Bhaag Beanie Bhaag review: Netflix series is an insipid NRI guide to Indian stand-up comedy
For a show that revolves itself around the business of jokes, Bhaag Beanie Bhaag is unbearably unfunny.
Two weeks ago, when the trailer for Netflix India’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, dropped online, the accusation across the board was the fact that it seemed to be an obvious rip-off of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. At first blush, the parallels are obvious. Even here, the titular Beanie Bhatnagar (Swara Bhasker) has a perfectly idyllic life: an MBA degree, a dead-end job, and a loving, boring fiancé who comes with a lifetime guarantee of stability and four bedroom apartments. Just like Midge Maisel, even she chooses to leave this very life behind – triggered by a personal tragedy – to embrace stand-up comedy. Except that’s where the similarities end. As it turns out, the show’s list of offenses are much graver. For one, Bhaag Beanie Bhaag is doused equally in the performative feminist aesthetic of Veere Di Wedding and Four More Shots! Please, relying on the kind of manufactured friction that is the cornerstone of any Imtiaz Ali affair. It’s also as much a train-wreck as any of those outings, one that fetishises female liberation as a statement of life and not a consequence of it.
On paper, 29-year-old Beanie Bhatnagar is built to be an over-achieving, obedient woman who chooses to not look back at the life the people around her choose for her the minute it dawns on her that she should be looking after herself. There’s a lovely backstory about Beanie stumbling onto developing an inclination for stand-up comedy once she realises that it is the easiest way to get people to react to her. So when years later, Arun (Varun Thakur in crackling form), Beanie’s boyfriend of three years proposes to her and doesn’t even wait for her answer, it naturally acts as the trigger that makes her want to hear her own voice. The appeal of the stage, a place where people finally listen to her, fits right into the scheme of things.
But on screen, she never really translates into this person. From the very first scene, the show builds Beanie up as the classic clumsy dream girl™, one who miraculously ends up having it all even when she doesn’t look like she can have it all. This is the kind of woman who is characterised by the fact that her dreams are actualised not by sheer perseverance or hard work but through a series of coincidences, conveniences, and chances. A comedy promoter just happens to be lurking around to offer her a spot at a coveted Newcomers showcase; her influencer best friend Kapi (Dolly Singh wasted in a thankless role) lands her a consequential gig at her friend’s wedding; Ravi, the NRI comedian (co-creator Ravi Patel) she hooks up with provides her with ammunition at just the correct time for her to exploit it on stage. In fact, for an art form where brilliance relies on the art of repetition, Beanie just becomes a better stand-up comedian almost overnight. Even then, the show never manages to completely cast out doubts over whether Beanie is actually invested in stand-up comedy beyond wanting to prove everyone’s assumptions about her wrong.
Much of the reason for this discrepancy stems from Bhasker’s vacant lead performance which doesn’t invite any curiosity about Beanie. A mark of a gifted actor is their ease with playing characters that could be an extension of their real-life identities. It might look deceptively easy but it requires a great degree of restraint to not go overboard with a sense of familiarity. Bhasker’s turn is devoid of both restraint and depth: she is a little too on-the-nose, playing Beanie as a Sonam Kapoor-type, the bumbling damsel-in-distress who is so habituated to being rescued that she is unable to come to terms with the consequences of her own actions. In that sense, the actress doesn’t play a woman who comes-of-age as much as she parodies her – a sex scene in the show’s fourth episode which exists to prove Beanie’s feistiness is a masterclass in what is easily the year’s most cringeworthy acting.
There’s a similar heavy handedness to the proceedings as well. The dialogue for instance sounds like curated tweets on more than one occasion, as if written with the intention of garnering virtual likes instead of steering conversation (“If everyone in India lives with their family, where do they have sex? “He speaks in business metaphors no one understands”). As a result, characters in the show react to situations more than they act them out, a filmmaking device that turns grating after a point more so because the shabbily-directed show offers no real room for any emotion to breathe. The screenplay is hollow for a 2020 production, oversimplifying even the most obvious of developments. For instance, it’s clear that Beanie fears the idea of spending the rest of her life tending to kids when her parents, overjoyed at Arun’s proposal, talk shop about future grandchildren. Yet, there are atleast five more references to kids spread out within that first half hour, including two ill-timed hallucinations, just to drive the point across. In another scene, when Beanie agrees to play cricket with Ravi at an unknown beach with a bunch of aggressive kids despite not having played it before, it isn’t hard to put two and two together. But of course, the next moment has Ravi laud Beanie for loosening up and being spontaneous. In case the message about her being impulsive was still not clear, Beanie proceeds to kiss him.
But perhaps the show’s biggest undoing is its complete disregard for the language of Indian stand-up comedy. For a show that revolves itself around the business of jokes, Bhaag Beanie Bhaag is unbearably unfunny (the writing team includes Nisha Kalra, Devashree Shivadekar, Ravi Patel, Neel Shah, Jared Miller, and Lauren Chinn). With every passing episode, Beanie is shown to slowly get comfortable on stage and in the process, earn laughs. Yet, the material that she performs, replete with outdated observations about gender and sex, remains unremarkable.
Then there’s the fact that the plot is so generic that it could work even if it unfolded in New York or London – there is really no purpose to Bhaag Beanie Bhaag being set in Mumbai save for the fact that it’s easier to buy an Indian damsel-in-distress than a British one. This aversion to specifics spills over to other facets of the narrative as well. Take for instance the fact that the show views Beanie’s rise as a stand-up comedian in isolation to the stand-up ecosystem in the city. It’s not entirely clear who Beanie’s peers are or even how she measures up to them (a few comedian cameos is the closest the show comes to introducing other comedians). In a way, it is ultimately redundant to base an entire show on an artform and then choose to avoid delving into its machinery altogether.
The reason that’s the case is because Bhaag Beanie Bhaag isn’t technically a Netflix India offering in the truest sense of the word. It is, instead, yet another import, one that continues the streaming platform’s frustrating tradition of letting the Indian-American gaze define the Indian experience. The show is co-created by Neel Shah and Ravi Patel and co-directed by Abi Varghese (Brown Nation) and Ishaan Nair (Pushpavalli’s Debbie Rao is the third director of the show), all of whom are Indian-American filmmakers and creators. These are essentially people who by virtue of not having to negotiate life in the country seek to only recreate it, instead of articulating it. That they are at a remove from the world they are building should ideally act as a red flag, which is to say, that their perspective is of the proverbial outsider, one who is less interested in dissecting the dualities of any Indian experience and more taken with making it accessible. No punchline can erase that dealbreaker.
Bhaag Beanie Bhaag is now streaming on Netflix.
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