Big Girls Don’t Cry Review: Awkward Mix of Coolth and Commentary

Despite a talented cast including Pooja Bhatt and Raima Sen, the show feels derivative. 'Big Girls Don't Cry' streams on Amazon Prime Video.
Big Girls Don’t Cry Review: Awkward Mix of Coolth and Commentary

Creator: Nitya Mehra
Directors: Nitya Mehra, Sudhanshu Saria, Karan Kapadia, Kopal Naithani
Cast: Avantika Vandanapu, Aneet Padda, Akshita Sood, Dalai, Vidushi, Tenzin Lhakyila, Afrah Sayed, Pooja Bhatt, Zoya Hussain, Mukul Chadda, Raima Sen

Number of episodes: Seven

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Girlhood is the protagonist of Big Girls Don’t Cry. It’s a neat line to start a review with, but I’m not trying to sound pretentious. The truth is that I have no other way of saying: Everyone is the protagonist of this seven-episode series set in an elite girls’ boarding school. Literally, everyone. No less than seven teenagers radiate main-character energy; one more is thrown in for good measure towards the end. On paper, having multiple protagonists – basically, having none at all – is a fancy idea. After all, the 11th and 12th graders have reached an age where their pressing conflict is individualism; friendship might be the theme, but identity is the narrative. 

The show even teases the usual template of such stories – opening through the eyes of a new scholarship student, Kavya Yadav (Vidushi), encountering the entitled brats of Vandana Valley Girls School. It is implied that she is the one. Simple and observant Kavya faces Gen-Z lines like “get with the lingo, bimbo” on her very first day, a familiar formula for a young-adult show. But it’s soon clear that she is just the entry point – she becomes one of several parallel journeys unfolding in the same space. 

For a hot moment, this looks like a worthy subversion.

A still from Big Girls Don't Cry
A still from Big Girls Don't Cry

The BGDC Crowd

Kavya is ‘inducted’ into the cool BGDC (Big Girls Don’t Cry) gang, she hides her social status from them, her grades fall, but they’re never antagonised for being bad or distracting company. Because there is no “they”. There’s no judgment and poor-girl-versus-the-snobs vibes. Each of them is their own person. There’s Leah “Ludo” Joseph (Avantika Vandanapu), the aspiring sports captain struggling to come out of the closet. There’s Noor Hassan (Afrah Sayed), the junior school captain who wants to drop her surname to escape the inherent Islamophobia of the world. There’s Jayshree Chetri (Tenzin Lhakliya), a child of royalty at odds with her own privilege. There’s her best friend Roohi Ahuja (Aneet Padda), a poor little rich girl whose parents are in a dysfunctional marriage. There’s Anandita “Pluggy” Rawat (Dalai), the chubby erotica-writing teen desperate to lose her virginity. There’s Dia Malik (Akshita Sood), the poetry-spouting rebel whose feminist swag is appreciated by the drama teacher (Zoya Hussain). There’s also the resident Bengali debate champion who almost hijacks the show with some romance and activism in the final stretch. 

It’s one thing for attention-hungry teenagers to steal the spotlight from one another. But it’s another altogether for attention-hungry stories to jostle for space. The way Big Girls Don’t Cry is designed, it feels like every character is fighting to be the protagonist. Nobody is willing to cede the stage. Even the frosty school principal, Anita Verma (Pooja Bhatt), gets in on the act – her Narayan Shankar-esque equation with the drama teacher aside, she has a tragic backstory and a bunch of students to terrorise. The YA tone is middle-of-the-road, too: Neither teeny-bopper musical like The Archies nor brooding thriller like School of Lies. The result is a show that goes everywhere and nowhere at once. It’s a shapeless puddle of cutesy coming-of-age vignettes, where narrative batons aren’t passed so much as snatched and dropped. Watching it is a slog, particularly because this is not the sort of genre that merits 45-minute long episodes. There is no center of gravity, and by extension, no real connective tissue. 

The irony is that Big Girls Don’t Cry is built on a good ensemble cast. The young actors share a natural relationship with the camera. Each of them is sharp and perceptive; their dialogue delivery and facial expressions are calibrated to fit the whims of everyday energy. One of the triumphs of the Hindi casting revolution over the last decade is the emergence of such teen talent, not least in atmospheric boarding-school and aspirant settings. In that sense, the series adds to the artistic canons of Class, School of Lies, All India Rank, Farrey and the recent Sundance hit, Girls Will Be Girls. The problem with the BGDC gang, unfortunately, is in the writing of these characters and their tropey chemistry. They unfold like derivative and quasi-hipster people who’ve watched many high-school dramedies. 

