty. If this was a documentary I'd say, 'What the hell! It's not just about parties and socialising'. But it's not a serious show. It's meant to be funny," says Gaurav.
The fashion business has for long been fodder for comedy. Ben Stiller's uproariously funny Zoolander is a spoof on the shallow industry. He plays top model Derek Zoolander who is described as a 'shallow, dumb, vacuous moron'. Derek is vain and painfully idiotic. He is the face of a beauty product that has inane tag lines like 'moisture is the essence of wetness'. It's fair to say that for a lot of us, almost everything we know about the fashion industry has been shaped by The Devil Wears Prada, which was based on a book by Lauren Weisberger, who chronicled her experiences as a personal assistant to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. In fact, thanks to Anne Hathaway's character Andy, the frumpy assistant who is always scurrying about running personal errands has become a cliche too. Masaba Masaba has one as well. "That movie is so firmly entrenched in everyone's head that I've had interns call me in the morning saying, 'I'm on my way, shall I get you coffee'. And I don't even drink coffee!' laughs Gaurav.
Sonam Nair, the writer and director of Masaba Masaba, admits that she deliberately "exaggerated" certain aspects of the industry because those are the bits that are most engaging and bring colour to the narrative. So we get a 2-second glimpse of the harrowed tailor in the workshop, but more of air-kissing at parties. "It's a light industry to write about. A section of the industry isn't intellectual. They live in a bubble and they are the most fun to watch," she explains. A lot of the characters and situations, she adds, came from Masaba herself. "We tried to show is that Masaba also becomes like them when she is around these people. But we know she's not like that, so maybe these people are also not like that. So we tried to show they are not shallow people all time," she says.
Given that Masaba Masaba is loosely based on the life of a young, talented and self-made designer, Vasudev feels the show is a missed opportunity to finally change the narrative. "Masaba's success comes from creating zany prints that come from a certain millennial mind. It could have been a good showcase of her personality and talent to show people how she made it. None of this is shown," she adds.
In episode 5 of the show, Masaba has a breakthrough moment. She finally has an idea for her next collection. She calls it Hot Mess, a metaphor for her own crumbling personal life at the time. She gathers her troops in office and Operation Hot Mess begins. For the next 30 seconds we see a cool montage of mood boards, sketches, colourful fabrics being thrown around, and someone fretting about a model who has gained weight. In a snap, the collection is done and a tired Masaba is alone at the office contemplating sleeping with her dishy colleague Jogi. And while I found it extremely entertaining to see Masaba navigate all the attractive men in her life, I also hope season 2 goes a tad deeper into the uniquely creative brain behind Hot Mess.