There was this distinct moment when I realised Y Films’ web series about two women – Khanna and Dingo – chatting in six different loos, was going to cause ripples. Laying about in a post-rajma chawal lull one night, lazily going through Facebook links, I clicked on the trailer.
After laughing raucously and rubbing my hands in glee at the idea of an Indian web series starring girls talking about poop and pregnancy tests while smoking copious amounts of pot, I suddenly noticed the comments underneath.
As I scrolled down, I was at first amazed, then angered, then laughing hysterically and finally I thought – wow, this is going to bother people. The comments under the trailer were mainly of two kinds – women praising the series in solidarity, and men voicing their disgust. The realization that women do not actually fart rainbows, poop marshmallows or speak solely in Rumi, was not simply shocking for them, it appeared it was unprecedented. They simply had not thought such a thing was possible.
‘Girls cursing? You’re kidding, right?’ was the general male opinion. I was amazed by this “haw-ji-ki-paw-ji” attitude young Indian men were having to it. Had they been living under a rock or had we? It’s true though, Indian women hide their realities in their linked arm “Let’s go to the loo?” cuteness, so it’s no surprise then that Indian men haven’t a clue what goes on in there.
When writers Neha Kaul Mehra and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee sat down to create the series (online and long distance, as Mehra lives in Chicago), I’m not sure they realized their only slightly exaggerated collection of college memories turned into Khanna and Dingo’s adventures would be the highway that bridged that gap.
The concept for Ladies Room, directed by Ashima Chibber, was born when Y Films vice president Ashish Patil decided he wanted to create a single location web series. When someone jokingly suggested the women’s loo, he latched on to the idea. “As a man I always wondered why women go to the loo in groups, and I knew, it’s because that’s where shit happens – literally and figuratively!”
After shopping around, Y Films brought on board the hugely talented Final Call Productions, who paired together writers Mehra and Bhattacharjee. “When I was sent the first fifteen pages of the script,” Ashish says, “I thought – this is GOLD.” He’s right. As co-writer Bhattacharjee, known for penning the viral Girliyapa video How I Raped Your Mother says, “I talk this way as does Neha, so it was just about writing characters who sounded like us and sounded real.” And they do. Dingo and Khanna are real-er than real, making most other portrayals of women in the Indian media look pretty ridiculous.
To play the illustrious ladies, Final Call and Y films unanimously agreed on Saba Azad and Shreya Dhanwanthary. Azad who plays the free-wheelin’ stoner Dingo, begins with “Comedy is haaard! Making people laugh is the toughest thing I’ve ever done.” But she does, and says she and Dhanwanthary, neither of whom even really identified with their roles, “had a ball of a time exploring the uncharted territory”.
Known for her cute roles in films like Mujhse Fraandship Karoge, and more recently adored as girl-half of musical act Madboy/Mink, Azad performed some of Dingo’s parts with nothing more than a dab of makeup. “It was a conscious decision,” she says. “If I’m on a local train I should look like I’m on a train. I may not look great but that adds to the authenticity of the character. So if looking “ugly” is a byproduct of authenticity - bring it on! I do not have dreams of grandeur – I act for the craft.”
When I ask Dhanwanthary who plays Khanna (the knocked up one) if she felt awkward saying and doing the things she does in the series, she replies in the absolute negative, even though the first time she read the script she said her “eyebrows reacted first – one went up and one went down”.
These are brave girls – no make up, hands down toilets, smoking joints, abortions, tripping on MDMA – all on screen. There aren’t many actresses in Bombay who would’ve agreed. And there aren’t many people who would have backed it. Preetika Chawla, Final Call founder says the backing of this wild and admittedly risky idea is all Ashish Patil. “He’s a good, good man,” she says, and that’s more than one can say of anyone doing what he does.
Was he ever worried? It sounds like more than worried, he had (despite loving the idea) prepared himself for a lot of backlash and a niche audience at most. What happened instead surprised even him. Sure, they experienced the expected backlash, but as they release their sixth and final episode, they’re standing at 7 million views with an average watch time of 80 percent. That’s the thing about Khanna and Dingo – you don’t want to switch them off. Even the ones watching out of sheer perversion, the ones leaving hate-comments like, “Where did you hire these randis?” are watching till the very end.
About those comments that initially piqued my interest in the show, feisty Azad says, “I was hoping people would have an extreme reaction. Fickle and fun as it may seem, I feel Ladies Room uses humor brilliantly to address topics that are poignant to women, and shows women as they are rather than through some regressive patriarchal filter. Khanna and Dingo cuss, they think of sex, they drink, smoke, party, and it doesn’t mean they’re loose or characterless. It’s time our understanding of what women are changed.”
It was precisely with this change in mind that Final Call’s Preetika Chawla and Patrick Graham began their conversation with Y Films. “Every time anyone tries to do something about women and where we stand today, they do it badly – we wanted to address that.” Economist turned writer Mehra also speaks of how she felt “fatigued” after watching “one too many movies about male yari dosti, college days, purani jeans, guitar shit,” and wondered why female friendships hadn’t received their due in Indian cinema or television. “Why the hell couldn't Veeru and Jai be female?” And so she created Khanna and Dingo, who are looking at not simply a Season Two in the future, but a whole film starring them.
For me personally, the pair represent a sort of new feminism, but when I ask Neha Kaul Mehra about writing feminist characters she says, “That Khanna and Dingo are the way they are - coarse, cynical, devious, hilarious, loving, supportive, empowered, not particularly feminine in a normative sense, wasn't a conscious decision. That's just who they are. Or who we are. In mainstream Hindi film and television we haven't really seen women just be people, right? Mostly they're just a body. That's changing now.”
Bhattacharjee too admits that while writing it, the pair never even spoke about feminism. “We just wrote characters like us, reacting to sitiations the way we would. Yes, we’re both feminists and I’m sure that comes through, but we did not set out to write a feminist comedy."
You see why this is the new feminism? Because it dissolves even the use of the word. In a wonderfully relaxed post-feminist optimism, it confidently presumes that if you’re not a feminist, you’re automatically sexist. Feminism has to constantly reinvent itself in order to trick its way into the sour-pussed mouths of those who still find equality too bitter a thing to swallow and this new avatar of Indian feminism is for me it’s finest yet.
We’ve had the drably dressed serious fighter for female rights, then the sexy, barely clad announcer of “it’s my body and my life” one liners, and the earnest college kid holding the placard at the rape protest. But the new threads Indian feminism is donning, thanks to the likes of Mehra, Bhattacharjee, solo trooper Mallika Dua (if you haven’t watched her snapchats your life is lacking), and a small handful of others, is my favourite so far.
It pokes fun at itself, it doesn’t give a dead rat’s ass what you think, it’s having a ball of a time and it is women, uncensored, un-photoshopped and unmanaged. I love it, and I’m certain you will too.