I’ll be honest, when the trailer of Netflix’s new original What The Love, a reality show hosted by Karan Johar, dropped, I wasn’t too thrilled. It stood out as just another addition to the long list of disappointments offered by Netflix India so far. I was half-expecting it to be a cringe-fest. And after watching the first two episodes, I’m happy to announce that I wasn’t that off the mark.
As the trailer puts it, Karan Johar ‘plays cupid’ in the show. He picks out privileged urban-dwellers who come with their dreamy, romanticised ideas of monogamy (or ‘love’, as they call it), and helps them ‘find love’. This process of finding love is in fact not as laborious as classic literature would have you believe. It’s fairly simple - a couple of therapy sessions, a date with a celebrity, and a makeover is all it takes to start over. Naturally, the contestants look up to him. Somehow a man who has spent a significant chunk of his life reinforcing the patriarchal notion of marriage in various forms is a convincing ‘love guru’.
To understand whether or not he deserves the title, here’s an actual piece of advice by KJo: “If we help them find love, they won’t need any sex toys.”
Created somewhere at the intersection of Queer Eye and Splitsvilla, What The Love! has a refreshing sense of modernity to it. It seems to be rooted in present-day practicalities of city life and pushes the youth to challenge orthodox ideas. For example, within the first five minutes of the first episode, KJo approaches two potential contestants (a woman and a man). Assuming them to be heterosexual, he begins introducing them to each other, only to discover that they’re both gay. While there is an underlying sense of tokenism in this 10-second interaction, it’s also unique. It’s Karan’s way of telling the LGBTQ+ community that he sees them and that he wants them to get mainstream representation in whichever way possible.
If I were to critique, I’d say that the makers of What The Love! sat down with a laundry list of important social issues they wanted to address no matter what and forcefully wrote them into the script of the first episode. From patriarchy to fatphobia, Karan comes fully armed. At one point, he even goes as far as to talk about the first time he chose to “pay for sex”. It’s an honest retelling of an incident from his past and Karan tries really hard to seem retrospectively indifferent. He laughs too much, speaks faster than he usually would, and quickly moves on to the next topic. But his laughter betrays him. You can tell that Karan, behind the facade of humour, is vulnerable.
On a lighter note, I think he should have just gone with the teleprompter instead of trying to be candid.
But Karan Johar’s seemingly progressive ideals are easily torn apart by his inauthenticity. In the first episode, which is an introduction of potential contestants before they’re whisked away for a Queer Eye-esque makeover, one of the potential contestants while talking to KJo makes a caste reference. She proudly says, “I’m a UP Khatri.” To which Karan responds with encouraging laughter. Now, I’m not saying that KJo is casteist (although we have no reason to believe that he isn’t); he perhaps couldn’t have predicted that the woman would say that (even though I personally don’t believe that because the show feels very scripted). But those sitting at the editing table could have easily done away with that reference. It just wasn’t needed. But the fact that the makers could easily look past it the problematic nature of the sentence is what’s bothering.
From the get-go, Karan pretends to be the harbinger of expression and individuality. That is until Maneka (fashion stylist) and Shaan (makeup and hair grooming expert) enter the scene. And suddenly it’s turned into a Mean Girls kind of situation where KJo, Maneka and Shaan are sitting in one corner and passing comments on how everyone in the room is dressed. Comments like “The heels are too heavy” and “What’s with the suspender boy?” are thrown around with distasteful expressions. There’s no hidden empowerment or kindness in the way they talk; it’s plain hurtful. Their conversation makes it obvious that they have little sartorial respect for those in the room. Not exactly the desi Queer Eye you’d imagined, right?
Throughout the episode, Karan is vehemently vocal about the fact that Bollywood’s, and by extension his, portrayal of love is misleading. That it doesn’t exist in real life. He even says, “You can’t look for love. It’s not something you catch. It’s not a cold.” Well, fair enough. But Mr Johar, what exactly are you trying to prove with What The Love! then?
Like all reality shows, the contestants are reduced to the sum of their tragic backstories. Which is not new. We’ve seen Bigg Boss, Roadies and even Kaun Banega Crorepati exploit personal tragedies of their participants. But What The Love! goes beyond that. As Karan physically walks into a room and labels the chosen contestant’s photos with stuff like ‘commitment phobia’, ‘trust issues’, and ‘boring’. This is not just exploitative but also deeply disrespectful. I mean, if someone wanted to get humiliated like that, why would they go on the show. Isn’t Tinder enough?
Lastly, I can’t tell if the contestants are actually contestants or just untrained junior artists who want to be seen in the same frame as KJo. Literally, every second of the show seems heavily scripted and just...cringe. Safe to say that I’m not going to be watching any more episodes.