The Netflix series - based on the life of the Indian designer - is a tone-deaf presentation of privilege that does a disservice to the fashion brand.
Masaba Gupta has had an interesting life; there’s no doubt about that. Growing up in India as the love child of Neena Gupta and cricketing legend Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards - better known as Viv Richards - looking distinctly Afro/Caribbean with her hair and skin-tone – there’s much about her worthy of acknowledgement. Her eponymous label, Masaba is beloved by Bollywood celebrities and socialities; she makes her lifestyle look aspirational - if not accessible.
Which is why we had high hopes from her (also eponymous) TV debut, Masaba Masaba. The series had been set up for success: streaming on global giant Netflix, featuring Masaba and Neena Gupta playing versions of themselves onscreen, borrowing heavily from the events in their life to bring the audience a warm, progressive show. The goal was definitely admirable.
Expectations, however, rarely match reality. Let’s acknowledge the good first and get it out of the way before we dig into what the show got wrong – there’s a lot to unpack. The aesthetics obviously are fantastic – the fashion, locations and looks for Masaba and her mother match the sartorial standard we have from the duo. It features strong, independent women who are working, who have aspirations beyond marriage and family and it certainly champions female friendships and collaboration.
That’s all for the good, brace yourselves for the bad. The show is painfully classist, helps perpetuate old Bollywood stereotypes/narratives of the ‘poor rich girl’ who has it so hard; there’s no denying that being a woman, even a privileged woman in India isn’t difficult. There’s no denying that Masaba probably had to overcome not only the taboo of her conception but also the rampant racism against darker complexions. There’s no denying that celebrities have to deal with intrusions of privacy.
However, painting Masaba as a ‘baychari’ in the context doesn’t work when you have her female assistant hanging on to each instruction like the Gospel. It doesn’t work when you show her buying a Rs. 150,000 iron she doesn’t even like from an art-show to keep social appearances. It doesn’t work when she mentions having trouble finding an apartment and her business partner arranges accommodation for her in less than 30 seconds.
Had the show perhaps embraced its privilege and acknowledged that their life, while not devoid of struggles, is aspirational beyond public imagination, it would’ve fared better. Had the show eschewed propagating visuals like the show-stopping actor/model who turns up on the runway looking run-down and hysterical, further dehumanizing their professionalism, the show would’ve not been the proverbial hot mess that Masaba also named her collection.
The storyline softens whenever Neena Gupta appearances onscreen, though the writing of the character, for the majority of the show, doesn’t really endear any character. Neena’s struggle with ageism in Bollywood and her social media post asking for work as a senior actor struck a chord. However, even when the show wants to tackle a worthy issue, their solution for it is simply performative – Neena’s post is used as a resolution for a fight for emancipation between the mother and daughter. Masaba reposts her mother’s post and suddenly their fight is resolved.
It’s unfortunate that the show takes two incredible layered, real life characters and turns them into caricatures of themselves during the course of the show. If we had to compare the vibe, storyline and progressiveness of this series, we’d rank it in the same breathe as Veere Di Wedding which looked great visually but really just tiptoed around actual subjects.
India has been producing countless digital series, many of which have found themselves a deal with Netflix; Jamtara, Hasmukh etc might not have the razzle-dazzle that Masaba Masaba promised but their plots are engaging and fresh. If you’re looking to explore more local content that doesn’t look like Karan Johar film repackaged as a series, we’d recommend one of these instead.