Independent, Strong yet Vulnerable: The Portrayal of Working Women in Indian Web Series
By Aparna Rajesh and Shantharaju S
Mother, Daughter, and Work!
Representation of mothers in Indian cinema is something that countless films have exploited as a central narrative and sub-plots to create a more significant conflict. As Eshwaran (2016) states, there would be less drama if the mother characters were taken out from the biggest hits of the 1950s and 1960’s Bollywood films. Mother India (1957) and Deewar (1975) are good examples of how a mother’s role becomes a conflicting source and resolution phase. While movies back then portrayed a mother as an all-encompassing, compassionate, selfless woman who dedicated her life to her children and husband, cinema today dares to break that stereotype and looks at mothers as human beings first and parents next. English Vinglish (2012) and Secret Superstar (2017) are a few examples of such portrayals. Yet, there exists a moral boundary that women in today’s films wouldn’t dare cross (Nandita Dutta, 2018). For instance, a character’s attempt to break away from dysfunctional relationships or being overtly sexual or such portrayals that fall outside the said boundary.
The pandemic and the rising popularity of streaming platforms in India bring diverse content, leading audiences toward novel thoughts. Urban dilemmas and conflicts rose out of the urban economy – the working couple, single mother, aging parents, professional conflicts, exploring one’s body, gender and sexuality are the major themes of current prominent web series. These narratives include both stereotypical and sensible portrayals of women on the digital screens. This essay explores the portrayal of modern, working women in popular web series to understand how they deviate from traditionally portrayed prototypes and scrutinizes why it is essential to be critical in reasserting prevalent stereotypes.
Streaming platforms include in their archives what the mainstream cinema industry couldn’t and didn’t and the modern representation of women is also one such element. Decoupled (2021) and Masaba Masaba (2020) are two Netflix (India) web series nominally discussed in this essay. Both series are experimental in their narrative techniques. They start with an episode of a broken marriage and attempt to problematize the life after a romantic (marital) relationship has gone stale. If Decoupled is a fictional story of a couple whose life during the divorce process is portrayed humorously, the latter Masaba Masaba is a semi-biographical drama of a mother and daughter whose life is rooted in cinema and fashion. It is one of the rare cinematic experiments where the actual characters lead the fictionalized life of themselves. Masaba Masaba’s cast involves real parties, Masaba Gupta and Neena Gupta, in the lead roles taking the audience back and forth in a scripted edition of both their lives. If Decoupled takes a critical look at Indian marital systems, Masaba Masaba portrays life beyond marriage and explores the different factors that shape a woman’s identity. In both series, the lead women are shown as independent, talented, multifaceted, strong yet vulnerable women – all of which is part of the argument that this essay aims to focus on.
“We are divorced but technically not”
Decoupled is an Indian series starring multilingual actors R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla. The series discusses the divorce of an Indian couple across its eight-episode period. Madhavan plays the role of Arya Iyer, a popular Indian author who dutifully rants about all things that don’t concern him and firmly believes that people find him appalling because of how brash and truthful he is and not because of his repulsive personality. Surveen Chawla plays the role of Shruti Iyer, a venture capitalist with a dream of starting her own firm. From the show’s beginning, it’s obvious that Shruti and Arya are “technically still married but about to break the knot.” Despite hailing from diverse cultural backgrounds, they loved each other and married, and are now parents to a teenage girl. Arya comes from the Tamil Brahmin community, and Shruti hails from the Punjabi family of a retired police officer, both of which remain stereotypes that contribute very little to the main narrative of the story and are never explored beyond both of them frustratedly ranting about each other in their respective mother tongues. The first episode starts with a clear note reiterating Arya and Shruti’s decision on getting divorced. But they live together in an upper-middle-class villa in Gurgaon merely for the sake of their daughter Rohini and to maintain their societal image. Arya and Shruti are less afraid of what society might think of their divorce but are more afraid that their young daughter might not take well to the news of their separation, ruining her childhood. One of the episodes (7) titled “How to tell your daughter about divorce” epitomizes a parent’s dilemma and conversational conflict with the daughter.
