Why do we hate on R Madhavan's misogynistic character in Decoupled, but spare the men in Succession?
Maybe the toxicity or entitlement of Indian men is not as culturally permeable as that of their white counterparts.
Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.
In a scene from Decoupled, Arya, played by R Madhavan, has a sudden epiphany that maids in Gurugram are beautiful "only on the inside." The scene is actually performed as a thought Arya has running across his mind as he registers working across his colony’s streets.
It is a somewhat crass observation that many men in India think, but would perhaps never make as indelicately – at least not in a setting as posh as the one here. It is also a tacitly structured thought to not just call women belonging to a certain class of Indian society ugly, but reclaim rather hastily, their humanity by refusing to say so. But it is what illustrates Arya well, a snobby, smug narcissist with no social filter, who is also, at the moment, staring at the barrel of every critic’s – used as a broader term – word launcher for being tone-deaf and offensive. While he may be all those things, an Arya deserves to be told just as much as a Newton.
Decoupled has been created and written by Manu Joseph, the seemingly self-indulgent columnist who is, like Chetan Bhagat, as well-read as he is hated. Joseph’s pieces are always divisive, contrarian takes that liberals find hard to stomach for he foreshadows the determinism of positioning, with the smokescreen of whimsy. Like Joseph, Arya is a vaguely, outspoken man with eccentricities that go beyond the normal, and yet fail to box him into a set of ideas or ideology. It is exactly the kind of person that liberals struggle to visualise because contempt alone cannot translate into a better understanding of people you cannot bring yourself to like or empathise with. By such people I mean, the majority, men who would think and do far worse without Arya’s capacity to absorb or intellectualise it without turning violent.
The show is about Arya and his wife Shruti, a strained couple that knows their marriage is over but continue to deliberate, like friends, about what the rest of their social and sexual lives must look like. It is a bold premise, with far more potential than the show actually manages to cover. Arya is also the second highest-selling author in the country behind Chetan Bhagat who features here as himself, besides a sex guru, a desperate filmmaker, and the most arbitrary Netflix pitch that, unless it is an inside joke, does the platform no favours. Expectedly though, it is Arya’s lack of sensitivity, elitism, and smugness that has become a talking point for those who approach art with a saviour complex (not too dissimilar to Joseph’s contrarian complex). The problem with the show is not its characters, their morality or the terse generosity, but the fact that it just is not put together to the effect that many of the ideas floating through it suggest.
Most liberal thinkers who write on cinema often mistake themselves for jurists, who exist to deify or decry art based on its moral compass as opposed to the prowess, or lack thereof, of its storytelling. They tend to believe that the politics of a film must be reconcilable with their idea of the world, failing which it is just not worth anyone’s time. Of course, writing or critiquing is a subjective exercise, but so is filmmaking and storytelling. To which effect, a political adversary, in this case a jingoistic anti-hero who offends freely, cannot be shunned for embodying a principle, that to your calibration feels offensive.
Insult comedy is a thing, but reviewing an insult by calling it an insult is no grand insight. Decoupled may be sloppily made, but it is pretty assured in what it is going for, in a political sense. That it would offend people, most of all critics, must have been to the makers a given. That it may be designed to do that alone, is also a remark that an equally self-indulgent critic like Joseph would make.
The most-obsessed-about TV show of our time today features hate-spewing, man-children fighting it out for a pot of wealth. You could argue that Succession is written and performed with a sense of irony, but you surely cannot argue that it literalises reality. The show’s writing makes abominable acts of aggression and social terror, feel palatable because of the transfixing, high-voltage, ceremonial tone they are performed with.
Maybe the provocative bits of Succession feel inoffensive because they come loaded with white-man competence. Put Decoupled in the hands of a more competent team – largely with the same material – and maybe we could have a better show.
Or maybe the toxicity or entitlement of Indian men is not as culturally permeable as that of their white counterparts.
I understand the sense of responsibility, disdain for a piece of art inspires, but collating criticism with the fictional depths of activism, is pointless, not to mention redundant in the case of a medium that can always lead to a false sense of worth on either side of viewing screen.
Decoupled is a show featuring mostly abhorrent people who cannot be reclaimed by the ends to their deceptive means. For one thing, I appreciate the series for making Shruti (Surveen Chawla) equally snarky and manipulative rather than casting her as a floral presence alongside the frequently poisonous Arya. Though the latter is many bad things woven into one, my only grouse with the character is that Madhavan’s established charms do not allow Arya to reach a level of malice that, like Logan Roy, inspires a sense of hesitant admiration.
Instead, Arya’s cockiness mutilates the idea of him knowing as many things about as many things as he posits he does. But that alone should not delegitimise the attempt of the show to frame a heinous character, whose politics can be as irreverent as his bluntness is consistent. If only, the show is too ambivalent at the point where the envelope is asking to be truly, brutally, pushed.
Decoupled is streaming on Netflix India.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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