The Amazon Prime original series Four More Shots Please is, admittedly, not a genre I typically watch, but the promise of a bisexual Punjabi woman in one of the lead roles drew me in. The show follows the stories of four friends in Mumbai, living their lives freely and on their terms. There’s Damini Rizvi Roy, an investigative journalist who is committed to nothing but her career and sees sex as a matter of mere necessity; Anjana Menon, a high-powered corporate lawyer and divorced single mother trying to get over her ex; Siddhi Patel, a rich 23-year-old whose mother is shaming her endlessly about her weight as she tries to find a husband.
And then there’s Umang Singh. A personal trainer from Ludhiana, constantly on the lookout for her next, hot hookup and who describes commitment as “putting yourself in jail.” Played by Bani J, the Umang we meet in episode one is, fundamentally, about three things: living for pleasure, being unsparingly honest about what she believes and working out hard. There’s only one thing that can make this self-assured woman falter: her childhood crush, Bollywood actress Samara Kapoor (played by the straight woman best known for playing gay, Lisa Ray).
Season one divides Umang’s story between her budding relationship with Samara and the double-life she leads with her family back in Punjab. We get plenty of steamy scenes with Bani J and ham acting from Lisa Ray, but, personally, I’m way more interested in Umang’s back story, which is revealed through a series of flashbacks in episode three.
Prior to moving to Mumbai, we learn that Umang had been in a relationship with a woman named Pinky who is now married to Umang’s brother. The snippets we see are of Pinky trying to convince Umang that she needs to accept the patriarchal path set forth for Indian women — that is, to have a socially and financially expedient marriage (to a man, of course), dutifully fulfilling the roles of wife, daughter-in-law and, eventually, mother. Umang and Pinky have a particularly cogent exchange on the topic of marriage:
Pinky: The sooner you understand, the better. There’s no future between me and you.
Umang: Why? Who said so?
Pinky: Because only some people have the privilege of falling in love. The rest of us have to make do with marriage.
Umang: Dude, this “have to do,” “have to make do” — since when have you started believing in this nonsense?
Umang tries to convince Pinky to run away to Mumbai with her, but Pinky never even gets the chance to respond because her husband — Umang’s brother — interrupts their conversation. Later in that episode, we get another flashback, this time of Umang’s family trying to set her up in an arranged marriage. Pinky is helping her get dressed in a sari (which is an especially feminine style of dress) when Umang gives up on the whole thing and runs away, instead.
We never learn how, exactly, Umang makes her way back to her family after that incident, but we know she does because in that same episode she takes a call from her mother and her friends tease her afterwards for being so sanskaari1 on the phone. When her friends ask what happened after she ran away from home, Umang merely replies, “Simple. We brushed it under the carpet,” and that’s all the explanation we ever get. But it also becomes clear that Umang genuinely cares about her family and doesn’t want to fully cut ties with them. At one point Damini asks if she’ll ever come out as bisexual to her family, to which Umang answers, “The carpet isn’t that big.”
Without examining the thought any further, the show resumes its playful antics, and the four friends start shouting words for vagina across the harbor.
And this is one of my biggest issues with Four More Shots Please. It wants to broach serious issues relating to gender and sexuality but puts in no work to actually address them in any kind of meaningful way and opts for superficial declarations of feminism, instead. This problem is bad enough in season one, and it just gets worse and worse through season two. The ending of season two, in particular, feels like a betrayal on so many levels.
Now, at this point, if you haven’t watched Four More Shots Please and you’re planning on it, I would encourage you to bookmark this review and finish reading it after you’ve seen both seasons. Because I’m about to spoil the entire thing — literally.
In the last episode of season one, each of the four friends experiences a major crisis. For Umang, this is coming out to her family in an unplanned and extremely explosive way. Her relationship with Samara has been leaked in the tabloids, Samara’s broken up with her, and Umang is forcing herself to sit through another arranged marriage meet-and-greet where the subject of Samara’s sexuality comes up as dinner-table gossip. Unable to contain herself any longer, Umang reveals that the woman who was with Samara was, in fact, her and that she’s bisexual, before running off to follow Samara who has temporarily left the country to avoid the press.
When season two opens, the four friends haven’t spoken to each other in months. The first episode negotiates a reunion and reconciliation. Each woman gets her moment to talk about what she’s gone through since her crisis at the end of the last season. When Umang’s turn is up, we find out that it’s been “radio silence” from her family after she came out. We get one group hug, Damini makes the not-exactly-heartfelt observation, “Listen, we’re very proud of you,” and the whole scene takes up some 26 seconds of a 35-minute episode. (But really, who’s counting?)
