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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Four More Shots Please writer Devika Bhagat: Freedom to make a choice for yourself is a basic need

Starring Sayani Gupta, Kirti Kulhari, Maanvi Gagroo and Bani J, Four More Shots Please serves as an unabashed depiction of sisterhood.

Written by Priyanka Sharma | Mumbai | Published: May 30, 2020 9:06:00 pm
Four More Shots Please 2 Four More Shots Please Season 2 is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

For an industry that has churned out blockbuster dramas around various themes of friendship for decades now, one can count films on female friendships on the fingers of one hand. “Every kind of film is made on a male protagonist. From action, comedy, romance, road trips, political and spy films,” says Devika Bhagat, the writer of Four More Shots Please.

Starring Sayani Gupta, Kirti Kulhari, Maanvi Gagroo and Bani J, the Amazon Prime Video original serves as an unabashed depiction of sisterhood. Weeks after the second season’s premiere, Devika speaks to indianexpress.com about balancing frivolousness with depth, lack of intersectionality and pursuing the freedom to choose the kind of stories she wants to tell.

This season looks better put together than the previous one. The first season met with mixed reactions. So, did you take in the feedback? What do you think changed in the second installment?

So, we started writing season two in July 2018, which was seven months before season one released. Now, when season one was happening, we were all working on a binge-worthy show for the first time in our lives. Rangita Nandy had gotten the idea greenlit by Amazon by the time I came on board. At first, it was a little difficult to work off someone else’s base material because I hadn’t created the characters. It was a process where I wanted to create the vision of Rangita Nandy, who is the creator, and also bring myself on the page. With season one, we wanted to lead our audience with baby steps. It was a conscious decision. We decided we would add a little bit more fun.

For season two, we felt we should take it a notch up. We have made the audience fall in love with them, now let’s make them a little mature in their arc and let’s introduce subjects that may be uncomfortable for many. It was a risk, but it paid off.

The show seemed to have ticked a lot of boxes, from gender pay disparity, same-sex relationships to abortion. Many of these conversations have become mainstream only a few years ago. Do you tackle them as ‘subjects’ or do they fit into your story organically?

It’s both. When we look at our character, we see where he or she is. Like, at the end of season one, Anjana (Kirti) is having a relationship with a younger man, and she is not so okay with it, which is mainly because of what society will think. She has made a mistake because she was worried for her child. Her ex might punish her severely than she deserves. Now, in season two, where do we take her character? Who is the man that would be perfect for Anjana? Is it Arjun or someone intellectually equal? As a successful lawyer, what are the issues that she could face? Sexual harassment, pay disparity and gender discrimination. That’s how we take it. What are the issues that working women face?

Along with it, we have to see how to make it organic. Now we all are 40 plus women. We have been there and done that. We know things that have happened to our siblings, friends. In order to make it organic, we check if it has happened to me, what I felt at that point and how I reacted to that moment. All this is according to my personality, but we have to take note of the character’s personality and see if she would react the same way or not.

If you take Anjana and Varun’s (Neil Bhoopalam) relationship. I am not a single mother. I am not divorced, but when I write about it, I go into that zone and think about the fights my husband and I have had, what I think of him at times. Sometimes I think I should never make an enemy out of anyone in the writers’ room because it will expose all my dark secrets! (laughs) It has to be an open atmosphere. That’s the best part about working with a group of women because it’s a safe place. Nobody’s judging you.

Go on…

Even if you talk about abortion, I am pro-choice. I decided to have a child at 36 because I wanted to and my husband and I were ready for it. I am lucky to have been in a position like that. Not everybody is. I know people who don’t want kids at all, and they have decided that if they get pregnant, they will have an abortion. Then there are people who want to have kids because either they don’t believe in abortion or feel their biological clock is ticking and if they don’t do it now, they won’t be able to conceive later. So, we think about different viewpoints and decide accordingly.

One of the criticisms about the show has been about how easy the lives of these women are. So much so that it feels at times the solution is found even before the problem is comprehended. How do you react to it?

It depends on the situation. If we are talking about Umang’s (Bani) family not accepting her, they have still not accepted her. That cannot be easily resolved. The story of these girls runs for six-eight months over a season. Umang came out to her parents. She was afraid all her life, and when she did come out, they did not accept her. Even in season two, they haven’t accepted her and didn’t attend her wedding. Whether that solution will ever come about or not, let’s see.

In terms of other issues on the show like Damini (Sayani) can’t get her book published. So, she self publishes it, but it gets banned because people are protesting against it. Now, is there a solution beyond that? Probably not. So, there are certain issues that will never be solved.

For instance, Sneha (played by Simone Singh) was quite one dimensional in her disappointment and anger towards her daughter Siddhi throughout the first season, and it took her just one scene to forget her own insecurities, which she projected on her daughter for years. Is it that easy for people to move on and relationships to be rebuilt?

