With films like Socha Na Tha (2005), Jab We Met (2007), and Love Aaj Kal (2009), writer-director Imtiaz Ali had cemented his position as the pir of passion, who saw love as essentially the same — a nauseous, spiritual longing — irrespective of the generation or the gender.
In 2014, Ali (now divorced) said in an interview to the Times Of India, "Marriage reduces you to a ch****a version of yourself" and I remember wondering, as many who were still imbricated in his craft at that time did, what might be next for this artist because it was so easy to see his films as erupting from his emotional state.
With both She — which is about a woman who discovers her sexuality, confidence, and power over men simultaneously — and now in Dr. Arora, it seems sex, not love, is at the centre of any lasting relationship that Ali presents. It is an ideological reset for him. If love stories have their grammar, lust stories, too, need one. Dr. Arora might be a stab at it. But this doesn't cut it.
In his films since 2014, Ali has struggled to balance the spiritual longing of love with the sporadic, expendable sexual urge. Suddenly sex became more important, a narrative milestone, even as it was still tethered and subservient to love. Think of Tara (Deepika Padukone) and Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) first hooking up in Tamasha (2015) bringing an end to the idyll; of how Harry's (Shah Rukh Khan) relationship with the feminine in Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017) is entirely sexual until he meets Sejal (Anushka Sharma); of how the backstory of Raghu (Randeep Hooda) in Love Aaj Kal (2020) was about his ravenous sexual appetite destroying any possibility of love.
With streaming, we enter a new bend in the journey of Ali's storytelling. It is love now that is subservient to sex, which assumes the shape of something larger, more devastating, and more deserving of attention. Even the doors to the houses in Dr. Arora, which is about a small-town, middle-aged sex doctor (Kumud Mishra), don't say "Welcome", but "Wel-come".
Written by Imtiaz Ali, Sajed Ali, Arif Ali, Divya Prakash Dubey, and Divya Johri; directed by Sajid Ali and Archit Kumar; and created by Imtiaz Ali, the eight-part show follows Dr. Arora, a lonely man who travels cities by train (another recognizable Imtiaz Ali stamp). Between Morena, Jhansi, and Agra on quiet nights, he sits by the window after a long day of work, reading as the train lugs from one city to the next, parceling him off to an empty bed. Doesn't it sound quaint?
In Kumud Mishra's eyes is desire, yet all I could see was a heaving desperation. Is the inability to distinguish one from the other located in his age? His looks? The stalking tendencies of his character?
He gets embroiled in the life of an IAS officer (Vivek Mushran), a small-time political goon (Gaurav Parajuli), a newspaper editor (Vivek Mushran), a sex-help guru (Raj Arjun), among other colourful characters — whose colour comes not from their job itself, but how the job is embedded in the small-town mindscape of gossipy grape vines and exaggerated character traits. It's trying to pull humour out of pathos like loose teeth. There is an oddball charm to these sketches and the language ("Ling mulayam hai" to describe a flaccid penis), one that is best captured in Ishaan Chhabra's whistling opening credits, but the show meanders in different directions and sexual dyfunctions — swapna dosh or nightfall, sheeghrapatan or premature ejaculation, among others — dabbling in different genres, refusing to rise beyond the inventive story on paper, and in fact crumpling it entirely. Ultimately, Dr. Arora is much more rewarding to speak about, write about, think about, than watch, because it is not chasing feelings but ideas.
If, with his love stories, Ali was at the receiving end of brickbats that his women were jarringly confident, entirely servicing the journey of the men, pushing them over the ledge to either fly or fall, with his lust stories, Ali has a new problem. An overcompensating urge to paint all women as sexually confident, courageous, un-timid, unlike the men who have their self-esteem and sexual appetite entirely wound up together. Erectile dysfunction in Hindi, is called "Namardi", and the linguistic import of it — meaning not-manly — has its own psychological effects. So almost all the clients who come to Dr. Arora are men with sexual problems, either dragged by their wives, or reluctantly mewling, or disgruntled.
It is not that women don't come to him — they do, but under the impression that something is wrong with them, and it is because of them that they are not able to procreate or pleasure their husbands. But it is always the husband, the man, with whom the issue is. There is a pedestal-placing instinct towards women in the writing of this show that chafes against ideas of treating women as women, not goddesses.
The sexual marketplace is a hotbed of insecurity and sometimes, if you are lucky, pleasure. It is also fickle, since lust needn't be explained the way love often is. So, in this show, characters move around their feelings with an arbitrary ease that needs getting used to. Suddenly they fling themselves at lust, suddenly they retreat from it, suddenly they throb, suddenly they throttle. We often look for intent in action and if there is no intent? How do you tell a story then?
Besides, there is nothing spiritual about sex. You cannot gild sex with Rumi or Irshad Kamil (maybe Gulzar) the way Ali did with love.
Like in Love Aaj Kal (2020) where we see Zooey (Sara Ali Khan) walking drunk on Delhi streets at night, here too we have a woman, Dr. Arora's ex-wife (Vidya Malvade) — whom he is still hung up on 17 years after their parting — walking on lonely, barely-lit streets at night without a strain of horror or worry. For in this cocooned world that Ali created, one where a godman is essentially a sex-worker with women lining up for "darshan" — sex — we cannot even imagine its women at risk of sexual violation. Fitting then, that the worst thing that can happen to a sex-worker here is gonorrhea.
Dr. Arora displays stunning disregard for narrative necessities. The scene before the opening credits roll, one that usually revs up the engine and feels like a comforting semicolon moment in a show, is placed without rhythm or reason, neither leading up to nor coming down from a moment of drama that needs the reprieve of an opening credits song. There is nothing at the end of an episode to make you urgently want to know more; there is nothing at the end of the show that promises either closure or chaos. Characters don't develop as much as zig-zag through the show's terrain. It's like watching paint dry. There might be a poetic impulse here, but it is essentially an exercise in boredom.
Kumud Mishra's stoic, stern demeanor in front of his clients — one that slowly melts into desperation when he lays eyes on his ex-wife — is a performance whose power and pain comes from not drawing attention to itself. There is an uncomfortable scene towards the end of the show — a discomfort which makes you point fingers at yourself, your biases — where he is finally shown having sex, with the cemra placed below him.In Mishra's eyes is desire, yet all I could see was a heaving desperation. Is the inability to distinguish one from the other located in his age? His looks? The stalking tendencies of his character? He spent 17 years trying to get a woman back, staring at her house from his train's window seat — also the name of Ali's production house — and now that he has her under him, why does it feel lecherous? Why does the show swerve away from romance so easily? There is this toxic cynicism at the heart of this show that you cannot but be doubtful of. Cynical cinema, cynical streaming is the worst kind of cinema, worst kind of streaming.
Besides, there is nothing spiritual about sex. You cannot gild sex with Rumi or Irshad Kamil (maybe Gulzar) the way Ali did with love. Which is, perhaps, why in both She and Dr. Arora, Ali moved away from love stories and rooted them in alternative genres — thriller and comedy. The irony is that the very thing that collapsed for these shows was the genre. If he stayed with the feeling, cutting the flab of shrill comedy or punchy shootouts, giving into Niladri Kumar's music that comes, rarely, as a narrative breeze, perhaps, something seething could have been felt. Instead, Ali gifts us the most fatal thing a show can gift: ennui.