During a binge drinking session recently, I had the opportunity to watch two seasons back to back on Netflix - Emily in Paris and A Suitable Boy. Both shows couldn’t have been more starkly different than the other, but they had a common theme. Both had female protagonists, albeit living in different times and completely different societies. The first was based on the life of the American, Emily, who had recently left Chicago and moved to Paris to work for a marketing firm. Two episodes in and I had already fathomed that this was a chick-flick, soap opera which echoed themes similar to those shown in past shows like Sex and the City and its ilk.
Here was a girl living her life, enjoying her job, indulging in copious amounts of retail therapy and generally taking in the beatific scenes and surroundings of the famed city of Paris. There were cool, chic friends, snobby, well-dressed colleagues at work, high-fashion and art all around. And then there was her extremely active love life. Having dumped her boyfriend in Chicago, Emily was now single in Paris and ‘hooking up’ with a host of suitors. A professor she met at a café while he was sitting next to her, a chef who lived in the apartment beneath hers, harmless flirting with a client who was also at the same time having an affair with her boss, the heir to a fashion conglomerate, the 17-year-old brother of her best friend… the list was long and unending.
For Emily, the world was her proverbial love oyster. She was single and ready to mingle. Dalliances were aplenty, and heartbreak was something that was just part of the game of dating. Emily, in many ways, represented the 21st-century woman, free unabashed and living on her terms.Her life was all about her career and finding entertainment through the men who were more than happy to throw themselves in her general direction. There was no one judging her, no aunty or uncle wagging their finger at her promiscuous ways and no mother breathing down her neck with a list of potential marriage proposals.
Splattered with light-hearted moments of comedy, some very breathtaking vistas of France and a fast-paced storyline, Emily in Paris was an easy watch, something that’s digestible by both guys and girls… you soon find characters in the show that you end up rooting for, be it Emily’s Chinese heiress friend, Mindy, who is hiding in Paris and working as a Nanny after being cut off by her billionaire father, an extremely camp designer Pierre Cadault, who is modelled around the late Karl Lagerfeld or Emily’s dragon-lady boss Sylvie, who is hell-bent on having this American girl fired from her office.
Immediately starting A Suitable Boy, was perhaps not the best decision. But what else was there to do than down drinks and watch TV? Directed by Mira Nair, the show is based on Vikram Seth’s book of the same name, which has in the past received much fanfare and acclaim. I confess I’ve not read the book, but the show was entertaining in its own right. Based on the life of Lata Mehra, a young girl living in post-partition India, the show revolves around the journey Lata has to make to find herself an appropriate suitor for an arranged marriage.
A casual affair with a Muslim boy from her college is brushed away when Lata’s mother discovers his religion. Then Lata is made to meet the brother of her sister-in-law, a poet of some repute, but with no great job prospects, living off his family’s wealth. Each time Lata falls a little bit in love enjoys kissing her beaus, but that’s where things end. There are several other plotlines going on at the same time in the show, political unrest between the Hindu and Muslim communities, the wayward life of another character, Maan Kapoor, who falls in love with a tawaief or court singer, the extramarital affair being conducted by Lata’s sister-in-law etc.
In many ways the story was ahead of its time, even at the time of its publication in 1993… it showed sex, incest, violence and all the things our Indian shows don’t like to talk about usually. But then there was the portrayal of patriarchy at its worst. While the men in the show got to get away with everything short of blue murder, here was Lata being dragged like a cow at a heifer show, paraded and displayed in front of ‘suitable boys’. This was probably true of India in the early 50s… and thus makes it even more interesting when comparing the two protagonists of this article – Emily and Lata, who was better off? Who do you think lived the dream and settled into ‘happily ever after’?
By the end of A Suitable Boy, we are shown that Lata chooses a suitor who was possibly the most stable out of all her other love interests. Here was a man who had a good job in a multinational company, dressed like a British sahib even gave up eating paan for Lata, whose family viewed it as an unfavourable activity. In this writer’s humble opinion, he was possibly the biggest buffoon this particular show portrayed to us viewers. A stable life is what Lata probably hoped for; her portly husband is who she grew to love… cut to scenes of Emily in Paris where the show’s heroine is taking what she wants and bedding which she likes, unaware or perhaps even uninterested in who she will marry, whenever that happens, and you get an idea of how things have changed for women, for society.
Many women lead the life of a Lata and an Emily in India today. They have the choice to do what they like, work where they want to and pursue their love interests in whichever fashion they deem fit… and then some follow the path set forth before them and settle down to family life and familial obligations – the handpicked husband, the baby, the home. Watch the two shows and figure out which one you love best – I promise it will be worth the entertainment! –Vishwaveer