Anjana (Kirti Kulhari), Damini (Sayani Gupta), Umang (Bani J) and Siddhi (Maanvi Gagroo) have sex before marriage, during marriage, after divorce, with men married to other women, with women. They get pregnant out of wedlock; juggle parenthood with careers; they swear, drink (copiously) and challenge the status quo. They are unapologetic about their educated, urban and privileged lifestyle. They easily slip out of their designer dresses, reject vanilla sex, show off their curves, tattoos, bountiful bodies and all.
Season two, with 10 episodes (on Prime Video), cements the coming of age of the youngest of this foursome. Siddhi Patel has had her sexual awakening but is still to discover herself completely. She stumbles into stand up comedy. The stage provides her—and the creators of the show—with a platform for touching on issues of the day, from dating and arranged marriages to body shaming and self-worth.
In one of the more powerful scenes, during a live act, Siddhi says, “The road to self-love is through self-hate.” She proceeds to share how she learnt to accept her size 10 body and how the concept of flawless beauty is so weak. She says, “So now when people ask me ‘Hey, Siddhi! What’s up?’ I just tell them: my self-esteem.”
Maanvi Gagroo, who plays Siddhi, admits that she had reservations about a character who appeared to have an unhealthy relationship with her body and with her mother. “I wanted to be sure that her issues were not just about her size but also about other things arising from that. She is self conscious, but she’s not just a plus-size girl who is always eating or the butt of self-deprecating humour.”
The newly confident Siddhi daunted Gagroo. “I was scared because going on a sex spree was the most clichéd and obvious turn for the character. But I also realised that this hesitation was coming from my inhibition as an actor because the sex goes from sweet (in season one) to animalistic and passionate (in this season’s opening episode). In fact, I told my mom to watch the new season from episode two onwards,” she says, laughing.
When Reese Witherspoon’s Elena says “vagina” in Little Fires Everywhere (on Hotstar) and explores her lady parts, we accept it as part of the character’s personality. But give Indian actors a similar vocabulary and actions, screaming “vagina” on Marine Drive as these Mumbai girls did, and we squirm.
This discomfort comes from years of conditioning. Women’s sexuality has long been kept sheltered and spoken of in whispers. Sex is for the pleasure of men or procreation and rarely about women’s needs and desires. Even Indian cinema largely depicts it as an act of violence, or as a dispassionate event.
“Our audiences are uncomfortable seeing Indian women having sex and enjoying it, or having ownership of their lives, but they are ok with it in Hollywood. This may not be the life of most Indian women but the girls in this show have education, agency and kinship. That is inspiring for other women,” says the second season’s director, Nupur Asthana.
“Sex is usually a means to an end, but in our show it is part of the narrative, which makes people uncomfortable,” says show creator Rangita Pritish Nandy. “We are not used to seeing women make choices or be on top. She is almost never being vocal or asking for what she wants. Even Siddhi fakes an orgasm to make her man feel good.”
This season, the show puts various issues front and centre—from sexual discrimination in the workplace to same-sex relationships, infidelity and freedom of expression. Asthana says mansplaining and being overlooked is something working women in India, including those in the entertainment industry, also face; this is addressed through the discrimination lawyer Anjana encounters at her firm. “We wanted to talk about things that are relevant to our present—issues that we have experienced or that people we know have experienced. By putting them in popular entertainment, you hope to normalise these conversations.”
Does it matter that these women have bottomless wardrobes and exaggerated sartorial personas? Does privilege preclude you from angst, bad judgment calls, from pain and conflict?
Nandy says the intent is to celebrate friendship and “the freedom to live beyond labels stuck on us”. Feminism is a label too, and while the show has previously been criticised for not being feminist enough, Nandy says the comments this time have been questioning the interpretation of feminism.
“Feminism is not a one-size-fits-all deal. Indian men are scared off by strong women, which is why this kind of conversation is largely driven by men,” says Nandy.
Asthana agrees: “The DP (display picture) of this troll brigade is mostly of (the film) Kabir Singh, which says it all. The discomfort comes from the fact that our show doesn’t check boxes of conventional notions of female empowerment. Is there only one way? If these girls were wearing ethnic clothes, would that be more palatable? To those who say this is not feminism – is feminism not about being equal and making your own decisions, right or wrong?”
“We are four women in the writers’ room,” adds Nandy. “We want to bring out what we are experiencing, in the age of Tinder dating, trolling and rising ideological polarisation. We are building in themes that are organic to the show. The compassion is towards the women and the men. Yes, it’s personal, but it connects emotionally, which is why a lot of men also get where the show is coming from.”