“I am not a girl, I am a storm with skin” reads one of the first shots in the title sequence of Four More Shots Please, Amazon India’s latest original “woman-centric” show. The phrase serves as a manifesto for the show, in which each character is less complex, layered individual and more vessel for a feminist message.
The four leads of Four More Shots can be summed up in a sentence each: Damini is a journalist perpetually worried about her precarious position in the media world or, alternately, about who she’s sleeping with. Siddhi, a somewhat spoiled daughter of Gujarati parents, hates her overly critical mother and consequently has constant issues with her body. Anjana is a mother and divorcée who also happens to play lawyer when she’s not sleeping with her intern. Umang is a butch bisexual trainer who left her life in Ludhiana to kick it with the glossy elite of Mumbai. The four of them are fierce and feisty and make jokes about the patriarchy at least as often as they drink (usually twice in each episode). There. You’ve watched the entire first season.
Feminist phrases and tropes come at you like projectile vomit. Anjana talks to her vagina calling it a “makdi ka jaala” (spider web), then sings about rubbing her clit while masturbating. Damini chastises strangers she overhears discussing celebrity gossip for not caring about “real journalism.” The girls yell “vagina” into the Arabian sea as a symbol of female liberation. They practice kegels in the middle of a run along Mumbai’s coastline, right after discussing how much they hate the manic pixie dream girl trope. In a particularly charged up scene, the four introduce themselves to a group of guys hitting on them at a bar with the following verbal onslaught (translated):
Umang. I’m a trainer, bisexual, looking for adventure. Keep one word in mind: consent. No anal allowed. And oral? Only if you do it back.
I’m Anjana. A lawyer, a single mother. Oh and… my vagina refuses to come.
I’m Damini, startup founder… Super smart, Super successful. (She earns more than all four of your salaries combined). I also masturbate pretty often, much more efficient than sex.
I’m Siddhi, I’m a virgin. My mom hates me, she wants to get me married to a pure veg Gujju boy, but I love non veg. Unfortunately I can’t kick your ass today because I’m wearing very high heels. But what are your plans for tomorrow?
It’s frustrating to see how wrong the writers get urban Indian women. When director Anu Menon was asked by Scroll.in about the show before its release, she suggested that it was “about women and their sexuality but also much more than that.” Yet Devika Bhagat and Ishika Moitra, the writers of the show, have written the urban female condition as though it is totally devoid of that crucial “much more.” The characters are deliberately deracinated and exist only in the world of upper middle class Mumbai. This gives them a one dimensionality that is glossed over by the apparent urgency of the show’s feminism.
Which really is the heart of the problem. The makers really seem to believe that their audience needs to be beaten over the head with “statements” to gain anything from a show centered on women. This lack of subtlety hampers even potentially poignant moments. Take a scene featuring Umang, the only one of the four not originally from Mumbai, trying to get a job at a gym after moving to the city. Umang’s Punjabi roots and lack of polish are visible in how she dresses, speaks, carries herself. The interviewer picks up on this and tells her “here’s a tip, join an English speaking course. You might want to buy some proper training gear. You remind me of a background dancer from a 90s Bollywood film.”
Despite missing the insidiousness that classism among the urban elite usually manifests as, this scene highlights the difference in the girls’ socio-economic positionalities. It acknowledges that the experience of being an urban woman is not monochromatic and that the struggles of women are layered with classism, casteism, and an array of discriminations and privileges that create complex identities. Yet these scenes are so far and few between that they seem almost like inserts strategically placed to remind the viewer that, yes, the writers are woke.
It’s exhausting to see the same tired iterations of urban Indian womanhood on screen. From Angry Indian Goddesses to Veere Di Wedding to Four More Shots, the authenticity of this experience seems to be getting more and more watered down to win feminism points. Which is why it is so refreshing to see a show like Made in Heaven get urban women so right.
Set in the world of upper class Delhi, Made in Heaven features a similar milieu to that of the lead characters in Four More Shots. The show revolves around Made in Heaven, a wedding planning agency co-founded by Tara, a small-town girl who struck it big by marrying wealthy industrialist Adil Khanna, and Karan, a gay bachelor whose parents have invested heavily in both his previous failed nightclub and his current wedding venture. An eclectic and carefully picked lead cast weaves the show’s narrative together, featuring Faiza, Tara’s born-rich best friend who sleeps with her husband, Jazz, a young girl from Delhi’s far less affluent side who works as the agency’s production assistant and Kabir, the agency’s videographer who narrates the hard-won takeaways at the end of each episode.
Unlike Four More Shots, Made in Heaven presents no feminist firebrands. The characters are wrapped up in their own little worlds, leaving little space for clever quips about the patriarchy. Yet it is undoubtedly shot with what director Zoya Akhtar terms a “female gaze.” This is no jeremiad on the condition of Indian women in 2019. It is a nuanced, honest portrayal of the rich inner lives of people across genders that succeeds in highlighting the way a patriarchal power structure is detrimental to everyone.
This is the genius of Made in Heaven. The female gaze serves to amplify the interiority of its characters, and to disrupt the comfort with which we reside in our justifications of elitism. Jaspreet or Jazz, the closest parallel to Umang in Four More Shots, uses her company credit card to buy herself clothes to fit in with the Delhi elite because she feels so out of place at the agency. She is clueless about the sophisticated innuendos of hookup culture and “friends with benefits” type setups. Her otherness highlights the harsh metallic taste that urban elitism can leave in your mouth, but does it without any of the heavy handedness that Four More Shots brandishes as its feminist warcry. Similarly, Karan’s run in with the law after being caught having sex with a man by his prying landlord is handled with a sympathy that allows him to be reluctant to share his story with anyone, even for the greater good of society.
This empathy debinarizes notions of good and bad. Faiza, who sleeps with her best friend’s husband, is pitiably vulnerable. Karan, who eventually fights for the LGBTQI community, is haunted by a reprehensible past. Tara, who is cheated on by Adil, turns out to have been cheating on him as well. Each of the characters’ stories is terrible, exhilarating, remarkable in equal parts.
Think about the amount of screen time each of the characters spend introspecting on Made in Heaven. We see Jazz in her pokey little flat, desperately trying to ignore her brother’s drug habit. We see Faiza with her therapist, vocalizing her innermost anxieties about the relationships in her life and her history with domestic abuse. We see Tara putting on a face even before heading out into the world, signalling the layers of artificiality she has internalized by being in the environment of the elite. This interiority presents the women in the show as complex and empathizable human beings whose intersecting positionalities nuance what urban womanhood looks like.
Contrast this with Four More Shots. Damini’s boss is the bad guy for edging her out of a position at her own company. Sneha, Siddhi’s mom, is the bad guy for constantly picking on Siddhi for her weight and her inability to find a man. Even when the four leads mess up, they are still decidedly the good guys for their unwavering loyalty to the feminist cause. This black and white binarization comes packaged with little introspection from any of the characters, whose lives exist solely in the public domain.
With Four More Shots, we are forced to swallow yet another portrayal of urban women as fighting, bold, angry, to the exclusion of all else. How much does this really challenge the status quo? These women remain trapped within their one dimensional identities, completely oblivious to the world around them. Not only is this an inaccurate depiction of the tremendously layered reality of urban womanhood, it also makes for staccato, monotone writing and a narrative that relies on audience indignation to remain interesting.