The new Netflix Indian reality television series, Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, following the lives of four women married to Bollywood celebrities, held the potential to be the next guilty pleasure to enter our pandemic-induced Netflix haze.
The series follows Neelam Kothari, wife of actor Samir Soni; Seema Khan, wife of actor Sohail Khan, Maheep Kapoor, wife of actor Sanjay Kapoor; and Bhavana Pandey, wife of actor Chunky Pandey.
While the Internet has been abuzz with discussions on how binge-worthy or simply cringe-worthy their “fabulous” personal lives are (I’d say it’s both in equal measure), the series also shows us a glimpse into their professional lives. Let’s take a look!
The Professional Lives Of Bollywood Wives – Fabulous Or Not?
“People have this misconception about us, that we are these glamorous women that wake up every morning and attend parties and have these “oh so glamorous lives”. But that’s not really true. We’re actually all working, and quite like the others, our lives can be quite mundane,” Seema Khan somberly tells the camera.
It is true that all the women have jobs. Ex-actor Neelam is a jewellery designer and is constantly battling with whether she should take up acting again, through the series. Seema Khan has a clothing label under her name. Bhavana Pandey is in the process of opening a retail store during the series, and Maheep Kapoor runs a jewellery business.
Seema’s claim to the “mundanity” of their professional lives, however, clearly does not hold true. The dialogue plays over clips of Neelam inspecting diamonds, Seema looking at designer wear, and Maheep holding up heavy jewellery sets. The dazzle and glamour are most definitely not part of the mundane for most working women.
Even when the women’s concerns about things in their careers are alluded to throughout the series, it is not the focal point of the show, because it is also clearly not the focal point of their lives.
The show is self-aware enough to know this. Karan Johar, the show’s producers who makes Koffee with Karan-esque cameos where he sits with the four women and tries to stir up drama with dramatic questions, sardonically asks them, “Why should I watch a show about four women who don’t have jobs?” The response is a few expletives and peals of laughter.
Gender, As Always, Is A Barrier To Women’s Careers (In The Show’s Case, Privilege Is Also An Excuse)
The women have jobs, and they don’t. The reasons for the disconnect from their jobs for each of them vary, but can ultimately be rooted in gender or privilege.
Maheep Kapoor takes a clear stance that her children are a priority for her over her business. She gives two *insert expletives* about her business in relation to her children, in her own words. Her hardened exterior rarely crumbles through the series, but the one time we see her guard come down is when they all watch old Bollywood songs where she was the actor. She smiles fondly, but when the other women ask her why she didn’t pursue a career in Bollywood, her reply is simple and assured– “I really wanted a child.”
Seema and Bhavana have put their aspirations on hold for their children as well. Seema says she cannot give time to building her brand because her day goes in caring for her younger son, and worrying for her older one. During the series, however, we see her begin to invest more time and effort into building her brand.
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Bhavana seems to be both mother and informal manager to her daughter, actor Ananya Pandey. She admits that while it’s nice to be wanted, she’s put her dreams and aspirations on hold because she knows her family needs her. When Ananya calls her with a personal emergency while she’s in a meeting with her store’s investors, she walks away from the meeting to help Ananya.
“I want the family sometimes to understand the difference between calamity, emergency, and ‘ok it can wait 10-15 mins’,” she says with a small laugh.
Motherhood holds a different conflict for Neelam. At the young age of 16, she had entered the film industry, struggled, and eventually made her mark. Now, however, she’s fearful of re-entering the industry, because of the kind of scripts that come her way. She refuses to do “intimate” scenes or use foul language on-screen, because she has an “image” she wants to uphold. She tells her husband, “You’re a man you can get away with all this stuff. I’m a woman, I’m a wife, I’m a mother.” “You’re also an actress!” her husband points out.
Her fear of being perceived as “improper” is a running theme through the show, and is deeply rooted in internalised gendered stereotypes of how women should be, both in their professional and personal choices.
“I mean when I did films, I was very proper that way,” Neelam says. “I never revealed. I never did those kind of scenes. Because I always felt that tomorrow when I’m a mother and I have children, if they watch it I don’t want to be embarrassed.”
These gendered conditionings of what it means to be a wife and mother are a common barrier to most women’s careers. From their ability to pursue a career, to the choices they make within their career, their careers are heavily influenced by what’s expected of them as mothers and wives. The expectations on most women, over the years are not only external, but also internal.
In the case of the women in the television show, however, gender is a barrier, but so is privilege. Their privilege of being married to a celebrity allows them to not have to work. They can treat their careers as hobbies they engage with whenever they feel like it. They’re able to jet off to vacations, party on weeknights, and meet for brunches, without giving a second thought to their jobs – an enviable approach to work surely, but one that few women fighting the glass ceiling, wage gap, and bringing much-needed income into the household, can afford.
The Show Provides An Escape, But Not Into A World Women Can Aspire To
My aunt, a wife, mother and working woman, after watching the show told me, “It’s actually nice just to watch these women living this perfect life.”
The escape the show provides isn’t through a depiction of an ideal professional life to say the least, where women are able to balance their work and family life with healthy boundaries, no judgement, and financial independence. It depicts an extravagance and indifference that is an escape in simply how inaccessible it is to most working women.
Despite everything they do and have done in their careers, more than anything else, the women in the show are identified as (and identify themselves as) the titular “wives” – just another way these women in reel are disconnected from most women in real.
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