Marriages, they say, are made in heaven. But in the Indian arranged marriage context, marriages are made in the desultory matchmaker’s office. Matchmakers, of course, are that unique, fully home-grown species blessed with the brand of hard-core marketing skills that could put the contestants of Shark Tank to shame.
Humongous amounts of hard-sell on the part of the matchmaker lead to several couples getting hitched – not for love, or for better or for worse – but for anything but that. Bank balance, status in society, race, caste, religion, and, horror of horrors, because hitching up seems like a good way to further the business prospects of both families – any or all of these could be a reason to get married to the person the matchmaker pitches with single-minded devotion.
However, the web series we will review in just a bit, is not about arranged marriages; at least not per se. Under the guise of the ubiquitous arranged marriage scenario, this web series seeks to deliver a resounding slap in the face of the famous Indian patriarchy set up.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow us to introduce you to the latest web series in the Indian web ecosystem – Aafat, a delightful presentation from MX Player, the newest OTT player on the block. It is a web series that is worthy enough to be given the title of outlier, not just for its subject and storyline, but for the manner in which it picks up individual age-old, archaic stereotypes and smashes them to smithereens with some truly sharp and saucy writing.
MX Player is the OTT arm of the Times group, owned by Bennet Coleman and Company, and the series is produced by Times Studios, its in-house production setup. While MX Player leads the field globally in streaming services, this is its first foray into creating and producing original content under the banner of MX Player Originals. Aafat has been directed by maverick director, Shashant Shah, he who has made a mark in Bollywood and Tellyland with his singularly unique movies such as Chalo Delhi, Dasvidaniya and more of the same ilk, and several distinctive TV shows such as Sumeet Sambhal Lega, Moh Moh ke Dhaage, and many more.
The story of Aafat is pretty much the story of most Indian youth. Ricky Malhotra (Sidharth Bhardwaj) is a dense, though good-looking, dude, who has decided that the time is ripe for bride-shopping. He, along with his mom, lands up at Rishtey Farishtey, a matchmaking outfit helmed by Rita Mohanty (Seema Pahwa), a sassy lady matchmaker with hard-sell skills the likes of which could sell ice to an Eskimo. She shortlists five girls for Ricky, each of whom is a young, pretty, successful lass, but with a catch. Each of them harbours an idiosyncrasy that is generally perceived as a shortcoming in the Indian La La Land.
The five shortlisted girls are Aditi (Pushtiie Shakti), Aisha (Anshul Chauhan), Faiza (Chitrashi Rawat), Anu (Neelam Sivia) and Titli (Nikita Dutta). Put the first letter of each of these girls’ names together, and what do you have – yes, the title of the show, AAFAT – that’s what. The Hindi word loosely translates as trouble with a capital T.
So what is the Aafat factor in each? To a dispassionate observer, nothing; but for the parents of the girls, and for Ricky Malhotra…..well, everything! As the blurb of the show mentions – hairy, bald, foul-mouthed, overweight and a divorcee – that, in a nutshell, is what the five girls are about. Aditi is overweight, and thus a misfit in the bridal market. Aisha refuses to wax, is hairy all over, and thus goes against the accepted societal norms of a prize matrimonial catch. After all, no guy would want to touch a girl with hair on her body, would he?
Faiza spouts profanities at the drop of a hat; uh huh, she’s a girl, and in genteel (read, hypocritical) society, good girls don’t swear. Anu channels her inner whimsical side, and does away with her beautiful tresses to go bald and beautiful with a vengeance. And as confirmed by her matronly neighbour, ‘ganji’ se kaun shaadi karega?
Last is Titli, a divorcee….tch, tch, poor thing…a divorcee has no right to choose; she must settle for whichever guy casts a benevolent glance in her direction….in other words, is kind enough to consider her for marriage, despite her being ‘second hand’.
These, kind folks, are not our descriptions for the five firebrands. This is how they have been described at various points in the show – by sundry aunties, well-meaning relatives, the venerated matchmaker….the so-called keepers of society. The situations that arise due to the apparent shortcomings of the girls reek of patriarchy in all its inglorious wonder. It is the kind of patriarchy that is notoriously prevalent in our society and is accepted without so much as a squeak.
A prospective groom, and his family, is allowed to cherry-pick his bride, choosing and discarding at will, all because they are the almighty ‘ladkawallas’. It doesn’t matter that the guy is as low on IQ as he is high on his perceived value – the girl should be rich, slim, pretty, educated and ready to sacrifice her job to take care of home and hearth after marriage which makes the intention of the show pretty obvious – it seeks to show a mirror to society and slam home the two-facedness of the people that inhabit it. But instead of going down the wish-washy maudlin lane, it chooses to takes an uproariously funny route to its intended destination. And therein lies its strength, which is likely to win it major brownie points from netizens.
Apart from the story and direction, it is the writing of the show that bestows Aafat, and its five protagonists, with a wonderful irreverence, the kind you get to see only in international shows. The writing is spunky, sparkly and shimmers with witticisms and snarky one-liners. It lays on irony so thick that can be cut with a knife. It cocks a snook at convention, patriarchy and the irksome hypocrisy of society. And most importantly, it is really really funny. It makes you laugh; not the half-hearted smile, but the laugh out loud types laugh. Writers Shruti Madan, Sidhant Mago and Ishita Mishra definitely deserve applause for their terrific writing.
Another huge plus of the show that works like a charm in its favour is the ensemble cast. The eclectic mix of actors, a far cry from the common faces that abound on digital shows, infuses life into the shenanigans of the characters on screen. Seema Pahwa is absolutely on point as the self-assured matchmaker, while Nikita Dutta is pretty, poised and picture perfect as the ‘innocent divorcee’ (a term used to describe divorced candidates in matrimonial-speak). Chitrashi Rawat is the surprise package as the firebrand and foul-mouthed stand-up poet, while Pushtiie Shakti kills it with her sweet, expressive face. Anshul Chauhan and Neelam Sivia put in spirited performances that leave an impression.
The six-episode series, each episode with a runtime of 22-23 minutes, is crisp, eloquent and bracing. It is perfect for binge-watching when you need a quick perk-me-up or are looking for evocative entertainment on a balmy Sunday afternoon. Kudos to Times Studios for choosing to make a web series on a topic as provocative and chancy as this.
Do watch the show, people. IWMBuzz rates Aafat 3.5/5.
(Written By Rashmi Paharia)