In one episode of The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives on Netflix, Maheep Kapoor’s daughter is preparing to debut at Le Bal, Paris. For the uninitiated, ‘Le Bal de Debutantes’ is a hark back to past European grandeur where, for one fairy tale evening, quaint traditions like the waltz and white gloves are resurrected and wealthy young women are “presented” (to vetted company). Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the coming-of-age ball was a milestone for young aristocrats, a way to meet potential mates and announce their place in ‘polite society’. Point to note: would Elizabeth Bennett ever have met Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice if it wasn’t for a ball? In recent years, Indian participants at the highly sought after Le Bal have included politician Jyotiraditya Scindia and industrialist Yash Birla’s daughters.
http://www.imdb.com has given The Fabulous Lives… a dismal two stars and a 3.8/10 rating. Audience reviews haven’t been very charitable either. Glimpses of Shanaya Kapoor among a glittering assembly of debutantes in a French palace provoked sneering reactions to this frivolity in gowns. “A revolting patriarchal ceremony,” went one opinion on Twitter. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed watching the antiquated ritual of ladies waltzing the night away, first led by their fathers and then, chevaliers. For those scoffing at this pretentiousness, of course everyone knows a debutante ball serves no purpose other than showcasing fine jewellery and, in Darcy’s words, a fine figure. It’s an elaborate charade, but in this godforsaken year, pardon me if I choose to see old world symbolisms as a comforting and distinguishing characteristic of the human species. Indeed, the age of debutantes may have passed but let us not deny the nostalgia they evoke.
In fact, it’s the very outmodedness of these customs and curtsies that add to their romantic allure — especially on screen. It explains the success of shows like Downton Abbey and their timeless appeal. We wish to misremember the past as charming and elegant, basically everything the present is not. At the beginning of the lockdown I saw Contagion on Amazon Prime, director Steven Soderbergh’s remarkably prescient 2011 film on the horrors unleashed by a terrifying virus. An apt watch, it incentivised me to furiously keep washing my hands. Life has gotten much more precarious since, and to stave away subliminal stress, it’s crucial to steer clear of calamity content. My leisure viewing these days is reserved solely for rich people drama. Bring on the scones and high tea! At this point, living vicariously through characters consumed by appearances feels like the ultimate in luxury.
World over, people are gravitating to entertainment that takes them away from the agony of uncertainty. Streaming platforms have noted a spike in interest in comedy shows and reruns of old hits. It’s not difficult to gauge why. They’re predictable and have happy endings. Socially isolated, we’re craving time with friends — perhaps familiar TV faces stand in as proxies. One of the great criticisms aimed at genres like science fiction and reality TV like The Fabulous Lives… is that they are “escapist” in nature. There is pressure to adhere to an (unspoken) intellectual standard that folks on Twitter care about because the notion prevails that the impulse to escape is a terrible character flaw. In truth, what could be more natural? 2020 was not the year to revisit Schindler’s List but to do whatever gets you through the day.
It’s people who can switch off from their everyday problems via simple pleasures like comics, music, exercise or other hobbies who are best able to handle adversity. Don’t knock the debutantes bowing in ice blue dresses or the Bollywood Wives’ prattle. If there is anything this Covid year has proved, it’s we have to find our own methods of salvation to guard against reality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 27, 2020, under the title “Whatever gets you through the day ”. The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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