By Poulomi Das Feb. 03, 2020
Part-Queer Eye, part-Splitsvilla, and complete trainwreck, Netflix’s Indian dating reality show What The Love! is little more than another opportunity for Karan Johar to brag about the list of famous people whose numbers he has saved on his phone.
A few minutes into What the Love!, Netflix India’s sorry excuse for a dating reality series, Karan Johar – its creator, host, and self-appointed “cupid” – calls himself a millennial. Johar is 47 years old, an age by when one should have ideally stopped trying to appear cool by pretending that they’re not as old as their birth certificate claims they are. But Netflix India isn’t Narnia and Johar is famously allergic to self-awareness. The result is a seven-episode show, where a director reputed for inventing unrealistic expectations of romance, believes that he has the answers to finding love – even for people who can’t afford chiffon or have Manish Malhotra on speed-dial.
Part-Queer Eye, part-Splitsvilla and complete trainwreck, the premise of What The Love!, hinges on Johar selecting six “singletons” and making them “ready for love” by forcing makeovers and setting them up on dates. Johar’s makeover kit includes several steps: First, contestants go on a prep date with famous celebrities (appearances include Arjun Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan, Ali Fazal, and Sunny Leone). Then they go through a “mental makeover” where TV personalities not qualified to offer therapy (Mallika Dua, RJ Mallishka, Shibani Dandekar, and Cyrus Sahukar) give TED talks that magically erase life-long repressed issues. And finally end their journey with a physical transformation shepherded by stylist Maneka Harisinghania and hair and makeup artist, Shaan Muttathil, both of whom bring a profound dullness to every episode. A more apt title for the show would have been “I Have Celebrity Friends and I Cannot Lie” given that Johar treats it as nothing but yet another opportunity to brag about the list of famous people whose numbers he has saved on his phone.
Johar selects the six contestants – three women, two straight men, and a token gay representative – in a cringe-fest of an opening episode titled “Singles Party.” It’s less of a party and more of a dark room made up of what looks like an assortment of Lokhandwala citizens who don’t have the personality for Splitsvilla or the “mind games” for Roadies. Johar picks the chosen six based on nothing but their ability to reinforce a stereotype. So there’s a chubby girl (labelled an “unsuitable bride”), a dull guy, a jet-setting commitment-phobe, a heartbroken girl, a serial monogamist, and a girl battling severe low-esteem issues. As is expected, the insecurities projected by the women are all related to their physical appearances, while the flaws of the men are related to their personalities: Either they’re stunted socially or are too over-eager for their own good. It’s not only a gross generalisation, but also ensures that the show trivialises serious impediments, like the entitlement that most Indian men are conditioned to internalise and the unseemly archetype of a “dutiful wife” that they still harbour. On the other hand, the show manages to glean very little about how the needs of single Indian women may have transformed in the age of dating apps and never-ending hookups.
Karan Johar picks the chosen six contestants based on nothing but their ability to reinforce a stereotype.
Much of the show’s failure to maintain an enjoyable tone – it’s too hesitant to be frivolous and too vapid to be not – is down to Johar’s disconnect with the realities of falling in love in India. In an age of increasing debts, stressful lifestyles, and the curse of too many options, love has more to do with convenience and less to do with emotion. Neither Karan Johar who calls himself “the light at the end of the deep dark tunnel called love” nor the show get any close to realising that. Even worse is how rehearsed the show’s scriptedness comes across at times. In the second episode, Johar makes one of the contestants needlessly repeat an unpleasant story about a potential prospector bringing a weighing scale to check her weight. He comes across more surprised that women face the brunt of discrimination at the hands of a judgemental society, with every rendition. The shock feels dishonest not only because it comes from a filmmaker who has continuously perpetuated and profited off projecting a certain body-type as the ideal in his films. But also because he uses such scenarios – moments that could have revealed the double-standards that exist in Indian society – to make self-serving statements like, “I want to throw up at the patriarchy of our society.”
It’s not that What the Love! is a disappointment because it is unwatchable. The problem is deeper: it is so hollow that it has nothing to say. Even its progressiveness is an act.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.