Cast: Aishwarya Ayushmaan, Aneez Saikia, Daniella Mendonca, Sadam Hanjabam, Sanam Choudhary, Soham Sengupta, Suresh Ramdas, and Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju
Director: Jaydeep Sarkar, Hridaye A. Nagpal, and Shubhra Chatterji
Meet the cast of Rainbow Rishta, a vibrant ensemble: Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, a doctor, actor and influencer; Aishwarya Ayushmaan, a human rights lawyer by day and drag queen Lush Monsoon by night; Daniella Mendonca, a joyful intersex woman with the best punchlines, and her fiancé Joel;. Aneez Saikia and Sanam Choudhary, a dynamic young queer couple from Guwahati; Soham Sengupta and Suresh Ramdas, a gay couple who have been together for six years; and Sadam Hanjabam, a shy activist from Imphal who remains haunted by past trauma. Each one has a fascinating story and in Rainbow Rishta, we see them looking to start a new phase of their lives. Trinetra and Sadam go online, looking for love. Suresh wants Soham to open up to the idea of therapy, to make their relationship stronger. Ayushmaan, nicknamed “Virgin Queen” by friends, agrees to go on a blind date. Daniella and Joel decide to have a big, fat, Bhayander wedding. Aneez and Sanam want to move in together, without camouflaging the fact that they’re a couple. Their everyday struggles should resonate with viewers, irrespective of background and persuasion, and yet Rainbow Rishta holds one’s attention only sporadically.
In a world where queerness is often depicted as an exotic lifestyle or a one-dimensional trope, Rainbow Rishta excels in its attempt to make queerness seem everyday and utterly normal. Yet despite its best intentions and the access that the crew of Rainbow Rishta got to their subjects’ lives, the series feels like surface-level documentation. Issues are acknowledged but aren’t explored. Often — and this might be reflective of what we’re consuming on social media, where there are many queer creators who do a fantastic job of talking about queer issues — the arcs feel predictable, both in terms of what happens and also what is said. The narrative choice of flitting from one subject to another in each episode also doesn’t let the viewer enter any of the worlds they’re being shown. Just as you’re ready to settle in with one subject, Rainbow Rishta whisks you away to meet someone else. Additionally, the soundtrack of the show doesn’t allow for silences. Many of the songs are delightfully hummable on their own, but often drown out the realism in favour of a filmy artificiality.
The series has some genuinely affecting moments, like when Daniella finds the wedding gown of her dreams or when Ayushmaan confides he’s nervous to go to a party without the armour of drag. You can’t help but want more time with Joel’s mother, for instance, who champions Joel and Daniella’s love story and shows just how easy it can be to accept someone. A sharp contrast to her are Suresh’s parents, who appear only as photographs in the series. There are also histories of violence and terrible trauma, which the series touches on but deliberately chooses to not explore. Sadam shares how he was forced to come out to his family after the police found him, overdosed on meth. Daniella reveals she was given up by her family as a child because she’s intersex and that she’s a gang rape survivor. Determined to focus on happy endings and triumphant love stories, Rainbow Rishta doesn’t delve deeper into these aspects, and it’s worth wondering whether the decision strengthens the storytelling.
Part of Rainbow Rishta’s problem is that some of its subjects don’t seem to have more to them than what we’re shown in their introductory moments. What we learn about these individuals in the initial episodes persist as their defining narrative, leaving the promise of deeper exploration largely unfulfilled. There’s also the problem of different subjects entering and leaving the show’s narrative almost whimsically. After showing up in the opening montage, it takes three episodes for Rainbow Rishta to reach Soham and Suresh. Aneez and Sanam, whose house hunt is one of the highlights of the show, abruptly exit left once they’ve found an apartment, as though there is nothing else about their life as individuals or as a couple that merits exploration.
Looming large over Rainbow Rishta is the lack of legal sanction for same-sex marriages. The series was shot long before last month’s verdict and in the final montage, you can feel the optimistic hope when someone at a Pride march says, “2023 mai shaadi legalise kar do, yaar (legalise same-sex marriages in 2023). I really want to get married to my partner.”
In the final episode, after Joel and Daniella's heartfelt exchange of vows at the wedding they’ve worked so hard to put together, Rainbow Rishta reminds everyone that for all the joy that these two and their families may feel, same-sex marriages are not legal. Which is why perhaps we shouldn’t judge Rainbow Rishta on its entertainment value alone. For all its staccato storytelling and predictability, it serves another crucial purpose — to educate and normalise. For those willing to be open-minded, this is a show about how normal queer people, who have been excluded from the mainstream, can be. (There’s a different conversation to be had about whether queer people should have to conform to the blueprint established by straight couples and patriarchal family structures in order to be accepted. In an ideal world, shouldn’t there be space for both the radical and the normal to live freely and with respect?) The people in Rainbow Rishta just want a balcony, a wedding gown, and a partner who gets them. Don't we all?