Why should I watch a show about four women who don’t have jobs, says Karan Johar in Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, a reality series he has produced about four women who do have jobs.
The Netflix show revolves around Neelam Kothari, Maheep Kapoor, Seema Khan and Bhavana Pandey. Their names will be familiar to consumers of Bollywood minutiae. Kothari, the 1980s star who appeared in a string of Hindi films with Govinda, now runs a jewellery design store and is married to the actor Samir Soni. Pandey, the wife of actor Chunkey Pandey and mother of upcoming talent Ananya Panday, has a pret label. Maheep Kapoor, a one-time model wedded to actor Sanjay Kapoor, also has a bauble business. Seema Khan, the spouse of director and occasional actor Sohail Khan, owns a clothing boutique.
The women have known each other for a quarter of a century, they keep reminding us. The series revolves around their mutual affection and bling-laden escapades, balancing the faked candidness with candid fakery.
Directed by Uttam Domale, the eight-episode series contains scripted situations that resemble fly-on-the-wall conversations and direct-to-camera interviews. The women – impeccably plucked, coiffured and clad – discuss career, motherhood, husbands and friendship. They pretend to bicker, compare notes on skin care and their children, and wonder about whether Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were right to secede from Buckingham Palace. In between feeding viewers the guilty pleasure moments they have signed up for, the women participate in a beach clean-up, which prompts a fleeting conversation on climate change.
Why so serious? Inspired by footballer David Beckham, the women fly business class to Doha. The luxury surroundings provide a welcome escape from their own apartments and bungalows and Mumbai’s overall squalor (sought to be concealed by drone shots of the city’s skyline). In Doha, they draw up a list of the “hottest men” in showbiz. A man purportedly stalks Neelam, both flattering and frightening her. A bare-chested French waiter materialises with cocktails.
As vacuous as promised and irony-free as expected, the series nevertheless has a little something each for the unabashed showbiz devotee, the nepotism-obsessed troll, the scholar of popular culture and the Bollywood quiz compiler.
Despite far too many episodes and a plasticky feel to the supposedly honest conversations, the show coasts along on the collective energies of its female leads. The Kothari-Kapoor-Pandey-Khan combo is utterly comfortable with each other and completely at ease being filmed. They claim that they are a lot like us, but they know that we are watching them precisely because they are nothing like us.
Karan Johar pops up every now and then to give a semblance of order and higher purpose to this Indian avatar of American celebrity reality productions. In sequences that play out like an extension of his popular talk show Koffee With Karan, the filmmaker stages chats with the four women that bring out their backgrounds and divergent personalities.
Koffee With Karan taught us that there was no point in being famous, or even halfway famous, if you couldn’t squeeze some money out of it. Screen gods and goddesses could sell the bits of themselves that made them appear mortal and allow fans a peek or two into their real selves without giving too much away.
The “Bollywood Wives”, steeped in the ways of showbiz and conscious of their own legacies as well as the futures of their children, make their intentions clear. We are building our own brands here, more than one woman says. Neelam Kothari toys with the idea of a comeback. Maheep and Sanjay Kapoor’s daughter Shanaya, who is being groomed for a film career, gets a test-drive of sorts through her appearance in the show.
In between, significant others, family members and members of the wider social circle check in for strategically placed cameos. Among the actors who have struggled in the movies but are perfectly comfortable playing versions of themselves in this format are Sanjay Kapoor and Chunkey Pandey. Arjun Kapoor, who badly needs his own reality show outing, offers Maheep Kapoor’s son Jahaan, also an aspiring actor, vital lessons on handling trolls. You have set yourself up for public consumption, Arjun Kapoor says. Stop taking yourself so seriously and go with the flow.
The biggest cameo is by one of Bollywood’s most camera-friendly movie stars. At a party thrown by Gauri Khan, Shah Rukh Khan walks in and tosses around a few typically warm and effusive anecdotes and the series stops in thrall.
Khan’s act seems to be a retread of Zoya Akhtar’s movie Luck By Chance, in which he offered sound counsel to a newly minted star: never forget the friends who supported you, especially when you were a struggler. Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is perfectly at ease with the first part of that advice.