Few things have changed as much over the past century as the nature of love. If the 1970s was about free love, this millennial era is about complicated love. And thanks to dating apps, we treat our relationships like our drive-thru burgers — we eat them impatiently, knowing the next meal is just a stop away.
But in the midst of this Cirque du Soleil of love, a whole generation of people is utterly bewildered. They go by the name of Gen X. Some of them have resigned themselves to their fate and are wondering if there is another, more exciting life waiting to be lived on the other side of marriage. That explains why so many people I know are talking about a new Indian show that deals with a complicated marriage. And so I watched decoupled, a satirical show about a failed urban marriage. However, the couple continue to live under the same roof for the sake of their child while trying to make new rules for their relationship.
“It’s not for you if you’re too awake to find it funny,” I wrote on social media after seeing it. The editor of HT Brunch agreed. So a few hours later I got on the phone with R Madhavan who was playing decoupled‘s intentionally uningratiating but likeable protagonist for this piece.
R Madhavans Arya is a politically incorrect man who says things out loud that most people would not dare say. It’s a role that could easily have made the character impossible. But Madhavan somehow managed to make Arya endearing.
In his own words, Madhavan is “fussy about scripts”. “But the challenge of playing a socially awkward guy who isn’t bound by social norms and isn’t very personable is what made me say yes,” he says over the phone.
I mention the unusual arrangement between the pair on the show.
I’m curious to hear Madhavan’s take on modern marriages.
“What we’re trying to say is that to be in a relationship, you have to make an effort. But in today’s world, people’s eccentricities are sometimes so ingrained that it becomes impossible to accommodate another person’s eccentricities. I know many couples who are together and yet are not in this marriage. You no longer tick the boxes as to why you married each other and yet are not divorcing. I find that very confusing,” says Madhavan.
I ask him if it isn’t too great a personal sacrifice for parents to hold on to a marriage for the sake of their children long after love has ended.
“No! They will set an example. The children will bear the brunt if they don’t live together. And we’ve seen around the world these children carry that trauma into adulthood,” he says.
Heroes & Zeros
What’s at the center of the show are Arya’s misanthropic antics. And yet somehow you have the feeling that his heart is in the right place.
“I didn’t want people to think Arya was an idiot. So I decided to just say what he says without making it look like an opinion. So when Arya talks about women in Gurgaon hiring maids with inner beauty,” Madhavan laughs mid-sentence, still entertained by that scene, “or that yoga shot at the airport,” he continues, “Arya is just blown away that he found out . He makes no judgements.”
I ask if he thinks Arya is a hero or an idiot. He laughs. “I’ll quote the author on this,” he says. “Arya is the hero of small injustices. Every action he takes is for the sake of kindness. When he yells at people in the restaurant and says don’t dress Northeasterners as Chinese, he’s advocating their identity. I like that about him.”
Madhavan shares this strong sense of justice with Arya. “If the lowest common denominator in a society is not nurtured, we become a rotten society,” he says.
I ask him what he thinks of a hyper-liberal culture where you can be fired at any moment if you say just one word out of place.
“The standard by which you measure Western culture cannot apply to us in its entirety. I want the world to take a chill pill and be super nice to each other instead of overdoing it with reactions to things,” he says. “We’re living in the Covid era, we need to take it easy.”
Make your choice
Madhavan believes that aping Western ideas of liberalism is not good for our society. “I’m all for fighting for women; they must have equal rights in all areas of life. But if you want to call my mother regressive because she wears a sari to work and doesn’t want a promotion so she doesn’t earn more than my father, then I disagree with you. Getting a woman to apologize for who she is doesn’t work for the fabric of our society,” he says.
The actor believes the women in his family are “extremely liberal, extremely free, and extremely proud of who they are.” “But they don’t fit the description you gave me of New Age women. So who do I pay respect to? The women in my family who are because they want to be, or your idea of a liberal woman, which is primarily a Western idea?” he says.
Seeing women belittled for making decisions angers Madhavan.
“AR Rahman’s daughter gave a fabulous response when she was trolled [by writer Taslima Nasrin] for wearing a burqa,” he says. Khatija Rahman had replied: “I am proud and empowered for what I stand for. I will not be weak or regret the choices I have made in my life.” And Madhavan believes there is a message in that for our people.
“We have to ask ourselves whether all these rules apply to our culture. We cannot thoughtlessly transfer Western notions of liberalism to India,” he says.
About the role he’s most passionate about, Madhavan says it’s his character Rocketry, an upcoming biopic about the life of ISRO scientist and aerospace engineer Nambi Narayanan. I learn that the film was written, directed, produced and acted by Madhavan himself. The man is indeed a polymath. He has a childlike seriousness when he talks about the film. It is precisely this essence in Madhavan that makes all of his characters likeable. Nonconformists included.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. Her last book was titled Love in the time of afffluenza.
From HT Brunch, January 23, 2022
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