Savarna Sisters are Doing it For Themselves

credits: Amazon Prime Video

Recent representations of the Indian female body and Indian modernity blur the line between ideas of Europe in Bollywood. Concepts of sexual freedoms, sexuality and modernism which were frequently represented as European or a westernised mode of behaviour in Bollywood are now being decolonised and reconfigured to show Indian women’s liberation and autonomy within in their cultural contexts and norms. In the opening sequence of Four More Shots Please an intelligent, beautiful, powerful woman surveys a board room of men and begins her sales pitch. She locks eyes with one of the men and the scene switches to a sexual fantasy: her body partly clothed splays across the table. Her male object of desire goes down on her whilst the other men watch on. The woman is openly enjoying the spectacle and the sexual experience. Her gaze is not demure. This is not a scene from a porn film but in fact an Indian series. What is unusual is that it features South Asian women and men characters, created by and written by Indian women.

This Amazon Prime Video Original series uses the well-known western trope of young women negotiating a cityscape (think Sex and the City and The Bold Type) and transposes it to SoBo – South Bombay, a well heeled district in Mumbai, where the female protagonists, Damini, Umang, Siddhi and Anjana live, work and play and offers up a slice of fantasy Indian life unknown to most young Indian women. Written by Devika Bhagat, with dialogue by Ishita Moitra and directed by Anu Menon, it is clearly targeted at the growing market of urban, millennial Indian woman. It is aspirational and delving for their hard won rupee. The lifestyle shown here is for the select few born into high caste and/or money and will remain fantasy for most Indian women.

credits: Amazon Prime Video

The first episode features a courtroom scene which highlights language and privilege – Marathi versus Hindi versus English – a valid and important debate but here the key point is how this is gender skewed to further control and oppress women. Anjana chooses to speak in English and she is humiliated by her male professional peers. She is verbally stripped down in Hindi and Marathi, displayed as a wayward, westernised woman who doesn’t deserve respect. That strikes a chord and of course can be played in a manner of configurations: local dialect versus city slick, ‘metropoli’ speak, regional language versus the ‘link language’ of Hindi and all the class and caste weight it carries. How does the subaltern speak? Not often if the mute domestic and public labourers in this television drama are anything to go by.

Language is powerful. Watching this ten part series I was delighted to increase my Hindi vocabulary. Hearing and learning words in Hindi via the character’s open conversations that I’d never find in a polite dictionary – perhaps words my mother and aunts barely knew but the men in the family were very familiar with. Words that should not be whispered but aired and said out aloud with pleasure. In one delectable scene the women luxuriate in regaling all the words they know to say vulva and vagina. The act of transgressing, of performing desire and sexuality, of voicing and re-claiming, is heightened by being in a public space. The fact that these words are rarely spoken openly in any language and here are spoken by Indian women is a significant intervention. A disruption of the status quo.

These are iconoclastic stories from the mega-city where we suspend our disbelief and see an India that is not under the shadow of BJP fascism. Where women are not (always) policed and there are depictions of consensual relationships between men and women with dynamics that are respectful and not charged with potential violence.

Here the gaze is turned one hundred and eighty degrees. Men are sexualised. Sex is unapologetic. This is not the one-foot-must-remain-on-the-floor at all times old-time Bollywood filmi sensibility. There is a nod to 2018’s ‘Veere Di Wedding,’ perhaps one project influenced the other or perhaps there is a zeitgeist captured here. What is clear is that this is knowing, full throttle Bollywood futurisms or die trying. These are the true and rightful spice girls who know the benefits of ‘girl power’ capitalism delivered via high production values, quality, popular culture/capitalism. It will produce a generation of Indian women who thankfully will claim their right to pleasure themselves but will probably want the lifestyle and merchandise to go with it.

Episode titles read like slogans and signal the message loud and clear: ‘Ambitious. Prude. Feminist. Slut.’, ‘Strong Girls Don’t Break’ and ‘Long Way From Ludhiana,’ which charts the journey of a young, dynamic Punjabi woman from being lesbian to bisexual. The constant being the notion of besharam – being without shame.

credits:   Amazon Prime Video

The narrative lands lightly on all the usual topics you’d find in Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan: weight, body image, concepts of beauty, fashion, women dressing for themselves, divorce, familial relationships, childcare, career, masturbation, how to find and keep a partner etc. All relatively well trodden terrain ordinarily but with a new (privileged/Savarna) perspective – with silent servants entering and exiting scenes, subaltern ghosts in the construct of modern India. The Three Cs: Caste, Class and Colourism are kept at bay. Here in this privileged space these three issues become more taboo than sexuality.

