14 Mar, 2021

So the cinemas are going to remain shut at least till April and possibly until Eid. What’s the entertainment-starved viewer to do? Well, if you have a Netflix subscription, here are three shows to settle down with at home:

The Big Day (2021, Netflix)

A series on big fat rich desi weddings, The Big Day has been one of the most watched videos by Pakistanis when it first came out because nothing gets us going, for better or for worse, as much as weddings and marriage unions do.

At this point, after its wildly popular series Indian Matchmaking and hosting another documentary film on the subject, A Suitable Girl, and now with The Big Day, Netflix really needs to introduce its own ‘Big Fat Indian Wedding’ category.

The Big Day takes a deep dive into the multi-billion-dollar Indian wedding industry. Each wedding grander than the previous one. Weddings that are on a scale that would now be considered super spreaders and essentially unimaginable in the current Covid-19 world.

The series, which was aptly released on Valentine’s Day, has been produced by Conde Nast India. Over a span of three episodes, we feast our eyes on the extravagance and indulgence of the weddings of six Indian couples with wedding destinations that range from the forts of Jaipur to New Delhi.

The wedding planners there operate on a whole other level. Each wedding is like a whole production, with millennial brides personally and, almost to a fanatical degree, overseeing every little detail. These range from the location, the sets, the multitude of flowers, the elaborate ‘entrances’, even orchestrating their own proposals and writing their own tribute poems, down to the tiniest unnoticeable detail — one bride pointed out a crease on one of the many, many spools of fabric on one of the sets.

Each couple (ahem, bride) feels very strongly about their wedding as they believe this event reflects who they are. There is California-based couple Nikhita and Mukund who have returned to the motherland to orchestrate a several days-long extravaganza, complete with a tacky Bollywood-inspired sangeet night with actors posing as Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Salman Khan, among others. There’s even a giant Buddha at the entrance of their wedding venue, acrobats, a Mad Hatter themed party, basically the works.

But Nikhita’s interpretation of “her Indian roots” is essentially a very reduced, appropriated, Hollywood-inspired version of Indian culture. Nodding in satisfaction at how the set of her wedding venue is turning out, she says, “It’s literally starting to look like the entrance to the temple of the Indiana Jones ride.” That’s not a good thing, Nikhita.

The Big Day
The Big Day

The only couple one could remotely relate to, the ones that seemed somewhat aware of just how wasteful such weddings can be, while also providing employment to hundreds, are Divya and Aman. They set their wedding in a small village just outside the Jaipur Fort and kept that as the main focus. Ever the perfectionist, Divya felt very strongly about using only local produce on their menu, local fabrics, furniture and craft in their wedding, local flowers (they even got mustard flowers in place of the traditional roses because they were locally available) and had a plan of how every single item used in their wedding would be reused or repurposed. Their remotely-set wedding, however, was a logistical nightmare. But that is a problem for the wedding planners.

From the moment it came out, The Big Day has been on the top 10 trending-in-Pakistan list on Netflix because even if, because of this pandemic, we can’t have (or afford, ahem) a big, fat, crazy rich Indian wedding, we’d still like to ogle at one. Kind of like checking out what the neighbours are doing.

One Twitter user pointed out that the series is essentially about ‘Crazy rich Indians’ and is not based in the reality shared by the many in the country. I agree with that and, while filming would’ve happened more than a year ago, the series comes across as excessively excessive and completely out of touch with current times. As much as the couples tried to attach some ‘meaning’ to their lavish multi-million dollar weddings, they come across on screen as completely orchestrated and devoid of soul. The extravagance is somewhat disgusting. The kind you hate-watch with a bag of popcorn and tsk tsk about later.

Biggie: I got a story to tell (2021, Netflix)

“Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see? Sometimes your words just hypnotise me.” This line from Notorious B.I.G’s megahit song 'Hypnotize' plays in my head ad nauseum whenever Biggie Smalls, as he was also popularly known, is mentioned anywhere.

Considered to be one of the most influential and talented rappers of all time, Christopher ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ Wallace changed how rap music was done altogether by introducing a slower, groovier and, as revealed in the documentary, a jazz-inspired version of rap.

He was murdered in 1997 when he was only 24 years old. His death sent shockwaves through the hip hop community and its followers who were still reeling from the murder of Tupac Shakur, another legendary rapper who died young at 25-years-old, only a year earlier.

Since then, there have been multiple films, books and posthumous records, all attempting to preserve these artists’ musical legacy or to make sense of their senseless deaths. What sets Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell apart from those is that this film is personal. It provides an intimate look at a man whose rapid ascent and tragic end has been at the centre of rap lore for more than 20 years.

