I always wondered where Rajshree Ojha went after directing Aisha (2010), a defining film and moment — the first time we saw fashion and style as integral and not peripheral to storytelling, where the flounce of the burnt-orange dress, bouncing to Amit Trivedi’s tango, and the emotional turmoil of jealousy competed for our attention. She’s back with Potluck.
Potluck is in the same emotional range — cool, compelling, catty, and eventually cathartic, but without overt strains of melodrama. Written by Ashwin Lakshmi Narayan and Gaurav Lulla, the 8-part show, follows 8 weekly potlucks of the Shastri family — Govind (Jatin Sial) and Pramila (Kitu Gidwani), their two sons Vikrant (Cyrus Sahukar) and Dhruv (Harman Singha), their daughter Prerna (Shikha Talsania), and their two daughter-in-laws Akansha (Ira Dubey) and Nidhi (Saloni Khanna). Over the course of the 8 episodes Prerna, a single woman, licking her wounds from a past breakup, finds a sweet Lucknow boy, the Parle-G to her Shrewsberry biscuits (Siddhant Karnick). He’s Muslim but this is a passing mention in a universe that doesn’t find any need to make more of it.
The weekly potluck is not a sweet tradition that organically developed, but an imposed gathering after Govind’s second heart attack — a way to get the family together, an emotional manipulation, but one that is taken to with grudging love that drags its feet but is okay to be there. There is no rancour.
But there are simmering tensions. Vikrant and Akanksha, with their three children, are less financially well off than the younger Dhruv and Nidhi, with no kids and no plans as such. But even here, there is no rancour, just a friction where one rents apartments while the other buys.
It takes a while to figure out the who is related to whom and how, because the degree of comfort between siblings and between in-laws aren’t too different. One of the daughter-in-laws, Nidhi, is a childhood friend of the Shastri kids so there are more inside jokes and references to childhood memories, while Akansha comes into the family through an arranged marriage — but the comfort and kindness each shares with the family doesn’t express this difference in obvious ways, at least in the initial episodes. There is also this icy kindness that doesn’t have that lived-in, bantering quality of siblinghood, which makes it difficult to figure out who is related by blood, and whom by betrothal — maybe it is the distance that adulthood brings in, or the austere acting. Who knows.
This doubt lurks in other places as well. Sometimes there are awkward interactions, and the dialogues don’t flow as well. The whole scene where Prerna goes on three dates at the same time has such a loose-ended, insubstantial quality. It’s hard to wonder if this is a criticism of the show’s acting and directing or the characterization of human interaction — which is sometimes awkward, sometimes profound, sometimes crackling, sometimes a dud. Towards the end of the show, especially the last episode where it embraces for the first time a kind of cloying melodrama, this awkwardness began to fester into a noticeable flaw.
But nothing kept me from buying into this world, and reveling in their small joys. This is a kind, cool universe where conflicts are the exception, despite personalities who are war-ready. (There is one big conflict that is set up around the 5th episode, which is patched over very lazily) For example, at one point Prerna tells her mother Pramila, “I am sorry ma but unlike your generation humne humari poori zindagi kitchen mein nahin bitayi.” The screener link began buffering right after this dialogue and I thought I was awaiting a soppy, cutting moment where the mother speaks of the privilege to grow up not expected to cook and clean and be marriage-ready. But as the show played, the dialogue was swept over with a kind, sarcastic comeback, and onwards and upwards it went.
Ira Dubey and Cyrus Sahukar, also paired as a fresh couple in Aisha, here bring a kind of couple-hood that isn’t resentful or bored after their three kids. We are told they have sinful Sundays, and the assumption is sex. But the reality is ice cream, basking in the glow of television. The show doesn’t, and perhaps isn’t designed to dig deeper psychologically, but I wondered what it is that got these two together in an arranged knot of marriage. Their respective professions, like those of everyone else on the show, are merely ornamental. We don’t see them work as much as perform work at the edge of dialogues. We don’t see them at the office, or in transit as much as we see them at home, together. Similarly, we are told that Prerna is a writer (the kind who has a typewriter as a prop in her room), but what she writes or has written isn’t shown or known. It’s irrelevant, because the point of the show is not to see them as individuals, but as a collective, how each of these individual personalities undercuts, papers over, pokes fun at, and props each other up.