Writer: Suparn S Varma, Ritu Bhatia
Producer: Tanveer Bookwala,
Director: Prashant Bhagia
In the first chapter of Shakuntala Devi’s pioneering The World Of Homosexuals (1997), she is in conversation with a gay man, trying to understand what same-sex love — consummated in hiding, expressed in side-eyed fear — looks like. Then the man throws a bombshell, that he is soon going to be married to a girl. Devi loses her cool for a bit, “The whole thing sounds so cruel to me — to marry a girl knowing very well that you can’t make her happy.”
The man rubbishes her concern, saying she is thinking like a foreigner, that in India “marriage is a commercial arrangement…All that’s expected is mere conformity… that there’ll be in the marriage, rest assured.” That even if this is cruel, what is much more cruel would be to let down his parents at their old age.
It is this double-edged sword of cruelty that makes homosexuality in a heterosexual marriage such a morally unresolved question. ALT Balaji and Zee5 dived into lesbian love in post-Babri Delhi with The Married Woman. There the sword was, in a sense triple edged, because the wife who seeks a female lover outside of her marriage is oppressed into hetersoexuality by society, and into docility by her in-laws, and into infidelity by her female lover. This lover is a “free spirit”, and so it makes homosexual love almost emancipatory. She has kids in the show, though they don’t make much of a narrative fuss, almost as if they were props.
In His Storyy ALT takes the gaze gay-wards in present day Mumbai. Sakshi (Priyamani Raj) and Kunal (Satyadeep Misra) are married for 20 years and have two kids — one jerk-jock-like and one journalist-like. At the outset it looks like a happy marriage where they are also professional partners — Sakshi is a head chef and Kunal is into hospitality. Sakshi sits at the head of the table, and no fuss is strewn. But soon the cracks show.
They haven’t had sex in six months, and by the end of the first episode, it is established that Kunal is having a gay affair on the side, with Preet (Mrinal Dutt). By the second episode, it is established that it isn’t just an affair — the connect is deeper, three years and running. By the third episode, someone begins to have doubts about Kunal and Preet. And by the fourth episode, as its title goes, “It all comes crumbling down”. The rest of the show is how they as a couple, as a family, as civil members of a society, pull themselves together. The two children and their life at school play as foils to the adult lives unraveling — homophobic bullying, the fag hag support system, coming into one’s own, and the fear of being outed.
I want to meet the person who is moved by the sex-education class on feminist contraception at the end of a threesome soft-porn episode of Gandii Baat.
I love that queer stories are being told, I hate that they often come with thick-malai moral coating. So much of telling a story is expressing the politics of it, as if the story isn’t enough — to show two men kissing cannot be it, there must be a conversation around it, with two sides vocalizing disgust and counter-disgust. Why? Perhaps the series takes on itself the additional mantle of education as well as entertainment. But I am skeptical about the educational aspect, which makes me skeptical about the didactic heft ALT shows take upon themselves. I want to meet the person who is moved by the sex-education class on feminist contraception at the end of a threesome soft-porn episode of Gandii Baat.
The melodrama that is a direct aesthetic descendant of the soap-opera Balaji Telefilms feels stuck here. Melodrama should heighten emotions, it shouldn’t bury them under it. When a homophobic father takes his effeminate son to meet his mistress so she can “make him a man”, how much of it is to be taken seriously? They seem like characters without any semblance of characterization.
The problem with a moral storytelling is that it gets so lost in the weeds of sounding right, it forgets to sound real. One of the criticisms Geeli Puchi has rightfully gotten is its on-the-nose dialogues, which the maker Neeraj Ghaywan has responded to, “In the interest of bringing things to light I guess we have to compromise on some nuance. Sometimes it is inevitable.” But what if the entire show is a compromise on nuance?
They keep using the word “khushi” as if to mean some sort of spiritual happiness, cleaved of any sexual connotation. Preet as a character is so watery and unthought of, like the lesbian lover in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga — a mere foil figure — that I was baffled that in the last episode, he is suddenly given opinions and a spine. It makes no sense narratively speaking. Streaming shows must stop using such forced open-endings as a way to “complicate the narrative”. It doesn’t work, because for the most part, it isn’t deserved. Even the jock-jerk child who has an abusive streak doesn’t feel even faintly resolved.
One of the smaller offenders in the show is there is no sense of these characters existing outside the show. We are told Preet and Kunal have been seeing each other for three years and yet there was not a single eyebrow raised until now? We are told Kunal and Sakshi have had a happy marriage till his homosexuality is out in the open, and yet we have no idea what this “happy marriage” was, if Kunal was gay the whole time.
There is only so much actors can do with such characters. Satyadeep Misra has this weathered look, like he’s just too tired, too wrecked to fight more. It is easy to see this as indifference, and there are moments where you just wanted him to do more, be more. But that is the character. Priyamani Raj is burdened with the worst of lines. The moment she finds out her husband is gay is played up so much, it refuses to be either moving or mourning. Both Misra and Raj have a track record of working well with dialogues that have an ease of telling. But the moment they are given dialogues that try-hard, like Raj’s forced Tamil in Family Man, like Misra’s masochism in Bhram, the acting falters
The show sparks into life in fits and starts, and when it does it really works. There’s a beautiful moment when Sakshi thinks that if Kunal had left her for a woman, the society would hate him. But that he left her for a man now makes him brave. But then this whole realization is an internal monologue, a narrative device that is used maybe twice or thrice through the 11 episode show per-convenience of the writer. Even the goodness of the show is girded by its criticism— that even when it works, it just doesn’t.