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'Masaba Masaba': Real women on the job

Talking to the people behind Netflix’s 'Masaba Masaba', it becomes clear that the show has a singularly female insight into Bollywood and the fashion industry

In the show, Masaba and Neena Gupta play fictionalized versions of themselves (Photo: Netflix)
In the show, Masaba and Neena Gupta play fictionalized versions of themselves (Photo: Netflix)

Most shows featuring famous people playing fictionalized and exaggerated versions of themselves are not very kind to their protagonists. The famous person in the show is usually a ruder, nastier, more ego-centric version of themself—think Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, or, less famously, Dirty Dancing lead actor Jennifer 'Baby' Grey in the short-lived sitcom It’s Like, You Know… in which she plays a one-hit-wonder who can’t get any more work after a nose job that changes her appearance.

Masaba Masaba, Netflix’s new show about designer Masaba Gupta and her mother, actor Neena Gupta, helmed by a (practically) all-female team of writers, showrunners and directors, is much gentler on its protagonists. Without making them saints, and while giving them all the complexity of real people, the show portrays Masaba and Neena as good people struggling with the challenges of difficult, creative careers as they navigate friendships and their own relationship, with a smidgen of their romantic lives thrown into the mix—though honestly, that's the least of their problems.

While Masaba is shown struggling to get a handle on her next collection while a financier is breathing down her neck, Neena’s journey is even more interesting, made funnier by the actor’s deadpan, pragmatic older woman vibe—at one point, she meets with filmmaker Farah Khan (playing herself in a hilarious cameo) hoping to land a role in an upcoming film; even though things don’t work out, it leads Neena to take certain steps that launch her on a renewed film career.

Neena plays herself as an older actor looking to find more meaningful and meaty roles in Bollywood
Neena plays herself as an older actor looking to find more meaningful and meaty roles in Bollywood

Rarely does a show about women make it so much about their professional lives and their relationships with each other and dwell so little on the men in their orbit. The men in Masaba and Neena’s lives are, refreshingly, almost an afterthought in this show, which passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It feels almost like sweet revenge executed by Yardi and Nair, who worked in Hindi soaps for many years—serials in which women’s work was limited to making the most perfect gulab jamuns to please the man of the house.

“I thought of doing a show based on a fictionalised version of an actual celebrity almost two years ago, but when I discussed the idea with people, not too many seemed to get it. We were going through a biopic phase in Bollywood and people kept asking if it is a biopic or a reality show or fiction," says Yardi. She wanted the protagonist to be female, but wasn’t sure who would fit the bill, till she saw Masaba’s Instagram feed and realised that here was a celebrity who was not only an achiever with an interesting backstory but also someone who is completely truthful and honest about her struggles.

Masaba herself is a revelation in the show. She’s never acted before, but you can’t tell. She hits every note perfectly, is completely natural and un-selfconscious, and makes us believe in her character and what she’s going through. “Not many people know that Masaba wanted to be an actor when she was younger, but Neena kind of dissuaded her because she was afraid Masaba would face a lot of difficulties because of her unconventional looks," says Yardi. It’s a testament to how much things have changed in the entertainment industry that in this show, Masaba, dressed in the most gorgeous outfits (designed by young Indian designers like Saaksha & Kinny, Anamika Khanna) glows with confidence, fills almost every frame and acts like a pro.

“I did this acting which was about 12 days long and it was the most cathartic experience of my whole life," says Masaba. “I’m very grateful I had that because for me it was like therapy. Being a part of this series and getting to know myself all over again was a little heartbreaking but at the same time very therapeutic."

The show blurs the line between truth and fiction so subtly that it’s difficult to tell how honest it is being about the real lives of these two women, but director Sonam Nair says the two were absolutely open about their lives and experiences. “When we were developing the show, all of us on the writing team would meet at their house and just hang out with them, listening to their stories and anecdotes, getting to know their personalities, and Masaba and Neena were both absolutely open to all questions. Except for a few things, they were really chilled out about us using their lives as material. They’re really bindaas women who don't fret over small things," says Nair.

Neena says she gave only one piece of acting advice to her daughter: say your lines like you mean them.

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