In an industry where the debate on nepotism resurfaces every time a star child makes his debut, a show especially featuring the lives of star kids and star families is bound to be a source of intrigue. With Sushmita Sen’s daughter, Renee Sen’s debut in Bollywood rekindling this topic, and I could not help but watch the recent show, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives with some intrigue and some skepticism.
The show is a homegrown, South Bombay version of Keeping Up with the Kardashians meets Desperate Housewives meets Wives of Beverly Hills. In other words, it is the first of its kind Indian reality TV series that gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Bollywood elite.
But does it? What we expect to see at the very least are wives of A-list celebrities- such as Shahrukh Khan and Amir Khan. What we end up with actually is the periphery of the inner circle: Neelam Kothari, Maheep Kapoor, Bhavna Pandey, and Seema Khan. All wives to moderately famous and marginally relevant actors.
Yet, the show was trending on Netflix as No 1 in both, India and Pakistan for weeks after it released. Why? Because of our inherent voyeuristic impulse? Because of our perennial curiosity about how the crème de crème of society lives, what they eat, what they wear etc? Fair enough. This formula of granting the audience an insider lens into this otherwise inaccessible world under the guise of reality television has been a successful one. Hell, it made the Kardashians who they are today. It gave them the platform to launch several multi-million-dollar businesses. And of course, such content is insanely binge-worthy and makes for an awesome guilty pleasure watch. This is exactly what I was expecting from The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. But it missed the mark by a mile.
Yes, it was scripted, staged, and contrived. It committed all the cardinal sins of reality television in general. But I was willing to settle for that. The shallowness and superficiality could have still been palatable, had it not been reeking of political incorrectness. What triggered me was the display of privilege, morphed with entitlement and tone-deafness.
The show features sexism, classism, ageism, and most other isms you can think of. The series opens with Maheep Kapoor, obsessing over le Ball (a debutante ball in France, kind of like the one in Gossip Girl that Blair and Serena attend) which her daughter had had the honor of being invited to, saying that only “predominantly prestigious families” were invited to this event which is an opportunity for “girls to come out into society”. In another instance, Neelam Kothari tells her husband that it is different for him to do intimate scenes on camera because he is a man. In behavior reflecting a mid-life crisis of sorts, the women also seem awfully obsessed with looking younger and weigh out their options from spiritual treatment tightening their skin to “going under the knife”.
But to be honest, in an industry where the “shelf life” of women is considered their mid-30s (a notion which is just recently being challenged), I could not expect any better. And though these archaic and regressive beliefs are institutionalized via the rigid class system, what emerged the most problematic for me was Bollywood’s own controversial “N” word that was invoked and defended many times- “nepotism”.
The nepotism debate has been one of much vigor in the past few years, with “outsiders” revealing how the barriers to entry within the film industry are ridiculously high for talented individuals and obnoxiously low for star kids. The show, through its characters, chimes in its two cents on the debate too. You’ll see actors like Sanjay Kapoor (Anil Kapoor’s brother) saying that if nepotism was the key to success, he’d be the most employed person in Bollywood. You have his wife talking about how hard it is for star kids because they are trolled just that much more for their privilege and access to roles.
Now it comes as no surprise that the show was produced by the digital leg of Dharma productions, Dharmatic, owned by Karan Johar who has been touted by his opponents as being “the flag bearer of nepotism”. So excuse my conspiracy theories of him having an agenda and using his clout and platform to defend him and offer the “other side of the story.”
All the four protagonist’s children appear on the show in brief cameos. All of them want to become actors. Do they have the talent required? Only time can tell. But the sheer idea of one inheriting a place in a democratic industry by virtue of family connections is enough to make one shudder.
What the show seeks out to do is garner sympathy for star families and kids. But that backfires. What it ends up doing is further cementing the audience’s growing disregard for nepotism. It reveals on a glaring screen the inadequacies of the aspiring actors: Shanaya is invited to le Bal for no achievement of her own, but by way of being a famous actor’s niece. Her brother, Jahan, too, aims to be a Hindi film actor but does not know the language yet. The show inadvertently ends up proving the impotence of nepotism.
This is particularly relevant in the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide this year, which quickly elevated into a proxy war within Bollywood and brought the casting and production process into scrutiny. It revealed the dark underbelly for outsiders- the depression, the rejection, the exclusion based upon class and hierarchy. It revealed that the elite of Bollywood is in bed with tabloids, driving the propaganda and narrative a certain way, swaying the public opinion, encouraging blind items to be written, and isolating many despite their raw talent.
The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is a celebration of the very ideals that have been brought into question recently. The show’s release is not only highly untimely and tone-deaf to the existing moment and but also very insensitive. What was needed was a heightened sensitivity, a thorough privilege check on behalf of these families, but what the show does is present a stubborn insistence on the status quo.
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