Shruthi finds it hard to inform her parents about the separation, and Arya wouldn’t even notify his parents as they never accept such truths, being highly conservative. Shruti is highly cautious about her social circle and afraid that other men will hit on her if she publicizes her divorce news. To keep up appearances, Arya and Shruti, participate in get-togethers and parties pretending to be a happy couple, a facade that Shruti believes is just part and parcel of their ambiguous marital status, which Arya doesn’t enjoy but goes along with. Besides this, Arya doesn’t put any effort to reassume his social image or be found in a situation where he is afraid to mention his divorce. It is primarily the struggle of a woman (Shruti) to balance her familial (daughter and parents), professional and social life by sugar-coating facts and pleasing people. When Shruti is taking therapy sessions, Arya is scouting for a sexual partner. Shruti attempts to make Arya jealous in several instances but does not sleep with another man. However, Arya doesn’t miss an opportunity to hook up with another woman.
From the get-go, the portrayal of Shruti as a woman in a marital relationship is shaped by her role as a mother, whereas Arya is always an author first and father next. Shruti is portrayed as being tied to her roles as a caring and affectionate mother, albeit a modernized version of it, whereas the same rules don’t apply to Arya. This is similar to what Nandita Dutta (2018) argues as “modern but not so much.” Shruti is far from our conventional cinema mother, whose identity ceases to exist outside her familial role. She is financially independent, speaks her mind, is courageous and even sexual. But just sexual enough to not outrage the Indian audience and just economically independent enough to drive home the point that she isn’t like other conventionally portrayed mothers. As Arya eagerly pursues other romantic and sexual relationships while still being married to Shruti, she is shown to have qualms about doing the same. In a way, her body becomes the epitome of morality when Arya isn’t bound by any such logic (or the lack thereof).
For a couple to live an independent life or to approach legal paths like divorce, a woman is the one who has to bear the societal oddity. Despite clarity on what can’t be tolerated anymore, the woman goes through a conflict of self and societal agents to attain the end result. Shruti’s decision to get separated from Arya leads her to situations where she ends up having to be answerable to all parties involved. Nevertheless, Decoupled does a sincere job in reinstating a woman’s sense of agency when Shruti publicly shuts down Arya’s dystopic ranting and breaks her silence on how she ends up having to bear the brunt of his rash behaviour. Marked with instances that attempt to feature the empowered woman, the major plot and the different sub-plots position the female lead in difficult situations where she struggles with her sense of individuality.
Life Must Go On
Masaba Masaba, on the other hand, is a semi-autobiographical series that revolves around the lives of Masaba Gupta, a famous fashion designer, and her mother and popular actress Neena Gupta. The series has Masaba Gupta and Neena Gupta playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Neena Gupta’s role as a mother is portrayed so that it does not take away from her role as an actress. She talks about the issues Indian actresses face in getting cast post-marriage and motherhood, especially during their middle age. They are no longer sought for roles as they’re deemed “too much work.” The series shows us the real struggles that Neena Gupta faces in getting employed, including but not limited to her marital status, her housing situation, and such. This is depicted so that it makes the viewer wonder, would actors in Indian cinema be treated the same way post-marriage and fatherhood? Despite coming out a year before Decoupled, Masaba Masaba is more broad-minded in how it represents women, womanhood and motherhood in general. It breaks the conventional ideologies of women moving to their husband’s city post-marriage, as we see Neena Gupta stay in Mumbai as it’s better for her professionally. It also gives a candid view of how such decisions affect Neena’s life, be it quarrels with her husband over their long-distance marriage or casual judgment from her family and friends for choosing to prioritize her profession over her marriage.
On the other hand, Neena’s daughter Masaba is a strong independent woman who isn’t fazed by obstacles such as a failed marriage, narrow-minded investors, toxic men and even the larger entity of the conservative Indian society. The first episode (Rumour Has It) starts with Masaba’s broken relationship with her marriage. Having to face similar issues of Shruti in Decoupled, Masaba takes things as it is shaped by time and rarely dwells on the failures. Even when her expensive show goes down, she reassures the investors with the innovative intervention of aestheticizing ordinary people. She creates social media trends through the new photoshoot of her design exhibited by ordinary people.
During her divorce where she lacks the motivation to do anything, she creates a set of rules called, Masaba’s Breakup Bible on social media, which are instructions to follow during difficult times. These rules span from general ones such as not skipping meals and being grateful for the ones who help you through the process of heartbreak to specific ones such as not stalking your ex-husband.
