Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo Web Series Review: Too Desperate to be Entertaining

Directed by Homi Adajania, the show is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo Web Series Review
Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo Web Series Review

There are two ways Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo – a new eight-episode crime drama directed by Homi Adajania – could have gone horribly wrong. The first is physical: The location and characters are largely rural, but the film-maker is distinctly urban. The series is based in a fictional desert State of Western India called Rann Pradesh, a stand-in for the arid Kutch region. There’s nothing wrong with the city gaze per se, but the decision to root the narrative in an environment can’t be an empty one. The second way is thematic: This is a show about women conceived and made by a man. A powerful matriarch named Savitri (Dimple Kapadia) runs a deadly drug cartel under the garb of a textile and jari-booti company called Rani Cooperative. It’s a female-dominated family business; the younger generation is represented by Savitri’s ‘chemistry whiz’ daughter Shanta (Radhika Madan), and her feisty daughters-in-law Bijli (Isha Talwar) and Kajal (Angira Dhar). There’s nothing wrong with the male gaze per se. But even when it tries to check itself by being sensitive and complex about female characters, the intent often becomes the gaze. 

The good news is that the geographical and gender dynamics of Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo don’t go horribly wrong. At worst, the result is middling. Do the places, dialects, violence, music, sand dunes and folksiness reek of rustic romanticism? Probably. While this may not be the Rajasthan of Aarya, the Gujarat of Ram-Leela (2013) or the Punjab of Udta Punjab (2016), it consciously chooses the Mirzapur route – where dramatic license and hybrid aesthetics outweigh any badge of cultural accuracy. It doesn’t matter if it looks or sounds correct; it needs to feel right in the context of social entertainment. Ditto for the theme of strong women (re)imagined by men. Is Shanta introduced in a scene where she’s riding herself to an orgasm while wearing Virtual Reality (VR) goggles before dismissing the man and having a postcoital vape? Yes. Does the sexual agency of an aggressive Kaajal and a queer Bijli look like the male interpretation of female-empowerment porn? Probably. Do the backstories of at least two primary characters feature rape and sexploitation? Yes. Do most of them feel like performative femme-fatale versions of themselves? Probably. 

But it’s also true that the premise is an eye-catching reversal of the regressive saas-bahu legacy. It’s not just that feminine friction is a weakness here, or that the close-knit ladies are leading a field replete with fragile masculinity. (Their lab-produced ‘Flamingo’ is the most sought-after cocaine in Asia). It’s also that the plot is set into motion by the return of Savitri’s two oblivious sons, Kapil (Varun Mitra) and Harish (Ashish Verma), from the United States. The delicate boys were sent away to ‘protect’ them from the muck and madness of the drug trade, while their wives were busy slaying and turning Rani Cooperative into the foremost cartel of Asia. Most of all, Savitri’s ‘feminism’ is not some gimmicky hashtag; it’s a flawed consequence of her rage. If anything, she is using her enabler-of-downtrodden-women image as a ruse to build a self-serving empire. At the end of the day, her choice to shelter her sons while the women do the dirty work is as patriarchal as it is subversive. 

Dimple Kapadia as Savitri in Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo
Dimple Kapadia as Savitri in Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo

The bad news, though, is that Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo goes wrong in older and more primal ways. Simply put, the storytelling is off. As is evident from his career so far, Adajania is more of a mood-maker than a narrative-builder – or, in other words, more concept than plot. You can sense that scenes are composed for effect; the sequences come later. Raj & DK strive for a similar cocktail of commentary and quirk, but they strike a balance between the parts and the whole. As a result, the effort to be “hatke” (unorthodox) hijacks the rhythm of its world. This clumsiness gets more amplified in the long format. There are several examples here. One of the very first moments of the series revolves around a teenager overdosing on contaminated cocaine at a nightclub. The Adajania stamp is visible in the way his dying body convulses to the beats of a techno track on the dance floor. But the clarity of what happens before (the teen buying the drug) and after (a girl covered in his blood) is lost in a mist of awkward transitions. This manufactured tone reaches its nadir in the fourth episode – the midway point of the series – where a deafening and disorienting ten-minute montage tries to do a Bhansali by cross-cutting between a stage performance and a murder in the desert. It’s an absolute mess, edited and filmed with derivative style, and spells the beginning of the end of a show that had managed to survive on its one-liner until then. 

