What’s Up With India’s Bhabhi Fixation?

Pop Culture

What’s Up With India’s Bhabhi Fixation?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Right across a deserted lane of a Kanpur suburb, live two married couples – the Tiwaris and the Mishras. Manoj and Angoori Tiwari are a simple twosome, a husband who doesn’t tuck his shirt in and dabbles in pure Hindi with the finesse of an unpoetic poet, and a ghoonghat-wearing wife who, with her sindoor and bright sarees and Bhojpuri dialect, is quite the desi damsel.

Vibhuti and Anita Mishra, on the other hand, are perhaps the only gleam of sophistication around this decidedly deglam neighbourhood. Anita runs her own grooming classes and is a picture of elegance, what with her soft enunciation and tasteful Indian attire. Her jobless husband Vibhuti spends his days either doing household chores or flaunting the academic degree and faux English accent that he picked up during his student years at Kanpur’s famous Chhapra University.

In the Tiwari household, Mr Tiwari has the final say. But as far as the Mishras are concerned, it is woman power all the way.

Circling around the lives of the Tiwaris and the Mishras, Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai! is an edgy comedy, and more importantly, India’s current tele favourite. The title comes from its premise-defining catchphrase: Mr Tiwari is crushing hard on Mrs Mishra, Mr Mishra is crushing hard on Mrs Tiwari, and both the husbands are forever trying to impress and woo each other’s wives. Whenever they find their respective bhabhis alone at home, they leap at the opportunity to chat and sly-flirt with them.

The show deserves major credits for getting so many things right. Its rustic setting and street-comedic writing is far more relatable for mainstream audiences than the usual Indian TV fiction which has, for long, been fixated with creating unrealistically wealthy characters. Its cast is made up of some raw theatre talent, thus doing ample justice to its street-play look and feel. The characters are all unique, consistent, authentic, and seemingly well-researched. But of course, all of that only contributes to the single most prominent reason why viewers have showered the show with such love and TRPs – they find it hilarious.

Now, let me break down what exactly it is that has taken the country by a hilair-storm: Two married men spend all their time salaciously crafting opportunities to ogle and be near their neighbour’s wife. When talking to these women, they murmur risqué flirtations or double entendre that the women seem to never understand (or maybe, they just pretend to not have heard anything because it’s easier to ignore than deal with a lecherous neighbour – a little something most women might find relatable).

When one’s wife is exercising in the morning, the other stares at her oh-so-creepily from his balcony, and recites Hindi poetry in praise of her beauty in his head. When one’s wife is humming and watering the plants, the other goes up to her and quotes romantic shayari laced with sexual undertones that she is apparently too naive to understand. Despite being each other’s arch-nemeses, the only time these men come together is to get drunk at night and whine about their married lives. Oh, and there’s also a pair of street-romeos in the story – a bunch of slapstick characters who linger around the chai-tapri at the nukkad all day, whistling at and verbally teasing passing-by women. I told you – hilarious!

The show’s gaze never allows viewers access to the women characters’ thoughts or how they feel about the constant ogling. In fact, viewers are made to believe that the bhabhijis just don’t get it, a ploy from the writers to make it all look like innocuous fun.

Like most female depictions in fiction, the bhabhi is mostly a passive presence with no interior life to speak of, and always caters to the male gaze.

Interestingly, the show sings to a popular, almost classic fad that has, for long, tantalised a large section of the Indian male audience (forgive the generalisation, but you might agree) – desi pop culture (and sub-culture)’s favourite figure, the bhabhi.

In what seems to be one of India’s many dichotomies (hypocrisies?), our pop culture has long portrayed the bhabhi in two extreme, divergent ways: As a motherly figure, or the “bhabhi maa” who graced nearly every Hindi movie from the ’80s and ’90s, and as a sultry fantasy, the feline femme fatales who throng your Google search results if you were to merely type the word “bhabhi”.

Traditionally, in a time when gender roles were more clearly demarcated, the bhabhi was perhaps the first interaction of many an Indian man with a woman who wasn’t biologically related to them. But she was also off-limits, placed right next to the mother. As has always been the case with humans, a forbidden thing only makes it more intriguing to the beholder. Our fixation with the bhabhi in entertainment, is only an extension of our secret fantasies.

Like most female depictions in fiction, the bhabhi is mostly a passive presence with no interior life to speak of, and always caters to the male gaze. When Savita Bhabhi, a popular erotic publication that went viral during the early 2000s, was shut down by the Indian government, many people criticised the move for conforming to a prudish society that doesn’t want to accept an unconventional, free-willed woman exploring her boundaries. Which is a whole load of bunkum, because Savita Bhabhi was never about the woman. It was created for the entertainment of and consumption by an all-male audience — just like Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai!. Except, the latter, by virtue of being a Hindi telly production, is watched and loved by more women than men. And for that, I can’t think of a better explanation than the unfortunate truth that unlike the “male gaze” – which finds entertainment in its own gratification – the “female gaze”, finds gratification in catering to the male gaze.

Some might say that the greatness of the show lies in how it authentically mimics the unabashed and homespun next-door life that thrives in the lanes of Uttar Pradesh’s suburbs. A “slice-of-life” kind of production, so to speak. And I agree.

Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai! is indeed a slice of the actual social dynamics in North Indian cultures. Men ogle, women ignore, we laugh. And the bhabhi continues to play ball in the playground of our conscious and subconscious fantasy.