Decoupled lacks such a solution-oriented conversation for the problem and instead, it attempts to humanize a situation, trivializing its central conflict as a result. If Masaba excels in her own ways, her mother Neena gains a prominent role through her successive, relenting attempts. If Neena Gupta has oriented her child, Masaba, to face the world of being a daughter of a single mother and controversies surrounding her birth, Shruti of Decoupled is even afraid to share the truth with her child.
The Sacred Body and Verbal Promiscuity
Decoupled shows Arya’s attempts to have sex with his wife Shruti and another girl at the same time. There is no bar on picturing the man’s promiscuity and it discusses sex as a rather transactional process for Arya. However, the idea of the body being an object of morality and sanctity comes into play when Shruti attempts to explore similar avenues. Shruti even posed an example of her parents, whose successful marriage correlates with sexual compatibleness between the couples. Even in their old age, Shruti’s parents’ active sexual lives contradicts Arya’s denied sexual life. Arya attempts to trick Shruti into having sex with him when she’s ovulating, (mis)guided by his friend who claims that a woman is uncontrollably sexual during the day of her ovulation and that if a man can track it precisely, he can attract any woman. Such portrayal despite attempting to be humorous trivializes a woman’s wantings, desires and aspirations. Masaba Masaba, despite having more vivid visuals, doesn’t make central characters crave another person’s body. Sexual encounters come as a casual element in the larger narrative, not taking over the central argument of an episode. The representation of how a woman chooses her sexual partner matters as it sets the frame for the larger narrative of the woman’s ability to make choices in general and is representative of her sense of agency and authority.
Despite the growing number of domestic conflicts, especially during pandemics (Krishnakumar and Vermaa, 2021), hardly any Bollywood films have addressed them sensibly. When it concerns gender and sex, even a personal conflict gains social importance due to the universality of shared experiences. Hence, media portrayal assumes prime significance in constructing or deconstructing the gendered world for larger audiences. We feel that the current web series have responded to such concerns, and every OTT platform has portrayed problematic domestic spaces in sensible forms. It is a positive sign that the visual media takes the conflicts of personal space to societal contemplation, especially the issues of working women and single mothers. Despite increased regressive content on gender, there are commendable productions. Decoupled and Masaba Masaba are part of it, notwithstanding their shortcomings.
While writing on the representation of ‘New (progressive) women,’ in Bollywood, Nandita Dutta (2018) propounds that the “the new liberal Indian woman” represented on screen is not very different from the “new nationalist Indian woman.” Much like her predecessor, she should be modern but not too modern. This statement holds for much of Indian cinema albeit with a few exceptions. There are a handful of films and web series that break away from such social norms and experiment with both the content and narration. Films like that of Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015) and Pink (2016) tend to voice post-feministic characteristics, whereas web series take the audience close to the reality of domestic space.
Dutta, N. Between the ‘home’ and the ‘world’: The ‘New Woman’ in Bollywood, Café Dissensus, 2018. Retrieved 27 February 2022, from https://cafedissensus.com/2018/11/25/between-the-home-and-the-world-the-new-woman-in-bollywood/
Eshwaran, S. Popular Hindi Cinema and the Conflictual Figure of the Mother/Nation: Radha (Mother India) and Sumithra Devi (Deewar), Café Dissensus, 2016. Retrieved 27 February 2022, from https://cafedissensus.com/2016/12/05/popular-hindi-cinema-and-the-conflictual-figure-of-the-mothernation-radha-mother-india-and-sumithra-devi-deewar/
Krishnakumar, A., & Verma, S. (2021). Understanding Domestic Violence in India During COVID-19: a Routine Activity Approach. Asian journal of criminology, vol. 16, no. 1, 2021, 19-35.
Decoupled. (2021). Dir. Hardik Mehta. Netflix.
Masaba Masaba. (2020). Dir. Sonam Nair. Vineyard Productions.
Aparna Rajesh is a bibliophile who is currently pursuing her second year of bachelor’s in Christ University, Bengaluru. A lover of academia, she is now on an exchange programme in France. Her research interests lie in understanding languages and their representation in mainstream media.
Dr. Shantharaju S is an independent writer and has worked for several documentary films as a cinematographer. He has co-authored a book, Confession, Consent and Hedonism, on OTT and Screen addictions. He is presently teaching in the Department of Media Studies, Christ University, Bengaluru, Karnataka.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.