If you are already a fan of Rasika Dugal's acting, chances are you are going to fawn over her even more if you get around to seeing Out Of Love, Hotstar's newest original five-episode miniseries with Tigmanshu Dhulia (of Paan Singh Tomar-fame) and Aijaz Khan (remember the delightful Hamid?) in the directors' chair.
Unfortunately, there is not much else I can say about the series by way of recommendation. It belongs to Rasika alone, and even her wonderfully restrained and impeccably timed acting is often unequal to the task of saving Out Of Love from itself. It is a pity given the series has a relatively talented cast at its disposal, and is helmed by not just one but two directors with a demonstrable record of being adept at teasing out complex emotions from their actors and stories. So what went wrong, despite all the ingredients for, at the very least, moderate success?
Out Of Love suffers from the classic problem with adaptations " being so dogmatic about keeping the storyline intact it often nudges, if not openly crosses, the line that separates suspension of disbelief and outright absurdity. Much like Hotstar's other damp squib this year, the thoroughly tedious Hostages, Out Of Love too is so preoccupied with mirroring Doctor Foster, a Bafta-nominated 2015 BBC original, it forgets a story does not exist in a vacuum. It must be couched in layers within layers of socio-cultural realities for it to be believable " and relevant " to the audience it is trying to entrance.
Set in Coonoor, Out Of Love wants us to believe that the theatre of infidelity " and it is always theatrical " and the unraveling of its protagonists' marriage would play out exactly the same way in a small town in India as it would in a town skirting London. When you start with such an overreaching assumption, sooner or later, you are bound to irritate the audience with the storytelling liberties it forces you to inevitably take. Sometimes, the best way to adapt a story is not by replicating its tension, but by reimagining its characters' motivations while holding on to its essence. That is the job of a good screenplay writer. Out Of Love misses the mark by a long shot on all these counts.
Meera (Rasika) and Akarsh (Purab Kohli) Kapoor have a seemingly perfect life. Within the first scene itself, we are made aware of their explosive physical chemistry. They have been together for 13 years but they have sex like a pair of mischievous newlyweds. She is a successful doctor. He is working on an ambitious real estate project. They have a son they dote on, and an ailing mother (Soni Razdan), who seems to get along better with the daughter-in-law than her own son. They are respected within their community and envied among friends " the couple that everyone looks up to.
All of that is thrown in disarray when Meera finds a lipstick in her husband's jacket, and a long hair, that is not hers, on his scarf soon after. She begins to wonder if he is having an affair, even as she chides herself for being so paranoid. But the seeds of doubt, now planted in her febrile imagination, will not be shaken loose so easily, and she finds herself regarding every woman around her husband with suspicion and mistrust, following him stealthily, and even snooping on his phone. As it turns out, her queasiness is not misplaced. Akarsh, is, indeed, having an affair. Meera finds out within the first episode itself, along with other shocking details of betrayal " and not just his alone. Through the remaining four episodes, she grapples with the knowledge, oscillating between anger and despair, as she makes her way through a web of lies that includes more than just the husband and wife in question.
Dugal is pitch-perfect as the rapidly unraveling Meera " her decline, from dependable physician to unstable woman coming apart at the seams is chilling, but believable. You can empathise with her every time she grips a pair of scissor too hard or yells shrilly, seconds before she forces herself behind her default serene facade. Dugal never misses a beat, the lone spark of life in a graveyard. In direct contrast is Kohli's Akarsh. Here is a character who lies silkily, cheats remorselessly, and absolves himself of any responsibility by claiming "human beings can't beat their biology" and "it's possible to love two people equally, and at the same time". He is the quintessential Mr Misunderstood, the proverbial cat who always lands on his feet. And yet, Kohli plays what had every making of an intriguing, emotionally complex character with a half-heartedness and insincerity that are unmatched, and, frankly, insulting to watch. Slapping melancholic, brooding music on the proceedings only serves to further irritate the viewer, not draw them in deeper.
Between Dugal and Kohli's two ends of the spectrum is a motley collection of characters. Backstabbing friends, more cheating husbands and jaded wives, troubled young women, an alcoholic mentor, a precocious son¦ If you are wondering whether Out Of Love would have found a more suitable home within the pages of a saucy Shobhaa De novel instead of a quiet hill station, you are not alone. I wondered about that at varying points during the roughly five-hour duration of the show. But I suppose that is the price you pay when too little thought and time is spent on questioning your script.
I would tell you not to waste your time on Out Of Love, but that would not be fair to Dugal. The final taut, tension-filled episode, when she finally reaches her breaking point, and is out to torch everyone with the fire that has been quietly flaming in her heart makes even sitting through Kohli's lackluster outing worthwhile. So I will leave you with this tip instead: watch, but be prepared to skip ahead " frequently, and without guilt.
Out of Love is now streaming on Hotstar.
All images from YouTube.