The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives: How To Find The Truth In Trash
I had no plans of watching this original “reality” series on Netflix. But when a friend from Delhi said I simply “had” to watch at least one episode, I thought, why not. That moment changed my life. Okay, maybe not my life, but it certainly has changed countless conversations, with a surprisingly high number of people who also, like me, binge-watched The Fabulous Lives Of Bollywood Wives, which I only then ended up finding out was (surprise, surprise) produced by Karan Johar. What can I say about Johar? I appreciate that the man has his hands everywhere, and he’s got his pulse at most times on what sells. But while the United States has Ellen DeGeneres hosting a talk show, Ryan Seacrest hosting award shows, and Andy Cohen producing The Real Housewives Of… series and also a tongue-and-cheek late night talk show, here, in a land of over a billion people, we seem to have anointed Johar as the one-in-all for literally every area of the media business.
He’s created a monopoly (which I’m sure he’d only label as a niche), an aspirational lifestyle that only is possible if he’s somehow involved. It’s very clear while watching the series, especially because of the number of cameos by stars throughout the show, that this is a program you must know, watch, and like, or else you’re not part of the gang. Bollywood Mafia it is not, it’s far more like an incestuous cult. But I digress. The series smartly cashes in on the friendships between the four ladies, who seem to have been selected and told to rehearse their “characters” before the show even began to film. Make no mistake, this is absolutely Sex And The City meets The Real Housewives meets Keeping Up With The Kardashians. While the first was pure fantasy, and the latter two were actually meant to cash in on the women watching women craze that SATC had created, Bollywood Wives… is as calculated as it gets. Johar didn’t realise that this “trash” he was selling, has far more truth to it than any normal “reality show” would normally show.
The show chronicles the personal and professional lives of four Bollywood wives (I’d argue four wives and one former Bollywood star). We have Maheep Kapoor (wife of Sanjay Kapoor), Bhavna Pandey (wife of Chunky Pandey), Seema Khan (wife of Sohail Khan) and Neelam Kothari (wife of Samir Soni). Numerous montages remind us that these women have known each other for more than 20 years. While they’ve not necessarily been besties the whole time, there is an actual foundation that shines at times in the series where you can tell that the ladies actually know and like each other. This is further solidified when we look down one generation. While the series focuses on the four women, we catch glimpses of their partners, and all of their children, who almost all seem to be following in the footsteps of their fathers. I’m reminded of the formula that worked so well with the Kardashians. The first few seasons focused on the elder siblings, and America and the world got a weekly dose of the younger girls, Kylie and Kendall Jenner. In a way, that “real” introduction to them before they launched themselves into their professional light, gave them a leg further up than they might have had just being a famous sibling without the facetime that the series provided.
While the show tries its best to show the ladies as veterans of the industry, it’s very clear that they are far from it. They may have the famous connections to Johar, and most notably, with Gauri Khan, their Queen Bee (as shown in the final episode of season one), wife to megastar Shah Rukh Khan, but in many ways, they are a far humbler lot. While Kapoor is the loud one trying her best to provide the spunk, Kothari is the sweetheart trying her best to stay true to her original celebrity persona. Khan, meanwhile, tries to juggle motherhood and her fashion line, while Pandey plays part wellness seeker, mom manager to star Ananya Pandey, and then trying to start a business. In spite of the horrid conversation scripts they’ve been given at times, it’s the trying that works here. These aren’t women who have large entourages or big followings. These are women stuck somewhere between fame and infamy, and they’ve hardly really had a role in defining their place. Reviewers, as would be expected, have literally massacred the show. I’ve been quite surprised at the almost instant backlash, and so many who watched it so easily quantify the show as trash. But is it, really? With a record number of viewing options streaming amidst a pandemic and the number of conversations about it on social media, doesn’t that mean that the series has resonated? When something resonates, isn’t our job to understand why? Even if “trash” sells, why are we still buying it? I look at pop culture through a lens most fail to do because well, that’s what I’ve studied, and what interests me about society. In my countless conversations about the show, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the fact that the many friends who I could actually see being part of a world like this, or at least knowing that they’ve got good friends in this world, seem to carry a stronger disdain for the series than most. For middle class women in particular, the show offers glamour, glimpses of fame, and Bollywood in a way they’ve seldom seen.
So, why are so many folks hating on them? Is it that they are distancing themselves from the ladies because they feel they walk on a higher moral ground? Or is it that they see a part of themselves in the women (and their families)? There’s an interesting dichotomy that exists between the upper classes of India and celebrity fame. The richer you are, you are technically supposed to be more powerful, less obvious, far more “conservative”, and you earn your entitlement. For entertainers, while that often used to be the case, with time, we have seen a dramatic change. The world has opened up, and you don’t need a famous Dad to get you a blue tick on Instagram, or be rich to garner a free holiday to Greece. You just have to be seen. The four women on the show actually score points here, because even if their wardrobes might include Gucci and Prada and they are shown riding in a Rolls Royce, they are trying to make space for themselves amidst two generations who already have a place at the table. For their part, the kids are clearly milking their 15 minutes on the show (whether by choice, their parents or most likely by Johar) as a way to disprove the “nepotism” label that they know will be attached to their names regardless of how famous or not famous their parents are.
With an ever-critical mass audience now ready to pounce on any celebrity or their kid for any fuck-up, the stakes are exceedingly high for these star kids if they wish to pursue acting. But, like many of them rightly argue, where exactly isn’t that the case? I personally know of countless friends my age who jumped straight from their US or UK education to return to India, and be handed a check by their families to start a business, or join the family’s already established business. Are there far more qualified candidates for the job? Yes. But what parent wouldn’t want their child to follow in their footsteps when the child wishes to? Nepotism may not rock, but it is simply a reality across every industry, across the world. Today, the celebrity label has greatly changed. It’s no longer about being the blockbuster star, but being recognised, getting endorsements, and well, having a fan base that is active and has purchasing power. With so many avenues to become “famous”, the money has become secondary to access. In many ways, this might be the main reason why I enjoyed The Fabulous Lives Of Bollywood Lives. Johar attempts to show opulence but in reality, he’s showing the fragility of the biz without the frigidness that often coexists in this world. The series is both a cautionary tale and a roadmap. While I’m sure a majority of viewers have been streaming the show for the latter, both messages are loud and clear. You can fail and still succeed. You can succeed and still fail. But most importantly, if you know Karan Johar, you’re one step closer to either making it or breaking it. And ultimately doesn’t it all come down to actually having a chance? I’m sure all four ladies are thankful to him for theirs, and that’s truly the fabulous part.