No Netflix, I don’t want to Call My Agent

In another episode of how far can we stretch our obsession with anything Bollywood, this past week, Netflix India offered us Call My Agent (edition Bollywood). Directed by Shaad Ali, this remake of the original Dix Pour Cent may have pushed the last known benchmark of watching cringe bordering on fiction and reality television (Fabulous Wives, anyone?). I’m not complaining, I’m just stating facts. This is a highly volatile variety of cringe binge, the kind I have not seen in a few months now, assuming Netflix retired the format. Apparently not.

If marriages are made in heaven and cringe is played on Netflix, then deals are cracked by star makers (or was it legends in the title track?). We are told ART, a conveniently named talent agency negotiates contracts, deals, and manages celebrities across spectrums—everyone between lost and forgotten stars to those who are unknown to even those artists who are on top of their game. Though we hardly see anyone who’s on top of the game but the repeated reference to AK and bringing in Tigmanshu Dhulia (take a shot every time you hear Tissue) could very well tell you that they know who’s important. That also begets the question, who is really on top of their game in Bollywood right now? To feed into our Bollywood starved obsession Call My Agent does the service of including names like Sarika and Akshara Hassan, Farah Khan, Nandita Das, Dia Mirza, Lara Dutta among others.

Monty (Rajat Kapoor), Mehershad (Ayush Mehra), Amal (Aahana Kumra), Teresa (Soni Razdan) are employees of ART, each of whom displays a tiring personality trait to make the series acquire plot. Monty may be shrewd but not enough to keep his lovechild a secret. Amal, however aggressive, overdoes on conversations pertaining to pop feminism. Mehershad appears to troubleshoot one too many problems for his colleagues and clients but never for himself when he finds himself in trouble. Teresa, we are told, is the oldest of the lot but we never actually see her work. No personality type is detected there unless you count borrowing a dog from Paris Hilton circa Tinkerbell in her arms era. Teresa’s Tinkerbell is her pooch Pankaj, a reference to a dog named like a husband in the absence of a husband. They’re all led by Soumyajit Dasgupta (Tinnu Anand), a serial cheater, though we see none of it play out on screen.

In what appears to be pushing the envelope moment, as Indians we register LGBTQIA+ representation in the series in the form of love and lust between Amal and auditor Jasleen (Anuschka Sawhney). However, the way that is expressed and carried out through the series is nothing short of reminding you why Bollywood and the likes of the OTT platform have shied from it for years. If you ask me what was cringe, other than Amal’s character cussing out at everyone like she’s some punk teen liberated singer and an Avril Lavigne stan, I’d have to point at the intimacy shared between Amal and her on/off partner Jasleen, who she meets on a dating app and then at their office.

Auditor Jasleen (she calls herself that at all times, presumably even in bed) is the heights of possessive partner, the kind who’d insist on calling her a girlfriend after one date. This personality type is sexualized in a saree, as though, she’s the first and the last woman to wear one to the workplace, and that saree, in turn, is used to highlight her sexual orientation— I’m lesbian and I’m horny. I have truly seen better plot lines while streaming p*rn and believe me, I don’t stream p*rn for cringe plot. You don’t need to go as far as the LGBTQIA+ rep here. Even the seemingly straight kid, the new employee, is sexualized with this cringe scene of her accidentally scanning and printing her cleavage in color.

At the height of the lust cringe, I had to switch my television off when I couldn’t take any more of #JasMal. When auditor Jasleen found herself on the hotel couch after slipping down while wearing skanky heels and a bodysuit after trying to entice Amal during a work trip at a hotel room, Amal tries to lighten her pain by caressing a hand over her derriére and complimenting how shapely it is. I have seen a lot of fucked up shit in life, but this doesn’t come anywhere close, mostly, because of how it plays out and how ridiculous the whole conversation is. I can’t speculate who wrote this, what is their sexual orientation and how often do they imagine sexual fantasies playing out like that in their head, but it is truly embarrassing to see this represent how Indians have sex on a global streaming platform, and that as a remake of a popular series. Don’t know whether to celebrate queer sex representation on the Indian streaming platforms or cringe on account of the fact that you’d rather be better without it.

The crux of the Bollywood edition Call My Agent is the intermingling of the personal and the professional life, much like the original version, however, that translates to two and a half characters only. The rest of them seemingly convey to us their personal lives through forced talking. Mehershad owns a house and a BMW in Mumbai but they all belong to his mom since his restaurateur dad passed away. Teresa is a veteran “star-maker” who doesn’t like to be addressed as an “agent”. There’s a reason I bring this to attention—not all reviews have to be all in detail about the original Call My Agent.

Most of the takes I’ve read and encountered since the show, including personal conversations border on comparisons. How the Indian context has not been adapted and how it’s a scene-by-scene remake. For me, I’m happy to discount those reasonings and instead focus on the standalone show that did very little for making the plot bearable. Mehershad and Teresa, in this season, play second fiddle to the real stars and the situationships as a part of the plot. Instead, we focus on Monty’s complicated relationship with his lovechild Nia (Radhika Seth) and Amal’s turbulent relationship/fuck buddy equation with Jasleen all affecting the professional future and the lives of those at ART. At the same time, the remake could be your interpretation, but for fuck sake, adapt it to the context, the socio-political society we inhabit. You can’t really tell me that two women are making out in broad daylight in front of the VT station and nobody comes with a gun to shoot them? You also can’t tell me, you hire folks without discussing salary and they come all in, and stay in a place like Mumbai from Goa without much financial support.

It’s not just the imbalance with the writing and the roles, there’s also the easy glorification of a toxic workplace and bosses. There’s that idea— we are a niche industry and only those who can withstand stress and trauma can survive here etc. None of which, is btw, true or should be the case. This agenda to push in 2021 is a bit, how shall I say politely, fucked beyond belief. Unless of course, you’re writing stories for and about mega privileged folks who can afford to survive in Mumbai without negotiating for salary or signing a contract.

Tu jaanta nahi mera baap kaun hai? No brother, I actually don’t know but you look rich af in those Instagram smol business store expensive necklaces and polished af for college dropout in those outfits.

Other than grave problems with writing and adaptation, my grouse is also with the camera work and the production design. Why on Earth do we need canted angles and what do we need to show in those? Faces? I don’t understand what kind of music brief was given for OST because it induces anxiety like you’re trapped in a Madhur Bhandarkar's cinematic universe, instead of it appearing halfway evocative of what the series is trying to convey- wheeler-dealer types and hustlers need nobody but each other. Okay.

Thankfully, most folks have performed decently, and that perhaps is the only saving grace of the series (if any). Ahana Kumra’s Tourette's performance could snag her an award, perhaps? My favourite was Merenla Imsong, she owned the screen each time she got any screen time and I want her to yell and get paid more and unionize in the next season. There’s really nothing to add or blame the performers here, for they did what was expected, but please, next time, let’s not push the envelope as much as we did here, mmkay?

The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.