The new Netflix show Masaba Masaba’s premise is a fictional world, where the designer and her actress mother, Neena Gupta, play themselves. Directed by Sonam Nair, it is a take on what a mother-daughter duo—under relentless scrutiny for stuff other their talent—make of life, with all its indulgences and vulnerabilities. The screenplay, by Nair, Nandini Gupta and Anupama Ramachandran, however, seems to paint a landscape, mostly of gloss and schmooze, without any intention of capturing the characters from real proximity.
I had first met Masaba for an interview in 2010, on the fringes of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week. It was held in one of Delhi’s swish venues where one always gets shoved by armies of shutterbugs. Gupta was then just 21, but spoke with genuine earnestness. There was no denying that she was controversy’s child, a fact possibly contributing to the unease that hung in the air. When I met her in 2013, she was a much relaxed and sleeker version, who had broken into the big league.
None of this back-breaking hard work, her motivations to choose design as a career and her formidable doggedness are on display in Masaba Masaba, purportedly an insider’s take on Mumbai’s showbiz industry. The genre itself—a Tinder date of fact and fiction—is novel in the Indian digital platform space. The western television sitcom world has embraced it and made it its own. One of the popular picks, Seinfeld, which played out on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, followed the lived-in spontaneity of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends in their fictionalised avatars. It transformed the sitcom universe forever.
Masaba Masaba, on the other hand, borrows generously from real-life incidents (Neena Gupta famously asking for work on Instagram, the actress giving a sensitive yet powerful voice to the character of a pregnant older woman in Badhaai Ho, Masaba’s candid admission of being surrounded by controversy since the day she was born, etc.). But it doesn’t explore the central characters’ internal struggles and journeys. In a fictional world, the hurdles seem fairly easy to surmount and unimaginative solutions lie just around the corner.
Along the way, Masaba’s best friend shines a light on the trajectory her character is offered in the show: “Are you listening to yourself? Poor little Masaba. Paise nahin the toh purane design ke lakho rupay mil gaye (When you didn’t have money, you got paid for recycling old designs).”
Rather than putting across thinly sketched portraits with trite predicaments, conveying the intellectual complexity of two women with profoundly heroic battle scars would have made for a more gripping screen time. However, despite the occasionally vapid sequence of events, Masaba’s discovery as a spontaneous performer is a real gain for the viewer.