This is such a stark turning point in the series. Good structure, exactly halfway. It is also the turning point when I decided I truly truly hated the Shashank voice over.
This episode also has way more moving forward of Sobhita and Arjun’s stories. Arjun’s is the one I am most excited about because it is FINALLY getting into what I wanted, exploring the disconnect of a gay person living a 21st century life in a 21st century world, but it is a bubble that exists within a 19th century country. There is a sequence at the end that could work almost as a short film, he gets a call from a friend to go meet him at a night club. They talk about a film his friend has in “Outfest” in LA, and he makes eye contact and casually picks up a man at the bar, they leave and make out in his car. This is all normal, this is the international world of what being a sexually active person is like. And the “outfest” conversation makes it part of being a queer person, sex and activism tied together, meeting at a bar where they can talk about political issues and also pick up tourists. And then, while making out in the car, there is a knock on the window and it is the police. Arjun doesn’t freak out, just calmly gets out and pays them off. And then they go back to his apartment and his new friend/hook-up asks him “how can you live like this?” and Arjun says “it’s fine, you get used to it”.
This is the kind of subtle specific commentary on being gay in India that I was looking for, as specific as the dowry discussion in the rest of the episode. Yes, there are gay bars. Yes, there are filmmakers making movies that are accepted in “Outfest”. Yes, it is all very sophisticated and pleasant and safe. But at any time, you can get that knock on your window and you don’t know what happens next. It could be a bribe you can’t really afford to pay, it could be a demand for oral sex (from what I have read, pretty common for police officers to take advantage that way. Of course, they aren’t “gay”, they are just teaching a lesson to the gay men they could be arresting), or it could be public humiliation and jail. Arjun’s friend, the European (I want to say French accent? Not sure) is shocked by this, asks how he can live like this. Because it is horrible, and it is not okay. And it has to be an outsider, one who lives the life Arjun aspires to, that will challenge this, that will say “no, it’s not normal to have safe places and unsafe places, to live in the shadows, this is not how the world is any more”.
My favorite part of this whole sequence is one quick line in the middle, Arjun’s director friend is shocked that he hasn’t heard of “Outfest”, that he is so out of touch with the community. And sure, Arjun hasn’t heard of “Outfest”. But he knows how to pay a bribe to a police officer with the ease of long experience. Can his sophisticated political friend say the same thing? Who is really in touch with the reality of the community?
The tag to this sequence I like less, it feels like needless melodrama. Vinay Pathak, Arjun’s suspicious landlord, is watching his apartment through a hidden camera, and sees Arjun and his new friend having sex. Really like explicit sex by the way, not sexy-sex. That’s more of an artistic comment, I can see why they wanted to make sure we saw it was definitely sex between two men and not cuddling for plot reasons, but it’s way WAY sexier to show them kiss and stroke and so on. I hope we get that later in the show, I’m burned out on Sacred Games and it’s “sex is domination” attitude towards these scenes. Anyway, it has to be explicit in this case so we know that Vinay Pathak absolutely has the evidence to turn them in for 377 (which is against SODOMY, not being gay, so you need actual penetration evidence to be a threat). And then as we see Vinay visibly being aroused by what he is watching, we have to know it isn’t just a matter of being aroused by soft loving sex without regard to gender, but by the act of two men having sex. And now we have the cliffhanger of Vinay with this evidence, and with a secret attraction to men. Will he turn Arjun in to the police? Will he blackmail him into a relationship? Will he just be creepy for another 5 episodes? I am uninterested in all of these results, frankly. Although, picking up on the last episode and the quandary of the woman married to the gay man, I like the foreshadowing of Vinay’s wife constantly being shown doing exercises, perhaps to try to deal with her sexual frustration, perhaps because she blames herself and her body for her husband not being attracted to her, either way it was a subtle sign all along that something was wrong in this marriage.
And then there is Sobhita’s story. At the end of the previous episode, Jim and Kalki got in a car accident on the way back from their weekend away. Once Sobhita learns they were in the car together, she immediately knows the truth. And she blurts out to Arjun that Kalki was in the car, and he also leaps to the same conclusion and is nicely supportive, giving her a “oh, that sucks” kind of reaction. It’s a great little illustration of the close relationship they have. And Arjun helps her substantively as well, coming up with a cover story, that Kalki and Jim were planning a surprise party for Sobhita, that’s why they are together.
Sobhita’s story in this episode is mostly internal, and her performance and the script do a great job explaining her emotions. She goes along with the lie, because it is easier, because she doesn’t want to face the reality of what is happening in her marriage. And she flashes back to the moments of her friendship with Kalki, what she owes her. Kalki mentored her, helped her get in with this crowd, lent her a dress and guided her in the proper words to use. And in return, she encouraged Kalki to get married to her husband who turned abusive. She was there when Kalki fell apart post-marriage, she and Jim opened their home to Kalki when her own parents wouldn’t let her in. There is a whole web of obligation there, and empathy, Sobhita has shown herself already in the previous 3 episodes to be a supremely empathetic person and of course she would look back and understand how Kalki is still struggling with the after effects of her marriage, the rejection by her father, and could easily have fallen prey to approval from the strongest male figure in her life at that moment, Jim.
