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Decoupled review: Madhavan’s charming presence tones down unrelenting toxicity of new Netflix show

Decoupled review: New Netflix show doesn't spend enough time dissecting a failed marriage, but Madhavan's confident performance smoothens its flaws.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
Updated: December 17, 2021 9:20:30 pm
Decoupled review: R Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in a still from the new Netflix show. (Photo: Netflix)

Decoupled director – Hardik Mehta
Decoupled creator – Manu Joseph
Decoupled cast – R Madhavan, Surveen Chawla
Decoupled rating – 2.5 stars

Decoupled, on Netflix isn’t so much a comedy about a couple on the verge of divorce as it is a vessel to communicate creator Manu Joseph’s most divisive thoughts to an audience that normally wouldn’t care about them.

With its off-putting bro-code bravado and casual mean-spiritedness, Decoupled has missed the boat by at least 10 years. Had it been released in the era of Entourage or Californication—with which it shares a self-involved writer protagonist—it could’ve been excused. But as it stands, it comes off as positively prehistoric, giving Joseph an outlet to express his disdain for therapists, the ‘NDTV types’, and the #MeToo movement — all by using his characters as a mouthpiece.

But who knew Madhavan would be so brilliant at playing such an insufferable man. His pulp fiction novelist Arya is the sort of person you wouldn’t want to sit next to at a restaurant—not because he’d complain bitterly about the food, but because he’d probably pull you aside and give you an unsolicited lecture about why most restaurant kitchens employ only men.

There is an element of victimhood in the show’s writing that Madhavan’s performance completely ignores. He plays Arya like the man of privilege that he is, someone who revels in his made-up position in society—the sort of guy whose mom probably told him he was special growing up. But the writing limits Arya to rants about pointless stuff; he never complains about things that actually matter. Arya lives in a bubble of his own making, which separates him not just from the real world, but also his family.

Decoupled comes dangerously close to sympathising with the sort of people that it wants to satirise. For instance, if you didn’t know that Joseph also wrote Serious Men, you might miss the satire in Decoupled completely. Especially when it takes repeated digs at Parasite, an odd film to mock, you’d agree—was Coolie No 1 off the table? But like so much of Decoupled, this feels like a personal vendetta.

You might think that it is a two-hander about modern relationships, but it really isn’t. More than anything else, it feels like watching the neighbourhood troublemaker yell from the rooftops only to be met with complete silence from people who have actual jobs to do.

The show begins with Arya having a public meltdown about the pointlessness of security checks at airport gates, which earns him a spot on the no-fly list. He also launches into rant about ‘the great Indian tradition of keeping one gate closed’, and has a one-sided conversation about parking attendants who know nothing about driving, but in a flagrant display of male confidence think that they can direct you. The irony.

A few episodes later, Arya invites his driver—whom he has already made fun of in episode one—to chill with him at a fancy-shmancy art exhibition. For a second, you think that he’s turned a new leaf. After making casteist remarks about his driver’s body odour, he has now discovered the error of his ways. But no, he summoned Ganesh only for his own amusement. Again, there might be symbolic relevance in seeing a lowly driver walk into a pretentious art exhibition, pluck a banana off an installation meant to depict the wealth-gap, and eat it. But because the scene is framed from Arya’s apathetic perspective, the satire is muddled. This is precisely what made Parasite (and even Serious Men) different. Those movies punched up; Decoupled constantly punches down.

Because the show has nobody to counterbalance the problematic behaviour of its male lead(s), it risks resembling something that actually believes the nonsense that Arya spouts on a regular basis. There is a subplot about him and his buddies pitching a show to Netflix in which they will get together every week and discuss stuff they imagine women would love to hear. Later, Arya downloads a creepy app through which he can track a woman’s cycle. All this is played for laughs.

An entire episode is devoted to Arya running into an ex, and hatching a plan to show her off to his estranged wife Shruti in an effort to make her jealous. But then he notices that the ex isn’t as pretty as he thought she was. Her ‘flaw’? She has a big butt. Lots of people laugh at her for having a big butt. Hilarious. Arya is, as you soon discover, a deeply superficial man. For instance, he retches when he notices that the flight attendant he is flirting with (whom he assumed was also an escort) appears to be unwaxed. Go ahead, take a moment to list down what offends you the most about that sentence. And now get this: the show thinks it is appropriate to reward him for such reprehensible behaviour.

To be clear, characters can be terrible—they can be sexist, classist, racist, abusive, manipulative, whatever—but stories shouldn’t excuse their terrible actions. Arya is let off the hook on virtually every count. At least director Hardik Mehta and executive producer Vikramaditya Motwane should’ve known better.

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