‘We’ll get a maid!” Anjana’s husband declares when the issue of childcare and domestic labour is raised lightly. How easy it is in this middle-class, high caste Mumbai to resolve real world problems. It barely warrants a pause in the narrative. We quickly move on to more pressing desires.

The decision not to look at the vital issues of caste, class and colourism and the way they function to control Indian women is an unfortunate one. Is this popular culture for the masses or for a select few? There is value in this storytelling but had the team behind this series allowed themselves to take a few more steps forward they would be onto something truly revolutionary and not just light entertainment.

Feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother, the virginal, ‘good girl’ Siddhi turns to exposing herself online where her vulnerability is consumed by male voyeurs. The scene is set to upbeat music. The point being overstated and oversimplified is that Siddhi is making a choice and therefore the situation couldn’t possibly be exploitative. What it fails to set up is the fact that in certain contexts women have limited choices and often no choice at all.

In episode 9, Anjana’s ex-husband warns her lover (after witnessing a public display of affection) in a mix of Hindi and English – “I’d be careful if I were you. This building is not very comfortable with un-sanskari behaviour. There are cctv cameras everywhere. You don’t know who is watching.” In episode 10 the context for the series’ iconoclasm is named: the ‘M’ word is finally mentioned – misogyny. A slut-shaming internet troll blackmails Siddhi into a sexually compromising situation and states – “In our society we are forced into living two lives.” Anjana is stripped of the custody of her child at the whim and ire of her ex-husband. The autonomy of Indian womanhood is shown as fragile, highly policed, in constant flux and easily extinguished by patriarchy whilst apparently being held in the highest regard and respect by Indian society.

credits:   Amazon Prime Video

There are moments of jalebi sweetness – in episode 8, several octogenarian women discuss their sex lives and are gleeful at the love that bisexual Umang expresses for her girlfriend. A scene I’d like to imagine Ishmat Chugtai would have written if she writing today. Applaudable too is the fact that the programme does not appear to be catering for the white gaze. Interesting whilst British Asian filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha continue to look to colonial India to tell stories to delight a British, ITV Sunday audience desperate for winter sun (Beecham House). These Indian women film and television makers are choosing to tell a different story.

There is power in watching from a distance, as a first generation Indian born and raised in the UK, where Brown female bodies have never been represented as cool, empowered and in control of their own desire. I wonder what encouragement images like these will offer to young South Asian women. Positive representation matters and of course shapes the way we see ourselves and inhabit the world.

The production team behind the series was led by women and there is no doubt that the work is pioneering in many ways. Watching South Asian women drinking, taking drugs, having sex and living life on their own terms is powerful but the lack of intersectionality in the narrative means that it has to be prefaced by prefixes to the experience: middle-class, high caste etc.

The ideas shown here when not lapsing into Mills and Boon territory, are rich and worth exploring but in a 3D, and dare I say it, more fully fleshed way. The opening title sequence is a series of slick glam fashion shots ala Carrie from Sex in the City, interspersed with slogans straight from feminist juvenalia. You are in no doubt what you are about to watch but still, don’t I deserve better as a South Asian woman of Indian heritage? Doesn’t intersectionality have a role to play in our art? A nuanced acknowledgement of the three unspoken Cs – caste, class and colourism would go a long way. That said Four More Shots Please is not without its charm and there is something delicious about seeing a gang of feisty Indian women on screen. Certainly my 15 year old self would have been thrilled to see smart, sexual autonomous Brown women. However that would have been before developing a critical and enquiring gaze. That would be before I evolved to find the words to wonder how these Brown female bodies negotiate a landscape where rape and death is a constant threat? Where sex selective abortion and infanticide have led to missing generations of women. Women whose voices and stories will never be heard. Or perhaps in order to imagine a new India, especially where all women are free to loiter and free to inhabit their bodies, requires flights of fancy to foster and open up spaces where this can exist in reality.

Four More Shots Please is available now on Amazon Prime Video

Raman Mundair is a Queer writer, artist and activist and the author of Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves, A Choreographer’s Cartography, The Algebra of Freedom and the editor of Incoming: Some Shetland Voices. Raman writes, makes art, film and installation and is a founding member of the online community EKTA – Intersectional Feminist Dialogue

Raman Mundair, credits: Laurence Winram