But at the same time, she is considering a way out. She lashes out at Arjun halfway through the episode about how he keeps taking money from the business. Nothing is said explicitly, but it is left for the viewer to see that she is both lashing out at him because she can’t yell at who she really wants to, Jim and Kalki, because she has to “forgive” Kalki who is laying close to death and so she has no energy left to forgive Arjun. And she is also worried about wanting this to be a real business, a reliable business, so she has an identity and something to leave on if she chooses to leave Jim.
And then it all comes together beautifully with the wedding they are planning. The previous episodes didn’t really nail the parallels. The first wedding was kind of about Sobhita’s life and kind of not. The second wedding was more just a general mish-mosh of “accept your family no matter what” that didn’t really fit with anything. But this wedding really really works, no direct obvious connection, but perfectly emotionally related. A kind of distaste for the status quo, for how things have always been, fighting with the message of “adapt, adjust, it’s India and it’s for the greater good”.
Shweta Tripathi plays the bride, and she is immediately really good. Friendly and pleasant and average looking, someone you want to be friends with and you want to be happy. Not as confident as the bride in the first episode, but not as innocent as the one in the second, somewhere in between. We start with a close up on her face as she says what she wants and explains her emotions, and we stay with her emotions through out. She is marrying her boyfriend, a nice young IAS officer. They are planning and paying for their own wedding, and he is very budget focused, and she is accommodating that, even though her dream wedding would be a little more expensive. We see the contrast in the interviews with the parents as well, his parents talk about their small respectable life, focused on education and civil service. Her parents talk a little wistfully about wishing they could have a big wedding for their daughter. We are set up to see him and his family as “better”, more educated and more refined and more spiritual and moral. She is shallow for wanting the big wedding and more expensive gifts, we can sympathize with her, but like her even more for her willingness to forgo those things in order to start married life right, on an equal footing, with decisions made mutually between her and her husband.
That’s the opening section, watching Shweta and her fiance work out what they both want from the wedding with the wedding planners gently guiding them. And then they kind of get lost in the middle until we come back at the end to their actual wedding. Shweta is happy inside getting ready with her friends. Her fiance is arriving outside. Arjun is sent to ask what the hold-up is on getting the grooms group to enter the house. And he becomes the go-between from the groom’s parents to the bride’s parents, as they demand dowry. The respectable “we only care about education” family had absolutely no shame in calmly saying that they will not bring their son in to be married until they have cash in hand. The bride’s father asks if this is the proper time for this discussion, they smile and say “this is the best time for it”.
This is the thing with dowry demands, saying “aren’t you ashamed?” will do nothing, because the people making the demand are so lost to any sense of what they are doing that they could not conceive of feeling shame. This family wants a small religious ceremony, wants their children to take government jobs and work for the country, wants to give organic presents and plant more trees, those are all “good” things and they would be ashamed to do otherwise. But asking for dowry, where is the shame in that? Dowry, and the general sense that a boy is a good thing worthy of being “bought” while a girl is a bad thing you will need to pay someone to take, that exists outside of all the other social contracts and good and bad in India.
This whole episode has been about the practices that people just accept even though they are wrong. Arjun will bribe a cop to let him go instead of being arrested and protesting and complaining. This is how things are, it is fine. Sobhita will ignore and cover up her husband’s affair, protect him in front of his parents, that is how things are too. And now the bride’s parents are doing the same thing, they are paying off the groom’s family, this is how it has to be, it’s better to just go along with it. And then she can have her modern perfect life with her educated accepting fiance, with just this one hidden darkness in it. Better to “protect” her from the truth. And that’s when Sobhita snaps, it’s not the dowry itself, it’s the idea of protecting the bride, that it will somehow be better and easier for her to go into a marriage with eyes closed and happy.
The whole idea of when to lie and when to tell the truth, along with dowry, has been buried in all these episodes. In the first one, “dowry” wasn’t a concern exactly. She was a poor girl, they didn’t expect anything from her family, they were fine with that. But she was expected to bring with her the dowry of purity and virginity, that was what was lacking and why the groom’s family felt they had the right to call of the wedding at the last minute. Sobhita pulls it off by suggesting a more equal exchange, the bride will bring as “dowry” her willingness to please her in-laws and be sweet and correct (the same thing Sobhita brought to her marriage) and in return she will have a life of ease and money. In the second episode, it is not dowry but a business deal. Both parents are profiting from this marriage and want it to happen, it is not one holding the other hostage for money. In the third episode, the bride’s children are concerned about her money, there is an assumption that someone would only want to marry her in order to gain control of her money, a rejection of her value as a person. And the whole idea of the big weddings that this show is about are a way of showing your wealth, flaunting it in order to send the couple off to a good married life, to show the world their value. Money will always be a part of the weddings at this level, and the bride will always be scrutinized more than the groom, but this is the first time that a groom and his family have been allied in threatening to call of the wedding without a direct payment. And more importantly, it is the first time the bride has been kept in the dark about what is happening around her.
And so that is the ending. Sobhita decides to tell the bride at the last minute and let her make her own choices, not leave her trapped unknowingly in a bad situation. And the bride decides to walk out, that she would rather leave this whole system behind and trust in something better coming for her than make things easy for everyone else.
And then the stupid voice over comes in to underline the point in case we missed it. Blech!