To put things into perspective, the series features two hallucinatory cocaine trips that – albeit loud and annoying – are more coherent than the story getting high on pseudo-drama. Later on, too, there’s a scene that is meant to culminate in the accidental shooting of a character. For some reason, this is designed in the most convoluted manner. Two characters celebrate with an awfully awkward dance (you can almost hear the crew’s shift getting over), one decides to get wine from the cellar, the other gets into a scuffle while he’s gone, and a stray bullet kills the poor wine-loving sod when he returns. I can think of 10 smoother buildups to achieve this result. There’s more. When the surprise villain narrates their master plan, the bigger villain who triggered this revelation sits around and patiently waits for this narration to finish. The staging is disjointed, a recurring issue in modern Hindi thrillers. It’s like the makers treat the speakers and doers in isolation, without worrying about the universe or background they occupy. 

Much of this is also down to the multiple threads – all of them with their own stories – jostling for narrative space. The first few episodes are centered around the return of Savitri’s two sons, and the comedy derived from their preconceived notions about the women of the family. For instance, the power is switched off when they reach at night so that they don’t notice the blood and dead bodies from a recent ambush. Savitri and the others then take them hunting to boost their masculinity and keep them away from the dark dealings at the palace. Some of the humour is a bit jarring, but Adajania and his writers seem to be more comfortable with these portions. Because what follows after that is a strange imitation of Succession: Savitri declares that she will announce the “waaris” (successor) to her Rs. 500-crore empire in three weeks. 

Naseeruddin Shah makes a brief appearance in Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo
Naseeruddin Shah makes a brief appearance in Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo

The familial tension is supposed to define the rest of the series, except there’s too much going on for the viewer to even remember Savitri’s little game. An anti-narcotics officer (Jimit Trivedi) gets obsessed with nailing Rani Cooperative; rival kingpins from the South (Vipin Sharma) and East (Deepak Dobriyal) join forces to lead sabotage missions; an old politician (Naseeruddin Shah) enters the fray; Savitri’s daughter and adopted son (Udit Arora) have a raging affair; a wonky Frenchman from Savitri’s past returns; a daughter-in-law struggles to maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend. The successor storyline becomes a footnote, and at one point, the series is so desperate to remind us that it frames a Janmashtami pot-breaking race as a ‘waaris’ contest. It makes no sense, even if one were to forgive the randomness of the show’s rhythm. Neither does the fact that three family outsiders are offered proper flashbacks, while Bijli is swatted away with a passing childhood reference. 

The action set pieces aren’t convincing either. A shootout towards the end lacks creativity, with most of the gun-toting people literally firing at each other from point-blank range, as if they were trapped in an amateur paintball challenge. By extension, the design of the characters defies the competence of the cast. There are some decent ideas in there – like the illicit love story between Shanta and her stepbrother, or the contrasting arcs of Harish and Kapil. But the Succession hangover is so strong that sullen Kapil resembles a Sad Kendall meme, and Harish comes across as a needlessly dopey version of Roman Roy. They are this way not because it’s earned but because it’s premeditated, which makes the actors behind them overcook their roles to a burnt crisp. Ditto for Deepak Dobriyal as Monk, Savitri’s nemesis and a serial-killer-turned-drug-trader. The character only speaks in long and whispery proverbs (comparing “Darr” and “Bhook,” “Brahm” and “Bharosa”), like a failed slam poet parading as a failed Joker fan. The anti-narcotics agent has an interesting personal life – his wife is a big part of his professional genius – but his role is reduced to a jumble of stares and scowls. 

In terms of acting, it goes without saying that Dimple Kapadia owns the aura of a ruthless matriarch. She can do more with her eyes and stillness than most actors can with an entire body of dialogue. But her piercing presence also works against the series. The punch of the verbal jousts and face-offs is missing – be it between Savitri and the cop, or Savitri and an old enemy – because the script seems to assume that Kapadia’s talent will tide it over. The same logic holds for Savitri’s limited screen-time. It is implied that she is keeping an eye over the kids and their playgrounds, but her character ultimately lacks a sense of emotional continuity. The script isn’t sure about what to do with Savitri beyond her provocations, a sentiment that also applies to the ecosystem she defines. In other words, I miss the good old days when rural women-driven dramas could only go wrong in two ways. Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo scrapes through that exam but fumbles the basics – the cinematic equivalent of a tennis player upsetting top-ranked legends in the first two rounds only to be defeated by a journeyman in the third. 

Saas Bahu Aur Flamingo Review by Suchin

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