Maybe “camp” is too respectful a word for Bestseller. But the essence of camp — to be drawn to the very thing you are offended by, to revel in artifice and logical freefall in today’s climate where art is realism, to be confused by your own instincts, to be confused by that of the world around — is very much here. It taps into that desire to be “alive to a double sense in which things can be taken”, as described by Susan Sontag in Notes On Camp.
It is stupid. It is splendid. It is ridiculous. It is ridiculously fun. Wazir (Arjan Bajwa) is a writer unable to write. Writer’s block is convenient, because the writers of Bestseller — Ravi Subramanaian’s novel The Bestseller She Wrote, credited in this show without the “The”, adapted by Anvita Dutt and Althea Kaushal — and the writer in Bestseller are equally lost, grasping at logic only as a final resort. As though it never occurred to them to make sense from the very beginning. Wazir crosses paths with Meetu (Shruti Haasan) who has three slashes across her wrist — each from a different story. (Yes, yes, extremely disrespectful and reductive about suicide, etc. etc. but no, this aren’t attempts at suicide, as we will be told, and definitely not a show invested or interested in respectable writing.) Wazir decides to plagiarize her life into his second novel.
Wazir has a strained marriage with an ad filmmaker Mayanka (Gauahar Khan) who is dealing with her own professional highs dampened by her personal lows. Soon, Meetu is attacked. Parth (Satyajeet Dubey), Mayanka’s intern with intentions of his own looks askance at all the happenings. He is a hacker, so green text keeps flowing down his screen, because, he is a hacker and hackers have green text flowing down their screens, like acid rain, frantic typing, clap, clap, webcam disabled, clap, clap, access to a webcam of another laptop, clap, clap, inserting text warnings into another laptop remotely, like lipstick across a mirror. The broth thickens when a CID officer Lokesh Pramanik (Mithun Chakraborty) walks in — the spiritual descendent of inspector Robert D’Costa (Anil Kapoor) from Race, with the penchant for fruit and food intact.
This is the kind of show where two characters don’t kiss as much as tilt their heads in opposite directions as the camera catches the jet black back of their heads like two intersecting eggs, where “fuck” is both word and punctuation, where Twitter is Tweeker and YouTube is TubeShube, where we don’t know if the bad wigs are intentionally ironic or just bad hair and make-up (Mithun Chakrobarty, looking at your team here), where irony is both intended and unintended, where a cigarette is both swag and sin, where everyone has a backstory — the person investigating, the person being investigated, and the person for whom it is being investigated. The kind of show where they are so confident in the compelling quality of their outrageous drama, they write in a scene just to plug in Fleabag, also streaming on Amazon Prime Video, or the quick delivery of Amazon Prime parcels. Why not? The suckers are sucked in, let them endure some Amazon propaganda, too.
The camera lingers at the forehead of characters to establish tension, from below in an askew angle to establish doubt. We have seen this gimmick before. Full of characters who will ask, “Poochon kyun,” only to answer the kyun-ness of the statement themselves. Full of morally twisted characters — where good people are vengeful and bad people are chipped away at slowly. Sympathy is slippery, you fall everywhere.
The problem is — okay, maybe it isn’t a problem as much as it is a feature of this style of storytelling — the acting is uniformly awful, even as it is aware of its pitch. (Meetu asks Wazir, “Aap kahani likh rahe hai bas in choton pe?”, even as Bestseller is doing just that, fashioning characters entirely on past trauma. Meta, noh? No?) Shruti Haasan has eyes always flared, glossed lips always apart in mock doubt. You are waiting for her naive, stuttering character to unpeel and produce a seething siren. When the transformation finally happens, you wonder, was her forced quivering as the naive belle intentional or incidental? Was the bad acting actually good acting? Is it stupid of me to even ask this question, for as Sontag wrote, “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about camp.”
Swerve your attention to this exchange between Mayanka and Wazir. Mayanka is wondering why Meetu is laying her life story bare to Wazir, speaking of her abusive father and bloodletting childhood. Mayanka asks, “Daddy issues?”, to which Wazir replies, “Who’s your daddy?”
Forget the jarring tonal shift for a second, from mock worry to mock eros. Think of Bajwa on set, being given this dialogue, this scene. What does he think? Where does he pitch himself? Should he take it seriously, play it casual or play it sleazy? How sleazy? How lifeless?
I find it funny that for a medium that is built on the foundation of writing, with a source material that comes from a novelist, the writer character in Bestseller is a plagiarizing, lost, angry, alcoholic, vain philanderer who gets a book advance of a crore. (Novelists on Twitter were not having it.) It is not that the writer figure needs to be real or realistic — screw realism, truly — but what is it about the writer character that actual writers glower and rub their hands in excitement, creating this “nihayati ghatiya insaan” in the image of their profession? What self-hating instinct is this? First Decoupled, then Gehraiyaan, then this. Representation matters, noh?
Fine. It perhaps doesn’t, but when do we get good writers writing good writers? It’s not a gesture of empowerment I seek as much as exasperation I experience at what I have seen so far.
Even as the slobbering continues, there are certainly sparks in the mud puddle (in this metaphor, I am the pig). This line, for example — “Jab ghat mein janm ho, toh umr ki ginti bhi janmon mein hi hoti hai, sir.”To live in a place where time is stretched, age is abstract.
But the writing needed more drama, less metaphors for its campy melodrama to land. Bestseller sludges towards silly suspense. I wish I had been shocked. I wanted to be shocked, hands cupped at my mouth. I wanted the ground to slip from under me. Not for me to fall towards the floor in a head-spin.