We find out that Biggie’s childhood friend, Damion ‘D-Roc’ Butler spent almost all of his time with the rap artist, shooting endless videos of him — writing songs, recording in the studio, behind the scenes in hotel rooms, walking out into the crowd. There was a sense that they knew he was going to be big and that it was important to preserve these precious early moments as much as they could.

The video shows a more vulnerable side of the rap artist, the person behind the persona, who was rarely seen outside of his inner circle. The documentary dives deep into the people and places that Christopher Wallace came from, that nurtured him and informed his experiences of the world. There were regular visits to his mother’s family in Jamaica, and to the neighbourhoods they lived in in New York.

Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell

We hear from Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace and fellow artist Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs, his relatives, his enduring musical influence — neighbour and jazz musician Donald Harrison among others. And this informs us as to how Biggie was so much more than the media ever got to capture or record.

And that’s what makes this an engaging watch. For someone who has been covered endlessly for the past 20 years in various books, films, shows and what not, in Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell brings you past all of the coverage to show you the essence of who Biggie really was.

Most importantly, instead of focusing on his still very shocking murder, Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell focuses on just how fragile his success was in the first place. On the many times he could have lost it all and how he overcame it. I Got A Story To Tell provides the perfect blueprint for how films about artists should be made.

Bombay Begums (2021, Netflix)

For some reason, I was expecting this to be a reality show about high-society begums in Bombay. A reality show somewhat similar to The Real Housewives of Bollywood. Turns out, it’s worse and only half as entertaining. Yet, one watched it till the very end. With six episodes of roughly 50min duration each, that’s five hours of my life I’m never getting back.

But here goes: Bombay Begums is about very stereotypical, nearly one-dimensional ‘strong’ women in the cutthroat corporate world and for one character, the streets, of Bombay. This is a series about five working women, not begums.

The first episode is especially insufferable as the characters are introduced, each more one-dimensional and clichéd than the next, but bear through it. The series starts to grow on you. It gets a little better. By the third episode, you’re halfway through and properly invested and might as well finish it.

We have Pooja Bhatt making her acting comeback as Rani, a CEO of Royal Bank of India and stepmother to two teenagers, one of whom is the other main ‘woman’ of the series, Shai (Aadhya Borthakur). Rani is an aggressive, boss b**** who tries to strike fear in the hearts of the all-male board by mostly just glowering and repeating, quite dramatically, that she has big plans for the bank. She has a very strained relationship with her ‘rebellious’ step-daughter, who probably self-identifies as Cinderella and treats Rani as the fairy-tale evil stepmother, no matter how much Rani tries to reach out to her.

The series also plays Shai’s inner voice as a voice-over now and then where Shai is having conversations about love and growing up with her mother who passed away many years ago. Some of the coming-of-age scenes from Shai’s life, such as her painting her school uniform red so she can ‘pretend’ to have her period, pass by her crush only to have him say “I can smell you’re growing up” had one scratching one’s head and guffawing at the ludicrousness of it.

Fatima (Shahana Goswami) is another boss b**** who works under Rani and glowers better than her. She’s absolutely horrible to her husband who is her junior and ever supportive of her. And she has a hard time deciding whether she wants to have children or a career or both. It sometimes comes across as the only reason she wants a child is because it’s the only thing she struggles with and needs to ‘win’ at, but her heart is actually in her work.

Small-town, fresh-out-college, troubled-but-maybe-smart Ayesha works under both Rani and Fatima. Bursting with enthusiasm and ambition, she wants to grow up and become just like Rani, but struggles to find the right opportunity to prove herself.

Bombay Begums
Bombay Begums

Through Ayesha we see how the housing market discriminates against single women and how she’s vulnerable in the workplace because she comes across as eager and naïve. She has a hard time standing up for herself; you see that in the way her ex-boyfriend consistently takes advantage of her. It’s mirrored in how she’s unable to, compounded with post-trauma shock, stand up for herself later in the series as well, even when a friend is speaking up for her. In Bombay Begums, we also see how the seemingly ‘strong’ women of the series fail her.

And finally, there is Lily, a sex worker who just wants a life of ijjat (respect) for herself and her son. And she will do anything to get it, including making her son lie about his very serious accident and relentlessly blackmail Rani for money.

I’m all for series that explore stories with strong female leads. But those characters need to have some complexity to them. In Bombay Begums, they, including the over-styled older male cast, are monotonous at worst, boring and predictable at best.

As the creator of films such as Lipstick Under My Burqa and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, one expected better, way better from Alankrita Shrivastava.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 14th, 2021