A still from Big Girls Don't Cry
A still from Big Girls Don't Cry

Hamster-wheel Storytelling

Private challenges aside, the girls are saddled with overlapping threads and busy personalities. Kavya is brought in by Pluggy, but she also has a weird theatre-club rivalry with ‘Demented Dia’; at times, one situation follows another in a different part of the campus, almost as if there are two Kavya(s) operating in alternate universes. The sullen Ludo resents Roohi for pulling a Mujhse Dosti Karoge (read: surrogate letter-sharing with boy) on pal Jayshree, but Ludo also develops moral tensions with Noor. Ludo’s queerness seems to exist so that Noor can embrace her protest lineage (which features a cringey rendition of ‘Ekla Cholo Re’ scoring the hoisting of the pride flag on campus). Dia has a student-mentor story, a student-principal story and an angry-rebel story going on together. Roohi is guilty about Jayshree, and she is upset with her family. Pluggy has a male best friend, an equation with everyone, and a random guy she wants to have sex with. This is the kind of series where two friends escape a car and run into the woods, but they don’t know where they’re running. It’s the ‘thought’ that matters.

There are so many mini-threads, and the hamster-wheel storytelling tries to be casual about it. It reaches a stage where, every time a girl is accused of being a liar, she lashes out at the others for being hypocrites (“rich coming from you Miss…”); this happens at least twice during separate meltdowns. Some scenes are clumsily merged to combine disparate conflicts. For instance, we see the principal’s speech getting interrupted by a protest banner for a student who gets suspended for being a lesbian. The stern woman storms to her office, the whiplash of rebellion still fresh, but then she is instantly confronted by a weeping girl and her own situation. The focus totally shifts. The two-for-the-price-of-one staging rings hollow because the character’s mindspace is compromised. Not to mention the awkwardness of the more dramatic moments. 

One of the episodes features a ‘smash the patriarchy’ stage-play starring Dia and her esoteric poetry. The catch is that the man-bashing climax has been altered because the chief guest is a male minister whose financial support is crucial to the school. Naturally, Dia breaks protocol and sticks to the original ending, defying the elders. 

But instead of simply counting on reaction shots, the scene depicts the politician telling the principal “If you hate us men so much, how can you expect my support?” and walking away. Who does that? I get the thin skin, but surely there are a hundred better ways (an email, a phone call, a frown) to establish the same fallout.  

A still from Big Girls Don't Cry
A still from Big Girls Don't Cry

When a High Becomes a Low

There’s another winter-camp episode that’s the perfect example of how not to counter emotion with humour. It involves berry pulao, a strange Dolly Ahluwalia cameo, and stoned girls going through happy and sad highs, as well as some inter-cutting with a hike gone wrong. The sense of rhythm is off, and you can tell that the makers are struggling to juggle – and do equal justice to – the criss-crossing equations. The title song is also so decidedly breezy in that Amit-Trivedi-anthem way that it often seems to disrupt the tone of the (unnecessary) cold openings. Some of the quirk is forced-fitted to remind us of the show’s low-stakes goals. Track-and-field students lusting after the drama teacher’s muscled boyfriend, or the Bengali girl’s ‘love story,’ or Ludo’s basketball montage juxtaposed with her secret affair, or Pluggy’s hotel adventures – they feel like flimsy fillers in a screenplay that bats for long-form time rather than intent. 

It’s a pity, because the girls’ lives strive for cultural value. Noor having artist-activist parents and distancing herself from their dissent, in particular, is a contemporary snapshot of Indian anxiety. Some of the music works better than the dialogue. Take the Socials night, where ‘Bhool Jaa’ does a fine job of exploring the spirit of the girls as if it were a live-action memory. The song, the setting, the dancing and camaraderie seamlessly come together to build up to a revelation towards the end of the party. I like that some of the scenes invoke the theatricality of being young; a basketball game or detention or heartbreak look like the end of the world because they're still figuring out how to put things in perspective. For them, every setback is a do-or-die scenario. Roohi’s parents (Raima Sen, Mukul Chadda) putting up a fake front and taunting each other in private makes for a predictable but effective riff on the broken-family template. Noor ditches her surname because she knows Muslim students who’ve been denied an American visa, but there’s no mention of persecution within her own country, because she comes from the kind of privilege that lets her erase the meaning of home. 

But these merits are the exceptions rather than the norm. Much of Big Girls Don’t Cry is stuck in that void between coolth and commentary. It is also inexplicably repetitive, which might be rationalized as a reflection of lost girls on the brink of adulthood. It also misses a sense of geography – like, say, a Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar or even a Mohabbatein – because the BGDC gang is too busy flaunting their comic-book moods. In short, girlhood is not a character or a phase but a tagline here. The young-adult genre can be a lot of things: Sweet, plasticky, fun, flimsy. But it has no business being so distant. To paraphrase the famous Anatomy of a Fall line, its narrative generosity conceals something duller and sillier. After all, not crying is futile if living is such a drag.

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