When Manu Joseph wrote, people reacted. That was eons ago. Now Manu Joseph writes so that people react. It’s a thin line. A look at his work – columns, essays, books – from the last five years will reveal a great thinker getting consumed by not just his own image but also by the urgency to think in today’s India. Decoupled, the new Netflix series written and created by him, is an empty vessel of modern Josephisms. Phrases like “honest wetness,” “happy men are just people with low standards” and “love is blowjob without condom” emerge in the final episode without a hint of irony. Decoupled is about an affluent Gurgaon couple flirting with the idea of divorce, but running through the show is an inexplicable desire to provoke for the heck of it. The problem is, if I call this series offensive, pretentious, smug, tone-deaf, unfunny, sexist, patronizing and oversmart – all of which it actually is – Decoupled is the kind of thing that seems designed to fault the viewer for being a woke, liberal and hypocritical snob. It seems like the sort of middle-aged thing that’s conceived to laugh at us for judging it. But the joke is on them for assuming the joke is on us.
Serious Men, the film based on Joseph’s 2010 novel, was self-aware enough to satirize the social satire. It also had a director who got the misanthropic gaze. Decoupled, directed by Hardik Mehta (Kaamyaab, Roohi), is not just buried by its insufferable humour but also by the jarring dissonance between the film-making and writing: It’s a satire that forgets to be satirical. The snark is played for comic laughs, not sarcastic sniggers. The consequence is one of the most randomly combative shows on Indian streaming in 2021 – or ever. At least the badness of Call My Agent evoked an errant child pretending to be an adult; Decoupled is an adult that pretends to pass off arrogance as unfiltered honesty. Writing in gags about Muslims, gays, trans people, maids, drivers, nationalists, kids, Bengalis, MeToo, women, wives, feminists and bodies under the pretext of “but this is how we really are!” is not brave but reckless posturing. It screams for attention. Having a semi-autobiographical protagonist who’s a misanthropic writer with a theory about everything is not edgy but annoying. Having a subplot about Netflix rejecting the writer’s pitch because “the jokes don’t land” is not meta but ignorant. And to think, even a fictional Netflix – from the real Netflix series – saw it coming.
If the ambition was to be Veep, the craft – of rhythm, perspective, timing, acting, editing, camerawork – is absent. For instance, novelist Arya Iyer (a woefully miscast R. Madhavan) asks the Northeast-Indian usher at a Vietnamese restaurant why she isn’t offended by the Asian appropriation of her looks. The punchline here is that Arya assumes she’s from Mizoram, to which she politely says Meghalaya, a ‘difference’ lost upon him while he poses the Vietnam question. Yet it’s performed and shot too self-consciously to let the joke land. I can imagine a poker-faced Julia Louis-Dreyfus pulling it off with obnoxious ease, with the irreverence dawning upon the viewer a few seconds after she says it. (The only half-amusing thing about Decoupled is Chetan Bhagat’s running cameo as Arya’s best-selling rival – which says something. Also, old Akash Khurana yelling “Am I in an Ayushmann Khurrana film?!” when he is asked to use a condom to have sex with his UTI-afflicted wife is… on point). Then there are the strange quirks that suggest the series thinks it’s ahead of its time when it’s actually a glorified Govinda comedy from the ‘90s – back when we used to grin at body-shaming, suicide-shaming and gender-shaming puns. Spoiler alert: we have evolved.
Let’s begin. The first episode features Arya’s inability to shake the hands of teenage boys because they masturbate a lot. There’s also his taunting of a Sikh soldier working the airport security queue (“You wore that dress for this?”), the sole purpose of which is to ‘expose’ the kind of overzealous Indians who yell at you for not standing up for the national anthem. I share the makers’ distaste for idiots, but calling out double standards with such crassness defeats the entire purpose of being ‘wiser’ to begin with. There’s an entire gag about Arya mistaking housemaids to be transwomen (there’s some intellectual backstage discourse about “eunuchs” first) at a live event – this, after he proposes his theory that Gurgaon wives hire “unattractive maids with inner beauty” on purpose. It also features a running ‘joke’ about Arya and wife Shruti (Surveen Chawla deserves better) repelled by their driver’s body odor, which in turn leads to a bunch of Parasite references and a scarcely believable scene where Arya invites his driver to a high-society art exhibition to eat a banana from an abstract installation. Bong Joon-ho should sue. In fact, we all should sue. There’s also a whole episode where Arya tries to hide the fact that his ex-girlfriend is “hot from the waist up only” from his wife – shot so half-heartedly that one can almost hear the director having second thoughts about the material he’s given. Never mind the time Arya, suspicious of a young air-hostess’ advances towards him, decides to “test if she’s a callgirl” by placing a wad of cash between them during a date; later, he gags at her armpit hair, and declares ‘men make women happy to get sex’ or something while gifting her an expensive necklace… where does one even begin? Making the viewers uncomfortable with ‘truth bombs’ is one thing, but the makers themselves being uncomfortable – including R. Madhavan, who’s visibly at odds with his character’s megalomania – almost induces viewer sympathy. It’s a losing battle, war, life.
It has to be said. These are not just uncouth grandfather-level gaffes but tragic blind-to-reality declarations that could shut down a movie studio in days. Decoupled is a show being pompous about its reading of Indian society – one that loses the plot so hard that it becomes as toxic as the air it mocks. The story is an afterthought; there is no character development, no reason for the couple’s North-South divide, no point or buildup to a lavish divorce party in Goa – it all feels so awkward, so incidental to the fact that Arya is built to be an armchair bullshitter. Let’s just say if Decoupled were a person, it’d be that contrarian troll who keeps writing long mansplaining comments on every status or tweet to show that he takes no side and detests everyone equally – only to be blocked by everyone, including the platform and the government and the users and the liberal elite. The troll feels triumphant, except there’s nobody left to hate on.