Masaba Masaba Is Strongest When It Sheds Its Gloss

Starring Masaba Gupta and Neena Gupta, playing versions of themselves, the show is streaming on Netflix
Masaba Masaba Is Strongest When It Sheds Its Gloss

Masaba Masaba is a sweet, strange, unstable tale. It follows its protagonist, also its namesake, the designer and now-actress Masaba Gupta played by designer and now-actress Masaba Gupta and her fragile but always forgiving relationship with her mother Neena Gupta played by Neena Gupta, and the rest is a swirl of meta fiction and memoir. The show has a facade of humour and wit that it uses to draw you in, but when that cracks — immediately in season 2, which begins with a dream sequence featuring Kartik Aaryan staring vainly at his pompous self-image while Masaba's uterus is about to pop out a baby — the show bares itself for what it is. A sensitive, strong replication of a life lived that feels the need to resort to flat, sharp gimmicks to slot itself into the rom-com genre. 

Through seven episodes, the show tracks Masaba's personal and professional trials and triumphs. When her collection bombs, she finds a strong shoulder. When the shoulder slackens, her pitch to a client gets raves. She is also balancing between two men — the "fuck boy" who is immediately attractive and the patient, silent one, for whom attraction grows, like a watered plant; the former with pronounced abs (Armaan Khera), the latter with kind intentions (Neil Bhoopalam). It is at this point that Masaba Masaba feels like art replicating life replicating tropes. Or art replicating life through tropes. Where does Masaba the person end and Masaba the character begin? 

The point of the show was to tell a story of women, where men were peripheral to the imagination. It was part of Netflix's slate of female protagonists pursuing female solidarity (Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, Bombay Begums, She). Husbands and boyfriends are either away travelling or away divorced or just away. Love comes, but as a mere plot puncture, for the plot itself is about self-actualisation, about becoming. Neena Gupta, the kind of person who wears a wrist watch even when in her nightie, then becomes the moral North, deploying advice with an effortless, casual hand, requiring neither background score nor zoom-ins to inspire heft, "Kaam mein bhi nahin, rishton mein bhi mehnat karni padhti hai (Effort is needed not just in work, but in love, too)."

Gupta's arc in this season is about getting back with an ex-flame (Ram Kapoor) when they're cast in a show together. She is married. The ex-flame is divorced and desperate. Yet the show never tempts her away from monogamy. She is so sure of herself, there is never a wavering moment where she is wracked with doubt. Her husband isn't even shown, so convinced is the narrative of her fidelity. Feet firmly on the ground, eyes on the prize. Is this stability a function of age or sheer personality? Kusha Kapila appears this season as Masaba's PR consultant, playing a pregnant woman who is still working and still on top of things. Her husband, too, is not shown. What use are men in the template of a show like Masaba Masaba, after all?  

With Masaba herself, however, there is this edgy, girl-boss glow — including a rap song about Masaba being a king, slotting itself somewhere between Tareefan and a Ted Talk. This frays. Through repetition — She loves her employees. Her fashion label has an origin story. She loves her employees. Her fashion label has an origin story — this insistence begins to feel like a self-comforting narrative. When we love, we don't need to keep finding excuses to explain our attachment. 

Her friendship with Gia (Rytasha Rathore), one punctuated by food and funk — "PQ (pussy quiver)" is what we must, henceforth, call love at first sight; a P which can be repurposed for the male anatomy  — is not challenged this season, but deepened instead. Gia is saddled with mental health concerns, and the show doesn't know what to do with her after sending her off to therapy. Basking in the success of at least that, Gia disappears for a few episodes. 

All of this kich-kich nitpicking about the show's inability to make the leap from fun to funny and purring to profound is, however, easy to put concealer over. Part of this forgiveness is rooted in the beauty of the show. Masaba Gupta is a striking designer — bold is, ironically, a boring descriptor — and this show, whose costumes are curated by celebrity stylist Mohit Rai, has enough cinched waists, blinding colour, sharp silhouettes, and silver foil to dizzy you into drool. The jaw dropped watching Masaba in the blue crinkle gota sari and the Khera's Fateh in a chanderi crepe black and white kurta with a hot pink-accented dupatta. The intense blue and pink, side-by-side, produced its own kind of erotic heat. 

On the other hand, Masaba's wedding and baggy teenage collection (which she debuted on the show), and which makes the show's fashion centrepiece, is oddly muted, obvious, and familiar. Is the solution to a teenage girl's body issues oversized sweatshirts and flaring ghagras? Besides, it is hard to care for the messaging when all it produces are speak-to-the-hand, sassy captions of self-confidence. Again, like love, confidence, too, does not need excuses to explain itself. Here, it is a laboured breath of empowerment.

But this beauty — textiles, faces, locations — is wrapped around moments of intense longing. The genuine emotional tether that the show spins between Masaba the person and Masaba the protagonist is what holds it in good stead. In the first episode we are introduced to Wendell, the iconic fashion designer, through a text that he sends Masaba. Wendell Rodricks was Masaba's mentor in both fact as "Wendell Sir" is in the fiction. In the present, watching the show, we know Rodricks has passed away. Pretending he's alive feels odd, and can be argued even a little exploitative. (There is even an incredibly unnecessary five-second scene with singer and composer Bappi Lahiri, whose value in Masaba Masaba may arguably come from having passed away. I wonder, how best to memorialise dead artists?) 

The predictable "twist" is when news of Wendell's death reaches Masaba. She's in the middle of a media interaction when she's told of his passing. She blanks out. Her journey with grief, towards reconciling with its hard, nauseating edges, in this show is seen as being finally able to post about him on Instagram. This might sound silly, like a parody of the internet generation, but the Instagram caption the show reads out is the same caption Masaba Gupta wrote when Rodricks actually passed away in February 2020. There is something so pungent about this mirroring. For a moment you are yanked out of the constructed narrative and reminded, that despite the gloss and gossamer, this is a show about a woman, full bodied and fluent in the contemporary malaise of love and longing. The kind of woman who, when about to be kissed by a man who flings his phone as a romantic gesture, stares worriedly at the phone first, swivelling mid-air, before swerving her gaze to him and melting into the kiss. She might be real. But she, too, needs her happily ever after. 

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