If we look at Sneha’s character, it all comes from a fear of society that, “My daughter needs to marry by a certain age and look a certain way.” Now she realises that it has caused her daughter damage, but if you notice in season two, she hasn’t changed her feelings and ideas about life that much. When she and Siddhi go to a spa, Sneha tells her that she needs to cater to a man’s needs because she is old school and she is not suddenly going to become a feminist. Secondly, she is still trying to set her up because she still has those old-fashion beliefs. She hasn’t been completely re-educated.

Umang’s relationship with Samara (Lisa Ray) is one of my favourite bits in the second season. The normalcy with which is you have treated their equation is commendable. Going forward, will you dig deep into Umang’s past about how a girl from a small town came to terms with her sexual identity and the fight she fought with her parents before coming to Mumbai?

The delving of her past baggage will only be through her relationships as far as I know. But we will take the season as it comes. The excess baggage of her identity is about her family. It’s about being able to live her life, which we saw in season one, her relationship with Pinky, her brother and the new freedom that she has found. That’s what she tells Samara, “I have fought all my life to live freely and I am not going to go back in the shadows.”

In terms of normalcy, that was a very conscious decision. The ‘I have never been with a woman before’ will come from Samara, but for Umang, we have to deal with it like any other relationship. So, even when we are talking about the power struggle between Samara and Umang, there’s always somebody who is in charge of the relationship. And that’s where the issues arise.

We tried to play everything organically, even when we are talking about diversity. We have Jay Wadia, who is half-Parsi half-Sindhi, Damini Rizvi Roy, who has a two-part last name to show that she comes from mixed cultures. We want to make it look normal without pointing fingers at it like ‘Oh, she is half Muslim.’

Many viewers have felt these four women have “first world problems”. This at a time when we have discussions around intersectionality and inclusivity. Do you think in the future, you can introduce characters that are perhaps not as privileged as these women are?

Firstly, when I was writing, the characters were not of the same financial background. Umang does not earn that much. There was a scene in season one where Umang realises she is always borrowing money from the girls and never repays. But this got edited out due to the episode length. I always show her living in the suburbs and Anjana living in Bandra.

The thing is I don’t write locations. I just write apartments or rooms. And I definitely don’t write dresses. That was the vision that Rangita Nandy as a creator had. She wanted it to be aspirational, fashion-forward. She wanted to shoot only in South Mumbai because she felt that part of the city has never been shot the way she sees it.

For me, Mumbai is Andheri West. South Mumbai is like a completely different city for me. I have to plan before going there. So, it’s something that she had a vision of. She will be the first one to tell you that I am very possessive about my scenes, and I don’t like them to get distracted by the amount of eye shadow. So, they toned it down.

In season one, Umang is staying in a one BHK house and in the second season, she is staying with Samara. Now maybe she will go back to her room. I think the issue is also that in South Bombay, they don’t have small apartments (laughs). Damini’s house is actually a furniture store! So, yes, I have complained about it. Rangita is the creator and when you are creating a show, you have a certain vision for it.

Did you ever fear alienating the audience because of the fact that money is never really an issue for these women in a city like Mumbai?

Well, Siddhi (Maanvi) definitely doesn’t have money problems. She is an entitled, spoilt brat. Anjana doesn’t have issues except when she quits her job and then she lands another job.

This is another example of how easy things come to them. She quits her job and hardly has to look out before another job comes her way. Jobs definitely don’t happen with little to none searching.

Ummm… and Damini, of course, is living off her savings. Let’s see what happens with her now. How long can you live off your savings?! And when you have EMIS to give!

Yeah, and when you are going to a bar every other day!

They don’t go there every day. Each episode is spread over a month, and they are shown in the bar only once in an episode.

You earlier mentioned how the writers’ room of Four More Shots Please! was non-judgmental, courtesy the all-women team. But as a woman writing a story about women, did you fear being judged by the audience?

I believe many times the audience reacts to women having fun on-screen with a sense of scepticism. Every kind of film is made on a male protagonist, from action, comedy, romance, road trip, political or spy films. Not many movies have been made with female leads, so I think people feel that if five out of 100 series are about women, why aren’t you bringing stories that are relevant, and by that they mean stories where women have achieved something.

There are two types of stories featuring women that are common in India: One is the underdog story where an underprivileged person makes it to the top, and the other is about a woman who goes through a trauma and either seeks justice for it or avenges it. If women didn’t want to watch stories that represented other issues that we face in our daily lives, then Veere Di Wedding wouldn’t have made Rs 100 crore.

Go on…

If you see the Mindy Kaling show Never Have I Ever, it has a brown girl as the protagonist. It may not be the most path-breaking content, but it is path-breaking in the sense that it has a brown girl in the lead. I don’t think feminism should only be equated with someone struggling to achieve basic needs. Feminism is about equality.

People ask, ‘Are these issues relevant to small-town girls?’ They are because I am getting messages from small-town girls, saying, ‘I thought I was wrong about the way I thought because my parents and people around me made me think that. But I see women on your show taking decisions for themselves and living their lives their way, and I realise I wasn’t wrong.’ That’s the basic need according to me, the freedom to make a choice for yourself. Whether it’s right or wrong is secondary. But it’s important to show this on screen because men always had that freedom, women didn’t.

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