Amidst all the PTSD we’re going to have, this may also be remembered as the year when cringe-TV – any series that everyone claims to hate, but everyone also devours compulsively – finally got its due for what it is. Escapism. I’ve found myself quite enjoying shows I would earlier have considered badly-written, boring or even upsetting, in the way that glimpses into lives one cannot have can sometimes be. But what is it to me who got to jetset off to where, when no one really lives the way they used to anymore? Right now, reality TV of the non-gaming variety has been just frivolous enough to take the edge off, well, reality.
The latest series I watched was about four very ordinary but very privileged women, second-tier Bollywood personalities. Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is essentially a platform-raising gimmick for its principal cast, right down to a clearly staged stalker storyline, which I won’t spoil for your own cringe-binge viewing. It was totally vapid – so of course, I watched all of it.
But the show was so overly-curated (not necessarily scripted, just that there was an obvious unspoken code between the cast that they would get along, steer clear of touchy subjects and so on – which is, in its way, commendable) that not once but twice did a villain have to be thrown into the mix. That villain was its executive producer, Karan Johar. First, he instigated a fight at a restaurant by urging the women to nitpick each others’ flaws, flaws that they had clearly agreed off-camera to keep that way. Then, he gatecrashed their holiday, gathered them around, and threw trollish questions their way. He called them pre-menopausal, as though this natural process is something negative, and unemployed, as though their fashion and jewellery design lines didn’t exist. This time, they laughed off his sexism. Johar’s appearances were evident attempts to stir drama into the decorum. In that way, he turned out to be the show’s most recognisable character.
We may not be dripping diamonds and chillaxing at resorts, but we all know a K-Jo or two. There’s a thorough moral ambiguity to them, and they often appear to be on friendly terms with everyone. Which is to say: they are frenemies to all. They pocket relevant information to spring at the right moment, are often charming without being sweet, and thrive on unpredictability even if they appear to lack mystery. Unlike the self-absorbed, who may annoy in similar ways but aren’t trickster-like at the core, they are constantly observing everyone. Unlike those who hate themselves so much that only someone else’s strife can give them a feeling of triumph, they are only after mild amusement. The boat, or the yacht shall we say, never gets rocked badly enough that anyone is really scathed.
And so their noses and meddling fingers stay in our lives, and we figure out a way to be at least partially as amused by them as they are by us. Though once in a while, for the sake of our own peace, we must ask ourselves a slightly trollish question too: does the Devil really need another advocate?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 3rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.