Decoupled, a Netflix comedy on a misanthrope writer’s separation from his wife, has a thrillingly intricate plot at its heart, and is hilarious for its wild mischief. Remarkably, when the show ends after 8 episodes it only just begins, as the writer, played by Madhavan, is commissioned to write a story for Netflix about his separation from his wife. But in this second run, the story knowingly turns its gaze at its likely critics, whom the show skins mercilessly. The show is still being made as several unfavourable reviews are published, predictably angry and some foul-mouthed about the show’s writer, Manu Joseph, a self-described misanthrope himself.
Manu is the author of three novels and a columnist for the Mint, and is infamous for quips like the ‘farmer suicide crisis’ is ‘fake news by the good guys’.
The merits of a film are usually ascribed to its director, but in the case of Decoupled, this responsibility has fallen to Manu Joseph, who is persona non-grata among the Critic Class that dominates the world – the kind that confabs intensely whether the art should be separate from the artist.
That question itself doesn’t require much rigour to answer as empirical evidence abundantly makes it clear that they are separate. This year, a book which was widely dubbed as written by the ‘Spanish Elena Ferrante’ won a million-dollar literary prize, and turned out to be by not one but three middle-aged men. Their work was even considered essential women’s writing by the Spanish Women’s Institute. Decoupled’s creators could have taken the clue, and released the show under a pen name for better acceptability, but it wouldn’t have been this much fun.
The show pierces the idiosyncrasies of the Critic Class when a woman at a bookclub extols Madhavan’s book, ‘The way he describes his female characters’, a pinnacle of current literary achievement related to eminences such as Elena Ferrante, a pen name God forbid of a man (if it’s only one). Bengali intellectuals who think Aadhar is surveillance and invented NREGA suffer severe ridicule. So does Parasite, a film that is a critic favourite for its examination of the class problem: ‘a shit film’, according to a South Korean man in the show. Manu Joseph has also been wise enough to give the protagonist some sexist views, ‘All maids in Gurgaon have only inner beauty,’ and an opportunity to fat shame as well: ‘All thin women are alike, but fat women are fat in different ways.’ Since for the Critic, the art and the artist are inseparable, these remarks have provoked creative insults such as ‘problematic’, ‘toxic masculinity’, and ‘mansplaining’, responses in line with reactions to other artists – for example, ‘gratuitous violence’ for Tarantino films. Decoupled is funny because it shows up the Critic Class for the simpletons they really can be. Their pieties on mental health, gender and Dalit people had been excused for so long because they were the self-assigned spokespersons of the poor and the depressed, and making fun of them was tantamount to ‘punching down’. So rare is the odd ridicule that one reviewer in the Indian Express found the show to be motivated by ‘personal vendetta’. The Critic Class have long been fair game, and finally shows like the White Lotus and Decoupled have accepted the challenge of giving them a deserved ribbing.
However, the real beauty of Decoupled is its plot. It satisfies immensely as a story. Characters are revived in each episode and the central predicament of the separating couple lives on even as the story makes excursions into Indian political life. Stories are shapely things made from the chaos of life’s experience, but not life itself, which is boring and inspire headings like ‘the beauty of the banal’. Plotting is all about the shape; the more graceful, economical and daring its coherence, the more magnificent and thrilling the story. And Decoupled is very daring. If a reviewer ever tried to plot, he will know what an instantly edifying experience it is: It is profoundly tiring and one gains massive respect for even those writers one easily dismissed before, even for Chetan Bhagat, who cameos as a writer in the show, or for a ‘shit film’ like Parasite, which would have been over sooner if the driver in the film used a deodorant.
The strong writing of Decoupled, however, could have been better adapted for screen. There were a few badly paced, disjointed scenes in the first few episodes. Madhavan was definitely miscast as he looked maladjusted in his role as a misanthrope. Fitting him in a hoodie and giving him an unshaven look did not suffice to Grinch him out. In fact, casting a very amicable-looking Madhavan as a misanthrope almost felt like animal cruelty. Curiously, in one scene, he fit beautifully as a responsible husband and parent where he defended his wife from his daughter who accused her of ‘never taking his side’.
Decoupled‘s strong writing saves its story from every inadequacy. Its writer knows clearly what he can get away with. As long as the plot satisfies, the writer is free to do whatever else he wants – flog his pet peeves or insult his enemies. In Decoupled, as Madhavan and Surveen and their daughter journey through to a difficult divorce, their creator embarks on razing down every common conceit of the Critic Class, the arbiters of our conscience. They are unlikely victims of comedy, as they are high up and rampant in literary offices and are not known to take a joke well: they decide who to mock, who not to mock. Who is funny, who is not funny. Hannah Gadsby is funny, Dave Chapelle was, until recently. For Decoupled, your morality is just your problem. The arts have nothing to do with making the world a better place. And the audience seems to have caught on with this idea, even though the Critics haven’t. At the time of writing this article, Decoupled was trending internationally on Netflix’s Top Watched list at no.2.
Joseph Antony is an investment banking professional from Mumbai. Previously, he was an editor with HarperCollins India and Penguin India. He has written on cinema and culture for various magazines and newspapers. A love of literature and a game of football in the evening make his life bearable.