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The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Lies

Reality TV trends tend to make waves. Sometimes, there are troughs when this form of entertainment is unpopular (like when everyone is experiencing enough of a “real life” as is, and prefer to escape to artificial worlds and narratives). Other times, there are peaks, when production houses see a market that is interested in watching how other people live and exist in the same world as them. Recently, we’ve been experiencing a revival of reality television thanks to Netflix with Karan Johar’s What the Love! and related but adjacent Indian Matchmaking – and these are just within the Indian market. Last month brought with it the premiere of the third Indian reality tv show: The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives; an unapologetically decadent montage of the lives of 4 absurdly affluent Bollywood women.

I won’t hesitate to admit that I binge-watched the whole series in about a day – each episode is 30 minutes, and there are only 8. I knew practically nothing about any of the women featured in this show; I only vaguely knew of their children (or in one case, my mother telling me that I shared a classroom with one of them in primary school). But this bare cognizance, coupled with the frequent Karan Johar cameos, told me all I needed to know: this was going to be a show about four extremely wealthy women living in opulence with no excuses or shame. 

I wasn’t wrong at all — the opening segment of the first episode, which is an introduction to the four leads, is a narrator rattling off all the ways in which these women are intrinsically linked into the privileged families and social circles of Bollywood. Of all the four, only Neelam Kothari holds a direct link to the industry thanks to her 80s Bollywood films. Maheep Kapoor is of the infamous Kapoor Bollywood clan, Seema Khan is married to moderately famous Sohail Khan and is related (somehow) to Bhavana Pandey, who is married to Chunky Pandey. 

This small saga of their lives opens with Maheep’s monologues about Le Bal: an aristocratic, antiquated, debutantes’ ball where her daughter, Shanaya, will be coming out in society. The premise of coming out in society is to introduce daughters to society so that potential husbands may come their way. While the general notions of hosting such a ball to find potential suitors are no longer at play, Le Bal still is, at its essence, the pinnacle of exclusivity. Maheep unapologetically goes on about this ball, stressing about her daughter and her husband, blind to the implications of such an event (or so we assume).

Assumed ignorance is a thread that runs through the entire show. At no point are there any deep, heartfelt conversations about how the lives that these women lead are entrenched in the deepest levels of privilege and wealth – they belong to a social class that only a few every few years are permitted to invade without a birthright. The only vague mentions we hear are from 2 Kapoors: Sanjay, Maheep’s husband, and Arjun Kapoor, her nephew.

Sanjay mainly talks about how hard it was for him in the industry and how he doesn’t want his daughter to be soft. It’s emotional, yes, but only until the point you realize that Sanjay wasn’t a no-name newcomer – he’s a Bollywood Kapoor, which practically makes him royalty in the industry. Arjun, however, recognizes what comes with his name and legacy, and makes it clear to Maheep that they “have it easier.” Maheep, to her credit, replies with an assertive “of course, we do,” but doesn’t go beyond that. The conversation simply goes back to how Maheep can deal with people trolling her daughter, Shanaya, online for attending an exclusive, invitational ball held in Paris that most people will never have the opportunity to experience. 

Somehow, though, I wasn’t put off by this lack of acknowledgement of their easier-than-normal lives. It was interesting to watch them flaunt the diamonds and jewels on their fingers in their expensive Juhu-Bandra houses without feeling a piercing discontentment about their ignorance. I struggled with this lack of response for a while. I felt almost obligated to be outraged by these families and the privilege dripping from every word they spoke, disgusted by the show of luxury in a casual vacation to Doha, and offended by the utter lack of solid recognition of the exclusive, rare lives they lead.

Ultimately, I calmed down and found an answer. It’s difficult to be outraged by a show that is only just doing its job: portraying reality as closely as it can. Sure, it’s easy to create Twitter threads and Instagram carousels of everything wrong with these people and their conversations, but I signed up to watch this show expecting nothing but entertainment and fluff. Nothing more profound: no episode-long conversations about legacy and money, no heartfelt gratitude, no political or social activism. Just these peoples’ regular, rich lives.

It didn’t take long after I binged the season to come across various tweets and articles calling the show out on its purportedly ignorant display of opulence. The undercurrent of all the criticism was the same: nobody wants to watch wealthy Indians flaunt their money and privilege, because it is a stark reminder of just how inaccessible that reality is. Most people like celebrities when they’re at their weakest –  it brings a degree of relatability but also serves as a lesson that wealth doesn’t make one invincible. However, watching wealthy people whose biggest dilemmas at any point are internet trolls, spiritual facelifts, and which exotic location they should fly to for a luxury vacation is a lesson in how money, in many ways, makes life happier. 

