Director: Sonam Nair
Writers: Punya Arora, Nandini Gupta, Sonam Nair, Anupama Ramachandran
Cast: Neena Gupta, Masaba Gupta, Neil Bhoopalam
Cinematographer: Aditya Kapur
Editor: Shruti Bora
Streaming on: Netflix
Some of us like to imagine our lives through the lens of our favourite movie genres. For example, I imagine my dry existence told in the language of the dreamy-misfit movie. The voiceover reeks of poker-faced French-ness: When he finally gathered the courage to meet a human, he kept thinking of the smudge on his laptop screen back home. Similarly, if you look at how digital influencers function online, it's clear that most of them adopt the Sex and the City aesthetic. (My theory: SATC was the definitive long-form Instagram story before Instagram was ever invented, but that's for another day.). They like to imagine that the camera is always on them, capturing their little-girl-in-big-city gaze in witty, self-reflective chapters. They view their own independence, relationships, thoughts and experiences through the glossy lens of urban rom-com characters.
In Masaba Masaba, the auto-fictional series starring the titular fashion designer, Masaba Gupta is presented as a Mumbai-based Carrie Bradshaw. She's not a writer, but we hear the voice in her head ("Did that just happen?" Cut to post-sex: "Yes, that just happened"). At times, there's an overlap and you don't know if she's speaking or thinking. She's newly single. She runs her own label. Every man in her life is neatly packaged: The Flimsy Ex-Boyfriend, the Tender Ex-Husband, the Eccentric Artist Who Rolls His Own Cigarettes, The Socially Awkward Boss. She has a girl gang of sorts. She makes up with her loved ones by posting supportive Insta stories about them. She has a bittersweet equation with her mother, Hindi film actress Neena Gupta. The writing would like us to believe that a woman losing control is endearing and sexy. The background score would like us to believe that every day brings with it a quirky set of circumstances. The acting would like us to believe that privilege is a complicated mistress.
Yet, it's tragically ironic that a series unfurling on the fringes of Bollywood has the depth of a Page 3 article. The easy vibe of a romantic comedy is deceptively difficult to pull off. The narrative style – that merges life with a young perception of life – relies on timing, rhythm, energy and extravagance. But Masaba Masaba tries too hard: to be funny, to be cool, to be introspective, to be natural. Almost everything about it feels derivative and awkward. Nobody except Neena Gupta looks comfortable on screen. The cameos are particularly strange. Kiara Advani, as herself, plays a diva on the lines of K3G's Poo, but instead of parodying the character she sounds like she's parodying people who parody the character. Farah Khan plays herself too, a director obsessed with losing weight; we see her speak to a life-size Katrina Kaif cut-out for an entire scene before a meeting. Shibani Dandekar plays a pretentious artist, and so on. These might have seemed like good-natured jibes on paper, but the execution is poor.
The screenplay is too shallow for a 2020 production. For example, the first episode is based on a blind item of Masaba's crumbling marriage. Yet, many aspects of the series – like Pooja Bedi playing a paranoid "superstar wife" and life coach in a bungalow called "Jannat" – invoke the essence of blind-item entertainment. You can almost hear every other scene ask: Guess who? Then there's the visual grammar. Husband and wife get into separate cars that take opposite turns at a T-junction to depict their separation. Masaba's voiceover goes "Love doesn't always follow a straight line" and we see her walking down a straight road after announcing her divorce. When Masaba feels like a child again, we literally see a little girl reacting in some shots. Terms like "Big Dick Energy" and "Hot Mess" are paraded around with the spirit of millennials educating boomers. A fashion show ends with a model vomiting over a showstopper who's just been dumped. Even chaos and conflict feel like hashtags. It's all too #basic. It's all so 1998.
Not surprisingly, some of the nicer moments of Masaba Masaba feature her mother. The parallel thread has Neena Gupta doing her own little biographical jig – as an overbearing mother, but also as a 60-year-old actress struggling to land meaty roles in a male-dominated industry. The arc is lovely, and true to the actress' sprightly social media presence: Her post asking for work goes viral, she lands a priceless hip-hop video ("Aunty kisko bola re?") with digital star Mithila Palkar, and then a co-lead with Gajraj Rao (the only cameo that matters) in Badhaai Ho. It all happens simultaneously to Masaba's designer universe, and I couldn't help but wonder why the makers didn't just switch perspectives and make a series called Neena Neena. That's the story I'd pay to watch. Given Masaba Gupta's primary complaint in the series – that the mother never allowed her to live life on her own terms – I almost feel cruel to say that. In a better series, it might have passed off as method storytelling. But in this one, it's just unfortunate poetry.