This weekend I watched two shows on Amazon Prime which were like cultural inversions of each other – Four More Shots Please and A Suitable Girl. They reinforced my beliefs that Indian culture is a tale of at least two (if not more) civilizations, that coexist like planets in the same solar system, occasionally brushing each other like strangers in orbit, but never really meeting.
And, I became even more convinced that the distortive mirrors of Bollywood fail to depict Indian women with the nuanced respect they deserve.
Four More Shots Please is an original Amazon series based in Mumbai, India’s ‘sin and sex city.’ It depicts a quad of ‘liberated, educated, gainfully employed (or not), bar hopping, shot drinking, middle class women who indulge in a fascinating potpourri of X-rated behavior that, unfortunately, is only mildly shocking by today’s standards, (Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan’s Amazon series broke the censorship ceiling on Indian shows!) The pole opposite of this show is the alternate universe of A Suitable Girl, an award-winning documentary, that follows the lives of three middle class Indian women as they hunt for husbands with their mamas and papas in tow.
The protagonists in Four More Shots Please are aspirational young women; the show’s creator (Pritish Nandy’s daughter, Rangita Pritish Nandy) advertises the series as a modern take on Indian feminism. It thrives on its sense of frothy fun as the quad navigates what it means to be young and independent in a patriarchy that they imagine arches like an invisible cobra hood over their female heads. They do represent a certain .1 % slice of middle-class women in India – the ones with privileged seats and the best view of the stadium.
That being said, Four More Shots Please reels one in with its gossipy and brazen take on issues usually pushed out of sight, like lesbianism, bisexuality, sex and the single Indian woman, and whether no sex for four years leads to a growth of cobwebs over female vaginas.
The Gang of Four includes Damini, an investigative journalist who is compulsively obsessive about her single sex life – she will not allow any of her lovers to spend the night for fear of contamination. Anjana, a successful corporate lawyer is still fixated on her ex-husband; she shares custody of their daughter with him, but his new girlfriend is wooing their little girl with teddy bear pancakes – a major source of conflict for Anjana. Umang, a personal trainer, is muscled, tattooed, bisexual and unashamedly promiscuous; she has fled the terrors of an arranged marriage in Ludhiana to work in a Mumbai gym. Finally Siddhi, the most outwardly submissive of the crew, has a chic, body-shaming mother who is obsessed with marrying off her daughter before, (mama predicts), she blows up into a fat-encased balloon.
Female bonding at their local bar is an act of mental striptease and catharsis; the girls talk about their sexuality, their loves, the famously oppressive patriarchy (which doesn’t seem to have stifled their lifestyle in the least), and flirt with the bartender. The screenplay weaves between thoughtful and revealing, with some authentic discussions about issues women can relate to, but pretentious and preachy at others times. It’s exciting to see Indian shows opening the door to taboo topics that range from how single, professional women in India navigate dating and sex in the metropolis, to divorced women dealing with child custody issues when the ex acquires a new girlfriend.
Along with the clichés there are some genuinely hilarious moments. Siddhi goes on a date arranged by her mother, with a rich, self-absorbed suitor who happens to have a foot fetish. But when she stands on the seat to stick her head out of the sunroof in his BMW, Siddhi accidentally bashes his nose in as he drools over her feet. The entertainment quotient for this series holds for a while, but slowly, drop by drop, its shallowness and repetitiveness becomes wearisome.
If only there was a backbone of substance to its allegedly feminist message. If only the women weren’t dolled up constantly in the latest fashions, coiffed to perfection, not a hair out of place as they prance on the dance floor, or moan about their ex’s new girlfriend. It seems that (as the series title indicates), the instant, easy solution to all the obstacles in their lives is guzzling shot after screechy shot, delivered by a tattooed, cynical, and sexy barman in a pumped up, floodlit bar.
It’s hard to believe that A Suitable Girl exists in the same dimension as Four More Shots Please.
In this absorbing documentary, we meet three, young, middle class husband hunters. They range from Dipti, a plump schoolteacher who lives with her parents in a cramped flat on Mumbai’s outskirts, to Ritu, a financial advisor at Ernst and Young, whose family owns a swanky apartment in an upscale, Mumbai building. There’s Amrita from Delhi, who is already engaged, but hopes fervently that she’ll be allowed to put her MBA degree to some use after marriage.
A Suitable Girl won the Best New Documentary Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival, in Manhattan.
The documentary follows the real-life experiences of arranging a daughter’s marriage over four years and does so with a lot of empathy and humor. Much of the humor is situational – like the Swayamvara organized by the Rotary club in Dipti’s neighborhood, where dozens of hopeful bachelors present themselves to three women (including Dipti), and their families. The bachelors are seated in rows of chairs arranged like a schoolroom, with the girls and their mothers and fathers on a stage up front. They rise one by one and nervously announce their names, ages, and occupations, while the young women studiously write down the names of suitors who look promising enough to interview further.
Ritu’s mother is a professional Alliance Consultant (a euphemism for the modern metro matchmaker,) who refers to families by the amounts they are willing to spend on weddings – ‘the 500,000-dollar party’ or the ‘100,000,000-dollar party.’ Clearly worried about finding a match for Ritu who is slim but not fair, she sighs, “All the boy needs to do is have money, but the girl must be slim and fair.”
Amrita marries a boy she has liked since 10th grade in a lavish wedding, but her ambition to use her MBA is thwarted; her middle class marriage shows her running her in-law’s kitchen, cooking traditional food and displaying her massive sari collection – now she only wears saris prescribed by her mother-in-law for each occasion.
After the shot drinking, swearing, and sex-life discussions in Four More Shots, I couldn’t help noticing how different the two worlds depicted in these two shows were, and yet, in many ways, how similar. While the women in A Suitable Girl are clear that their identity will be defined by marriage and family, and don’t actively resist their fate, the girls in Four More Shots seek the same type of validation, but, from their peers. They want to be seen as emancipated norm smashers and fearless feminists, but the norms they chase are superficial -drinking, smoking and sex.
When Damini confronts her mother about a remark on on women and glass ceilings, what sounds like an adult tantrum blows over – no boats are rocked, no ceilings shattered. When Umang encounters a Bollywood Diva at the gym, she backs off from reprimanding her for breaking a gym rule because she has a crush on her. Siddhi doesn’t resist her mother’s attempts to arrange her marriage, but neither does she try to get a job to demonstrate her independence. Her rebellion is sly and sluttish – she launches a website where she strips for strangers and revels in their drool over her curves.
The women in Four More Shots Please rage about gender and workplaces biases but do little else for systemic change. In real life there actually are compelling stories of women turning patriarchy on its head.
In Ranikhet, for example, Mala Srikant, a divorced, retired army doctor started a knitting circle for poor, illiterate women, often with abusive, alcoholic husbands. They learn to knit to supplement their meager incomes and along the way, they’ve learned self-confidence, financial independence, and the power of talking about shared taboos and pain. Their grassroots feminism is turning the oppressive patriarchy of their Uttarakhand villages into a matriarchy as they become the financial support of their families and stand up against unjust customs.
If the producers of Four More Shots Please hadn’t projected their show as a bold, feministic statement, I would have no problem with its lightweight forays into the world of social privilege and mild cultural oppression. While A Suitable Girl wins four stars for authenticity, Four More Shots Please has a long way to go, before it lives up to its reformist platform.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal , contributing editor at India Currents