The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, somebody once said. The path to a woman’s emancipation runs through the kitchen, others have asserted. The heroine of James M Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce churned out pies to lift herself out of poverty. In Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd, the weapon of liberation is pickle, without which an Indian meal is incomplete.
The ZEE5 series bears the stamp of its producer TVF. Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd has been created by Apoorv Singh Karki and TVF co-founder Arunabh Kumar. The story is credited to Kumar, Abhishek Srivastava and Akansh Gaur. The screenplay is by Karki and Swarnadeep Biswas. These male minds attempt to imagine what it’s like to be a woman divorced from her husband, deeply attached to her children, raring to be a successful entrepreneur.
Amruta Subhash stars – rather sparkles – as Suman, a housewife who hopes that her pickle-making talent will win back her children from her former spouse Dilip (Anup Soni). A contradictory bundle of inhibition and boldness, the kind of woman who doesn’t have a bank account but sallies forth regardless, Suman needs all the help she can get.
The immediate trigger is the money Suman’s daughter Juhi (Manu Bisht) needs for an entrance test. Suman’s larger goal is to address her anger at Dilip’s betrayal. Dilip has left Suman for the widowed Manisha (Anjana Sukhani) and has taken custody of Juhi and son Rishu (Nikhil Chawla). Manisha has her own son Vivaan (Shreyansh Kaurav) from a previous marriage. Dilip lives with his new brood and his mother (Yamini Das) in a spacious house. Suman lives in a building whose only other occupant appears to be the itinerant hawker Shukla (Anadeshwar Dwivedi).
The title is missing a crucial player. Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd needed to have included “Aur Padosi”. Such is Shukla’s contribution to Suman’s efforts that he assumes as much importance as Suman’s mother-in-law in helping her daughter-law get her micro-enterprise off the ground.
The TVF elements are all in place: the upper-caste and middle-class milieu, barbed humour and heart-plucking sentiment, a colour scheme dominated by shades of turmeric, the aspiration for a better life that comes with reality checks.
But Saas Bahu Achaar Pvt. Ltd needed to be so much more than a spice-salt-sugar mix. Set in strangely depopulated parts of Daryaganj in Old Delhi, the show struggles to deliver a convincing portrayal of urban poverty and what it means to be barely employed.
Neither Suman nor Shukla, who sells belts on inter-state buses, is an easy sell as borderline indigent characters. A strong whiff of pakora economics hangs over Suman’s foray into pickle-selling, which is shown as being far easier than it actually is. A track involving Suman’s working-class sales staff is cursorily handled.
Some of Suman’s achievements feel like a facile PowerPoint presentation on How to Run a Neighbourhood Business and Succeed. Better observed are Suman’s fumbling attempts to master marketing skills, in which she is helped by her mother-in-law and Shukla.
The scenes of the mother-in-law shilling for Suman are as hilarious as the older woman’s love for her abandoned daughter-in-law is touching. Their beautifully delineated relationship is the strongest in a series that emphasises the complicated ties between ambivalent characters.
Judgement is withheld on Dilip, who has ditched Suman for Manisha. But the jury might still be out on the man who’s free with his fists and harsh on his kin.
This show likes fairy tales without ogres. Dilip gets the soft-glove treatment despite being an important piece of the puzzle in understanding why Suman turns out the way she does. Anup Soni does a fine job of portraying Dilip’s various shades, from loving husband to monster dad. It’s not the actor’s fault that the character doesn’t stick.
Perhaps a second season is needed to better understand Dilip. Perhaps this season might also dare to suggest that there is something more between Suman and Shukla than neighbourly sentiment? Surely Suman’s bravado cannot be limited to shouldering the burden of motherhood?
It’s not to be – just yet. The focus is firmly on Suman’s shambolic hardsell of her pickles and herself. Amruta Subhash is a great casting choice for a woman who knows what she wants but doesn’t know quite how to get it.
Every one of the harried Suman’s competing emotions flit across Subhash’s expressive face – the high-pitched laugh that masks deep pain, the gumption that conceals fear, the nervous energy that both propels and holds Suman back.
Subhash has many lovely scenes with Yamini Das, equally compelling as Suman’s biggest fan. There are several solo moments to savour too – Suman standing before a busload of people, her sales pitch refusing to leave her tongue. Suman lacerating herself after a business failure. Suman trying and failing to be fair with Dilip.
It’s a standout act in a series with a consistently good show from the actors, including from Manu Bisht as Juhi. The performances survive the jarring choice of using long shots to film crucial conversations, which robs them of their impact.