In the penultimate episode of Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, Netflix's newest Indian reality TV experiment, filmmaker Karan Johar asks its four protagonists the question each one of us have thought about at least once: "Why the fuck would I wanna watch a show about four women who don't have jobs?" The 40-something Bollywood wives at the centre of the proceedings are on a Sex and the City-inspired girls trip to Doha when they're confronted with this question. Each one of them pretends to be offended for a split second before replying to Johar (the filmmaker has also bankrolled the show) with a bunch of profanities as a counter to the world's presumptions about them. But even as they put on a performance of unaffectedness, none of them come to a clear conclusion as to why any viewer should invest in their lives enough to spend over four hours watching them on a reality show.
The question becomes all the more fundamental when you consider that their fame isn't cultivated by their personal success or the purpose they serve to the public. Instead, their fame is defined by association " to their star husbands, families, or lineage. For instance, Maheep Kapoor is married to Sanjay Kapoor, best known for being Anil Kapoor's brother; Bhavana Panday is the wife of Chunky Panday, who is the father of Ananya Panday; Seema Khan has two kids with Sohail Khan, the youngest brother of Salman Khan; Neelam Kothari Soni, a former Bollywood actress, is still remembered for being involved in the infamous blackbuck poaching case during the shooting of Hum Saath Saath Hain. Put simply, they make up the category of "Almost Famous" " people who stumble onto the stratosphere of fame not necessarily because it is meant for them but because it has the space to accommodate them.
In such a case, there is really one reason why we would want to watch the Almost Famous " they make for sensational TV, an excavation of human behaviour at its entertaining best. The expectation is that because they're not dependent on maintaining the image of a celebrity, they'll be less self-aware, less polished, and ultimately less politically correct. That they will offer their personal selves up on a platter for vicarious embarrassment, a phenomenon that has now become the cornerstone of modern reality TV. That is to say, the viewer in turn, is guaranteed to derive enjoyment out of witnessing these wealthy strangers embarrass themselves with their obsessions, eccentricities, and insecurities. The implication in a sense, is that nothing would be off limits.
The reality is altogether the opposite: I don't remember seeing a reality show so dedicated to being guarded as the Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, which ironically borrows its DNA from Keeping up With the Kardashians and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Here's what we're told about these four women: They've been friends for over two decades, run their own businesses like one would partake in summer flings, seem to be surrounded by immensely successful friends (Gauri Khan, Ekta Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Janhvi Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Karan Johar) whose celebrityhood eclipse their combined fame, and are collectively unapologetic about leading "fabulous" lives. Except the show " tackily and heavily staged " never fully commits to showing the extent of the intricacies, the behind-the-scenes of each of these intersections. There's a curious gatekeeping to the proceedings that limits just how much can be revealed about their lives, which takes the very fun out of feasting on the lives of one-percenters. Even when the four leads seem to be embarrassing themselves, like putting on a spray tan before going to the pool in order to get tanned or indulging in a nonsensical catfight, there's a degree of self-consciousness to it. As a result, the provocation feels sanitised and repetitive (Neelam's fears about making a comeback is milked to the point of exhaustion), which is arguably the worst affront for a reality show.
Back in 2007, when Keeping up with the Kardashians, one of the earliest shows to make stars out of the Almost Famous, debuted on TV with its impossibly addictive first season, a single moment altered the language of pop-culture voyeurism: When Khloe Kardashian, the youngest of the Kardashian sisters was on her way to jail after being arrested for driving under the influence, her elder sister Kim Kardashian was busy taking selfies of herself, unbothered by the severity of the moment. "Kim, would you stop taking pictures of yourself? Your sister is going to jail!," her mother Kris Jenner yelled in vain. This moment underlined the two crucial grounds behind the show's two-decade long popularity: the Kardashians always knew how to earn the viewer's attention instead of simply demanding it. But more importantly, they never let the viewer remember that a camera is ever following them.
The Fabulous wives of Bollywood on the other hand, never get comfortable with the idea that they have to live their lives on camera. Besides Maheep, who is prone to breaking into profanities to show affection, disgust, and anger, none of the wives make it seem like they're saying exactly what is on their mind. There's also the fact that their struggles " body-image issues, lack of ambition, helicopter parenting " don't exactly make for engrossing TV. There's no greater evidence of it than the fact that every amusing moment on the show is supplied by its external characters, like Ananya Panday revealing that she used to think that her name was "Fuck" when growing up because her parents sweared so much around the house or Jahaan Kapoor, the 15-year-old son of Maheep Kapoor, being convinced that he wants to be a Bollywood actor despite not knowing how to speak Hindi. It is these sequences that come the closest to understanding the whole idea behind watching the lives of others: calculating the immense distance between them and our own lives. But for some reason, Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives seems hellbent on telling us that their lives, irrespective of their privilege and affluence, is just like ours. Now why would I want to see a show about four wealthy middle-aged women who complain about the same thing as me?
(All images from Twitter)