As soon as we saw this Autostraddle’s article about Roopa Rao’s web series “The ‘Other’ Love Story” we knew we had to binge watch it and devote a newsletter to it immediately. The twelve short episodes follow the lives of two teenage college students who meet and fall in love in late 1990s Bangalore.
Lakshmi: This series was like clickbait designed just for our interests! For readers who don’t know anything about the plot, it follows the lives of Aadya and Aachal, two college students who awkwardly fall for each other (and face a lot of consequences as a result). What were your first impressions?
Asha: I liked how ordinary they seemed.
Lakshmi: I liked that they were decidedly middle class. Sometimes progressive stories focus on rich, ‘liberal’ people from very privileged backgrounds. This series gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to be a young woman in very confining circumstances. Aachal’s family run a little costume jewelry store and Aadya’s parents are teachers, if I’m remembering right.
Asha: Agreed. Also, the contract between Aadya’s small family and Aachal’s larger one was striking.
Lakshmi: One thing I noticed right away was how CROWDED their lives were. Since this takes place in 1999, there were no cell phones, so the two girls had to have secret conversations over their families’ land lines. And there was just no personal space, Aachal’s family seemed to have a zillion members and they were all up in her business pretty much all the time.
Aadya’s family was much smaller, but they knew where she was basically all of the time and kind of gave her the side eye the whole time, even when they weren’t necessarily verbally hostile to her.
Asha: And Aadya’s room is the living room, basically.
Lakshmi: Yes! So her bed subs as the couch, which means you have to be really creative when it comes to hiding secret letters and whatnot.
Asha: But I do wonder if it was a deliberate character choice to have Aadya be the bolder of the two. Small family = more independence = more sure of herself.
Lakshmi: I was fascinated with Aadya because she was bolder, but it also seemed like she was more socially inept. Like she had a lot of personal shyness. And it was clear that Aanchal had figured out her identity a while ago, while Aadya seemed a bit bewildered to me. She needed Aachal’s outright flirting to figure it out.
Asha: Did you? i thought Aachal was just figuring it out, whereas Aadya had known.
Lakshmi: Aachal consistently made the first moves though. It’s Aachal who says things like like, ‘come visit me!’ She’s also the one who keeps calling her.
Asha: Oh, that’s true.
Lakshmi: Aadya was like a “Big Bang Theory” character-type in that she seems super smart but not great at picking up social cues. That also might have helped her disguise from her parents what was going on.
Asha: I do think Aadya is shyer, it seems like she just has one friend, who is male, as opposed to a group of friends.
Lakshmi: And it was also interesting to me that Aadya is styled as more conventionally butch, in a way. Like she wears salwars that aren’t particularly trendy with jeans. She also frequently wears a cool striped hoodie. Aachal’s wardrobe reads as more conventionally feminine, as do her mannerisms.
But let’s talk more about the contrast between the parents too!
Asha: I like that the families are both a little unconventional. Or at least, neither had the stereotypical nuclear Indian family. In Aadya’s case, it’s just her parents, there’s no extended family or siblings, which is also why she continually surprised by how many people live in Aachal’s house.
And for Aachal, her dad is almost absent. (Does he have another family, or does he live with his parents? I didn’t quite catch that.)
Lakshmi: Regarding Aachal’s dad’s backstory, I think he moved to live with his parents for employment purposes but also because he’s an abusive wreck, and her mom probably kicked him out to the best of her ability.
I wish we learned a bit more about what brought the rest of Aachal’s family to Bangalore though. They are native Hindi speakers, so they must have moved from somewhere else.
Asha: I was wondering about that too! I was expecting more dialogue in Kannada.
Lakshmi: Me too! Instead the two of them mostly speak in Hindi and because most of the dialogue takes place in Aanhal’s house (and with her family) almost 60 percent was in Hindi. Also the conversations while they are at college are in English. I did have a minor quibble with the subtitles. I watched with my parents and they noted the subtitles were very literal, rather than conversational.
Asha: Huh, I know no Hindi or Kannada so i was reliant on subtitles.
Lakshmi: Apparently for people who are fluent in both, the subtitles were jarring in their literalness.
Asha: Interesting, do you have an example of the literalness?
Lakshmi: Basically it would be like if we were watching something in English and the character said,”How’s it going?” but the subtitle read “How do you do?” So the vernacular wasn’t completely captured.
Asha: Got it, that makes sense. Let this be a lesson in translation.
Lakshmi: when I read the credits it said that Roopa Rao the director did the subtitles, which explains it. Good translation is hard to do (and probably expensive).
Asha: It really is both.
Lakshmi: Back to our characters. Did you think that Aadya’s family was aware of her queerness, or did they think that it was part of her social awkwardness?
