Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. Treats Life As One Giant Narrative Trope

The sentimentality feels packaged, as if English Vinglish flunked the Baghban school of melodrama
Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. Treats Life As One Giant Narrative Trope

Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Writer: Swarndeep Biswas, Abhishek Srivastava
Cast: Amruta Subhash, Yamini Das, Anandeshwar Dwivedi, Anup Soni, Anjana Sukhani, Manu Bisht, Nikhil Chawla, Shreyansh Kaurav

I remember ending my Aspirants review with a paragraph on TVF's brand endorsement problem. Product placement is nothing new, but the blatant plugs of an online-teaching app really got on my nerves. The good news is that Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. – a six-episode series by the makers of Aspirants – has no such problem. The bad news is that the show itself looks like a brand that's being endorsed. Womanhood in it is a brand. Divorce is a brand. Middle-class Delhi is a brand. Entrepreneurship is a brand. Enlightenment is a brand. Rebellion is a brand. Even conflict is a brand. In other words, every emotion in Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. feels curated, like chapters in a business school course. The sentimentality feels packaged, as if English Vinglish flunked the Baghban school of melodrama. 

Most shows can bounce back from a flawed premise. But very few can overcome a flawed pitch. The premise of Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. is quite nice, even though it plays out like a checklist of coming-of-age tropes. A divorced lady, Suman (Amruta Subhash), teams up with her former mother-in-law (Yamini Das) and starts an achaar (pickle) business to win back custody of her children. But the pitch is clearly the result of an all-male creative team. It starts with the patronising title. This extends into a narrative that treats Suman as a product and stretches every moment into a musical infomercial – whether it's Suman selling her homemade achaar in a DTC bus for the first time; strangers tasting her achaar for the first time; dhaba and shop owners rejecting her offer; Suman realizing that she must brand and market her achaar; Suman hiring a noble army of Daryaganj domestic helpers to sell it; Suman reluctantly returning her runaway son to her husband's house; even the phase of Suman's son falling into bad company and doing drugs. This sort of slogan film-making might have worked a decade ago, but it reeks of advertisement charts, target groups and formulas in 2022. 

The staging of winning and losing moments is almost naive. For instance, after Suman finds no takers in her house-to-house rounds, you can sense that a tide-turning scene is around the corner. You know, the sort of fateful scene that DIY entrepreneurs dedicate an entire chapter to in their best-selling biographies. How does the writing do that here? Suman is seen resting outside an open door in the locality. Inside the house, a bratty kid is refusing to eat his mother's gobi parathas; she offers him tomato sauce (the horror!). When she's away, Suman strides into the house and dumps her achaar onto his plate. The mother returns and, shocked to see a stranger near her son, rightfully threatens Suman with police action. While the women quarrel, of course, the little boy inhales his food and smacks his lips. The mother instantly changes track, the music soars, and she buys a packet from Suman with the broadest smile on her face. I can think of '90s detergent commercials that were less simplistic. Similarly, in a bleak moment, Suman is seen scolding herself in a mirror, calling herself all sorts of names (including "illiterate," which everyone – including a local news anchor – mentions at least once). Then she proceeds to slap her own face repeatedly. The final shot reveals her mother-in-law sitting near her, doing nothing to stop those slaps.

It's just awkward storytelling, as if the makers have a broad sense of how to divide a journey into joy and sadness, yet go about it in the most designed manner possible. Even when, for example, the intent is to reveal the identity of the mysterious distributor of free achaar bottles outside homes every night, you'd think a lucky recipient might merely dial the phone number on the bottle. But no, in comes an annoying news reporter, who calls the number on live television. That's how Suman's ex-husband, who works for a rival company, also discovers the truth. It doesn't help that the bit roles – shopkeepers, restaurant managers, hawkers, office bosses – seem to have been cast on the fly. Not even the onlookers look convincing. These are small details, but they make all the difference in textural tales like these. No matter how solid the production design is, the humans cannot afford to yank us out of this universe. 

The treatment is a pity, because there are glimpses of the series that Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. could have been. The premise has a sound foundation. Suman is the hero, but her battle is against herself, because there are no real villains in the series. The flashbacks of the ex-husband, Dilip (Anup Soni), do not frame his infidelity as an "affair". Similarly, the second wife, Manisha (perceptively performed by Anjana Sukhani), is an empathetic and mature woman. She is no evil stepmother or spiteful daughter-in-law; she just wants to feel included in a household that resents her for distorting their sense of family. Her bond with the 18-year-old daughter, in particular, makes for the few genuine moments of the story. Manisha also knows that her husband is struggling to be a fair father, and that he's a complicated man. But at no point does it feel like she's compromising on her own ideals to be in this brave marriage. For once, the progressiveness does not feel like a product.

As a middle-class woman stranded in the waters of single motherhood, Amruta Subhash's Suman is a fusion of her roles in Killa, Island City and Gully Boy. But the series views Suman as more of a concept: a mathematical thesis with steps that lead to a single-digit answer. The narrative travels from one step to another, refusing to breathe, milking moments instead of staying in Suman's reality. As a result, Subhash's spirited presence is reduced to a series of mainstream feelings. This is the biggest crime in a show that fails to make its titular (mango) pickle look appetizing – and metaphorical – enough. Put it this way. If I were a character in Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd., pensive music would score my struggle to write an opening paragraph. Then I'd notice a broken tap in my kitchen and get inspired by the analogy of flowing water. The music would then swell into a crescendo, as I flip open my laptop and type down this review, in slow-motion, with wet (flowing) eyes. 

Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd. is streaming on: ZEE5.

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