By Maya Palit
A new web series called ‘It’s Not That Simple’ was released in October. Directed by Danish Aslam and starring Swara Bhaskar, it is a show that examines extramarital affairs in contemporary urban India from the perspective of the female protagonist Meera. A stay-at-home mum in a dud marriage with a possessive male chauvinist pig, the first episode begins with her getting a bikini wax, waiting for her lover in the lobby of a fancy hotel and spilling her plans to embark on an affair: “Saath aath minute mein mera status change hone wala hai. [In about seven minutes my status is going to change]. From committed to complicated. From sati-savitri types to affair-karne-wali types.”
From the opening and the multiple descriptions of the show by its creators, it is meant to be a comic approach to a woman in her thirties exploring her self and sexuality, which ridicules the overtly negative connotations that often accompany stories about infidelity. If the show had succeeded in doing this, it would have made a refreshing change, although there have been other intriguing departures from the judgemental narrative: just earlier this year, in fact, Zindagi’s Aadhe Adhoore was applauded by Shohini Ghosh for being unapologetic in its portrayal of a controversial affair. However, she pointed out that the writers gave in to the outraged clamouring of viewers (unlike what this survey on infidelity suggests, they did equate her cheating with dishonour) who demanded that the woman get a come-uppance for her actions. It’s Not That Simple provides another disappointing end (or in this case, mid-point, as there are three episodes yet to air), albeit for different reasons. It fizzles out just around the point that you realise that Meera thinks of herself as Betty Cooper, the bland giggly teenager from the Archies comic book series, and the show doesn’t recover from this, because the love triangle is just about as stereotyped as it is in the comic and none of the characters are likeable.
And then you meet Archie and Reggie. Played by Akshay Oberoi and Vivan Bhatena, they are two maddeningly posh, hyper-masculine, testosterone-boosted guys who were the studs in Meera’s school and whose life’s purpose is to defeat the other in a race for her affection (when the bad guy isn’t womanising and riding a Harley around town and the nice guy isn’t being a good dad to his triplets or saving lives as a doctor). As as a viewer, there isn’t much that makes you root for either Harley or Honda (the nicknames they are given by their friends), so the chase becomes infinitely boring and doesn’t even leave room for cheap thrills. Much of the dialogue between characters is insipid as well: “We have grown up.” “That’s true.” “View kitna achha tha” (meaningful look), “View kitna achha hai” (soulful longing look). There’s a reason this dynamic was left behind in high school, and it leaves you wondering whether it would have been a Herculean effort for the writer of the show to be even marginally more imaginative. It is the sheer predictability of the narrative that traps the protagonist into replicating her persona from school, leaving very little scope for the protagonist to explore and push boundaries.
Although the intention was presumably to imagine an exciting other life for the character, a far cry from the conventional roles of doting mother and compromising wife that were foisted on to her, her Betty Cooper act is so tedious that the portrayal of her unsatisfactory life at home ultimately becomes the most interesting part of the show. Her arguments with her husband are clichéd enough and don’t make for immensely powerful scenes but they do capture significant truths about the everyday in miserable dead-end relationships, the resentment over past compromises, the perfunctory sex. It’s also the only time there is an apparent effort to add complexity to her personality: she is resigned and stoical about foregoing a career but also brusque and sarcastic and sometimes, guilty and confused in her dealings with her husband.
The show claims to be an exploration of urban India, but it hardly shows anything of Mumbai besides flashy hotels and upmarket flats, so it is hardly surprising that the lives depicted lack any animation. Unlike some critics, I don’t think the problem is that the show has “an imbalanced view of relationships” because it gives you a one-sided perspective and doesn’t delve into the “cuckolded” husband’s inner emotional life. It’s the opposite — the description of the show promises many things about self-discovery and emancipating yourself from the tedium of a bad marriage, including that Meera is looking for an “affair with herself”, but we never see this happen. Having a ‘strong female lead’ for a web series doesn’t cut it anymore, especially as there has been a recent proliferation of those in digital media. How about giving her some interesting events to grapple with as well?