Asha: If I were to venture a guess, i would say they probably didn’t even think about it. In my experience, parents (especially South Asian parents), prefer not to think about their children’s sexuality.
Lakshmi: It seemed like they were easier going than the other family, but sometimes they would suddenly forbid her to leave the house.
Asha: Well, we don’t really see if their concern for her safety is involved in that…B’lore is one of the more dangerous cities in India for women.
Lakshmi: I know you didn’t get to see the last two episodes yet. (MILD SPOILER FOR EVERYONE): Did you get to the part where Aachal’s mom finds the love letters and violently lashes out?
Asha: I didn’t, not yet.
Lakshmi: It was what everyone watching probably was afraid was going to happen. Her elderly aunt intervenes and stops the beating, but even the auntie is disgusted that Aachal fell in love with a girl and forbids Aadya from ever calling the house again.
It’s particularly frustrating because it’s clear that Aachal’s father is abusive and not exactly husband of the year, but the family is obsessed with the hetero ideal anyway.
Asha: It really points to the normalization of abuse in South Asian families. It’s not about the loving relationship, it’s about the proper one.
Lakshmi: Definitely. The bulk of the story takes place in 1999, when Aachal and Aadya meet. But the beginning of each episode takes place at the Bangalore train station in 2001. Aanchal is being sent away for reasons unclear (but it’s obviously because they want to separate the girls and are secretly hoping she finds a man instead.) And separating them like that is emotional abuse as well.
Asha: They wouldn’t think of it like that. They would think of it as protecting the family from shame and maybe even protecting her from a society that isn’t welcoming. Except, it seemed like Aachal’s friends basically knew what was going on and were totally accepting.
Lakshmi: I was totally obsessed with the little gossipy girl who was like “it’s so nice you have a SPECIAL friend.” She also always protected them from rumors.
Asha: She was great.
Lakshmi: She was a model for how to signal allyship to someone who isn’t out, I thought. (Basically you do so by being kind and accepting to all of your friends’ friends/partners.)
Lakshmi: And even though most viewers probably expected Aachal’s mom to physically lash out at her, it was still shocking to see it portrayed. While I was researching after, I found an Indian LGBT study that said that the biggest threat to Indian lesbians is members of their own families.
Asha: Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.
Lakshmi: No, it’s probably the same story everywhere, but everything seems much harder in India. And if these are the restrictive circumstances two college girls in Bangalore find themselves in, imagine what it is like for rural, uneducated women.
Asha: I can only imagine.
Lakshmi: One tiny quibble I had with the Autostraddle piece is that it said this series was a queer love story with a happy ending. BUT (and here’s another mild spoiler alert). It was a happy-for-right-now ending, rather than a happily ever after. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is very fragile and you wonder how they’ll manage.
Asha: Also, sometimes love stories run their course. So who knows whether it’ll be happily ever after.
Lakshmi: Right, but you also wonder how same sex couples manage in India.
Asha: Well, one of them has a visa to go to the U.S. so that’s one thought.
Lakshmi: True! It’s very hard to bring a girlfriend to tag along though!
In this interview, the director Roopa Rao says that casting the series took longer than usual because actresses would drop out after telling their parents what the role was. And distributors would hear things like “two girls in love” and think pornography. It’s frustrating just to read about, so I can’t imagine what being on that crew was like!
Asha: Right! And this is 20 years after Deepa Mehta did “Fire.”
Lakshmi: And more Indian cities have pride parades than ever. I think this also explains why the director stressed the ‘universality’ and general appeal of the series in every interview I read with her this weekend. It really is an ordinary story about two 20 year olds, and she felt the need to stress that because audiences are so resistant to LGBT stories. But honestly, this series is basically about two students being 20 and in love (and that means they kiss occasionally.)
Asha: Right, and hopefully there will be more stories like that in the future.
Lakshmi: I am a big fan of ‘people being people’ stories in general. Like, for example, there are a lot of novels about trans people transitioning, but hardly any about trans characters just living their lives. Or there are stories about members of minority groups protesting or fighting the system, but fewer of them simply going to work/school/etc.
Lakshmi: As a final thought, what struck you the most about this series?
Asha: I liked how she portrayed their sneaking around and trying to keep it from their families while still finding ways to touch each other. Those stolen moments might be the most exciting part of teenage relationships.
Lakshmi: Yes! And I think that anyone who reads Regency novels will recognize those parts too. Coded messages have always been (and always be) part of courtship, if you will.
This post originally appeared on The Lakshmi and Asha Show, our new weekly pop culture newsletter. You can subscribe here.
Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.
Asha Sundararaman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Oakland, California. When she’s not discussing pop culture, she can be found in her kitchen blending the flavors of her Southern and Indian roots.
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