But since when did we expect these reality shows to be anything other than privilege-filled fluff anyway? From the moment I saw the trailer for this series, I knew I was diving into a washed-out snapshot of these extravagant lives produced by the drama-thirsty Karan Johar –nothing else. That there even was a full segment of these women cleaning Mahim beach exceeded my expectations (even if Bhavana did show up in heels).

What this reaction signals to me, however, is that there seems to have been a shift in the media expectations of the average Indian 20-something, socially-tuned and politically posturing consumer. While this show has been spending a lot of time on Netflix’s Top 10 in India, it’s hard to tell how many viewers are watching out of boredom or irony. It’s easy to assume that its ranking is correlated to its reception, but that doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as one would think. Reviewers of the show have criticized it for not being “dramatic enough”, whereas the Twitter jury has panned it for being too “tone-deaf.” 

So which is it? 

Do we want our fluff reality TV to reflect political and societal reality, or do we want it to be entertaining? 

Do we expect produced, scripted-yet-unscripted, fake-yet-real reality TV to portray its protagonists in a moral light, or an escapist light? 

Do we want to see our realities in these characters, or do we want to escape into their lives?

I do think that the winds are blowing in the direction of moral realism – moving back into the troughs of reality TV popularity. It’s why reviewers panned Fabulous Lives and Indian Matchmaking so heavily: they depict a very very niche subsection of people’s realities, and that’s majorly unrelatable for people who go into their entertainment media expecting to see a part of themselves in these people or characters. The expectations for reality stars and production houses have become to uphold a moral and ethical responsibility while still delivering entertainment that can be monetized. Do you want to watch them have a conversation about familial wealth and how they benefit from nepotism, or do you want to watch them fight and gossip? 

And if they did the former, would you really even believe it? We know from the general conversations in Bollywood that the word nepotism has become taboo – and that’s the biggest form of privilege they assert. Bollywood children know that if they wish to enter the industry, it wouldn’t take very long in the first place. Additionally, most Bollywood personas remain politically neutral so as not to jeopardize their careers — only the more prominent, more established and stable names like Deepika Padukone and Anurag Kashyap hold the professional freedom to make their stances clear. Therefore, would you really expect conversations about social and political realities to make it anywhere other than the cutting room floor?  

There have been shows that have been able to depict opulent lives and wealth in a way that sits well with the above demographic. Such an example of entertainment media is Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven. It has a similar premise: inordinately rich people in Delhi who all know each other and have social circles that you must either be born in or marry into. 

However, Made in Heaven succeeded where Fabulous Lives failed — it showed the dark side of such affluence. How entering opulence by marrying into it is not enough to be accepted universally. How the rich and comfortable still face homophobia within their families and externally. How even the thought of leaving an abusive marriage can create cracks in the family. 

A general audience who resents and does not relate to such a life is vindicated when watching these people face adversity — regardless of whether they come out victorious. Made in Heaven also balanced the opulence out by showing authentic, middle-class social realities like dowry, dangerous astrological superstitions, and forced arranged marriages.

There are no dark moments in Fabulous Lives –  it is a depiction of people at their highest moments, partying and conversing and vacationing. We don’t even see the worst of the trolling Shanaya faces – which I can be certain that as a woman on the internet, is extremely revolting – instead we only see people talking about it, which generates no obvious sympathy. 

The reason it doesn’t show the darkness is quite simple: as public figures, showing their darkness holds obvious and tangible repercussions. Any political conversation is clearly them taking sides, and with that comes a general aura of massive threat. Any conversation about privilege can easily be twisted into a narrative of how none of them “deserve” what they have, which leads to a discussion about meritocracy. As people who have very carefully constructed their public images, any doubt cast on their legitimacy is socially detrimental.

That is not to say we shouldn’t expect better from them in their private lives. However, reality tv has never and will never be an accurate, direct portrayal of how the rich and elite live their lives. It’s pointless to expect these deeper, serious conversations to be aired. The real deliberation now is that considering how much truth does not lie in these shows, is it time to give up on the production of opulent reality entertainment? I hope this is a conversation taking place in Netflix’s editorial meetings, as the platform has only a couple more shots at nailing the Indian reality television landscape – if it fails again, then it must deal with the repercussions of being branded as an elitist, exclusive, politically tone-deaf platform.  

Experience Further: When I think of unapologetic display of opulence, this song’s lyrics and music video come to mind. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on the producers’ playlists, especially when Grande sings, “whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ’em.” This song was criticized by few for appropriating black hip-hop culture of rags to riches for Grande’s self-aggrandizing tribute to all things material. At the end of the day, for most, it’s a light-hearted party bop for women who like themselves and nice things.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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