After trials and tribulations, Samara and Umang get back together. Samara experiences a major depression after being outed and losing her acting career; we also learn that she has bipolar disorder. Umang becomes her sole support network, and already there are red flags everywhere because we see how codependent this relationship has become. Umang’s friends raise this concern too, but Umang gets more and more consumed by her relationship.
And that’s when I really stopped and wondered: what has happened to Umang? What has happened to our brash, bold, commitment-free Punjaban?
(Side note: I can’t really speak to how sensitively mental health is treated in Four More Shots Please. I do have to wonder at the implication that Samara can only manage her bipolar disorder because of her relationship. And I definitely raised an eyebrow when I read Lisa Ray’s responses to questions about playing a bipolar character, which conspicuously omit any mention of discussing this role or story arc with people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or activists who work on mental health issues.)
The drama-filled ride the writers have put us on is nowhere near over yet. In fact, it’s barely even begun. After much reservation, Samara agrees to come out publicly about her relationship with Umang. As a result, Umang’s career reaches new heights, leaving Samara feeling jealous and forgotten, so she decides to propose to Umang. And Umang says yes.
Hold up. Back in the very first episode, when Siddhi is telling her friends to save the date for her wedding, Umang asks her why she wants marriage so badly. Specifically, she uses an incredibly revealing play on words, shaadi barbaadi, to refer to marriage, rhyming the words for marriage and destruction/devastation. This woman is now getting married?
Sure, you can say that Umang has grown over the 17 episodes that have passed. But, tell me, in a culture that places marriage above everything else, where wives are expected to be subservient to their husbands (a point Umang raised repeatedly in season one), is it really progress to have a woman who started out so committed to her own pleasure cave to a codependent marriage, even if it’s to another woman?
I suppose you can point to some of Umang’s early conversations with Pinky, where Umang expresses interest in a marriage grounded in love. But this isn’t love, and Umang knows it. Bani J makes that much clear to everyone who’s watching. And ultimately, the show’s writers know it too. Of course the marriage can’t go forward, but they wait until the very last minute to stop this train wreck, with Umang ending her toxic relationship with Samara literally at the altar.
The show wanted a big fat, Indian, lesbian wedding, and they got to have that. But upending one of the few same-sex relationships in mainstream Indian media, in a country that only just decriminalized homosexuality three years ago, where same-sex marriage isn’t even legal, at a wedding of all things feels like a slap in the face to the community the series is theoretically championing.
I can’t speak to Indian TV dramas, but I’ve watched a lot of Bollywood movies, and you don’t break a wedding unless there’s another wedding that’s going to happen instead. Even when the story that’s being told is that the couple about to get married isn’t really meant for each other, the “right” couple exists on screen so that the sanctity of marriage is preserved. Breaking up Samara and Umang at their wedding, in this way, essentially feels like a delegitimization of queer relationships, as a whole. I’m not saying a relationship has to end in marriage to be valid, but I wish they hadn’t blown up the only on-screen queer wedding between two women that I can think of in mainstream Indian media.
This approach, of telling a story that appears progressive on the surface but is, in actuality, quite regressive, plagues Damini’s and Anjana’s arcs in season two as well. We have Damini’s on-and-off abortion storyline, which seems to imply that if you just show women pictures of babies they won’t terminate a pregnancy. And then, for narrative expedience she has a miscarriage, anyway. Then there’s Anjana’s sexual harassment plotline that actually starts out strong but devolves into her getting involved with a married coworker because he kept pestering her about it, after she repeatedly stated she didn’t want to enter a sexual relationship with him. He told her he has an open marriage, but we find out later that was a lie, with the line, “What is an open marriage even?” thrown around repeatedly.
What is gained by telling stories like this? Or maybe the better question is, what is lost? The show’s creators pushed back on previous criticisms of not being feminist by saying, “Feminism is not a one-size-fits-all deal.” Maybe. But I would argue that representation matters, especially when the representation is limited to so few instances, I can count all of them on one hand. If you’re going to tell stories about topics that are considered heresy by large portions of the population, at least don’t undermine them and reinforce all the negative, biased beliefs that people already hold.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is that Four More Shots Please has so much potential. There were so many genuinely interesting threads they could have pursued instead, like, for instance, Umang processing being disowned by her family or Bollywood’s toxic tabloid culture or actually treating Anjana’s workplace harassment and Damini’s political scandal in a meaningful way. And season two does handle Siddhi’s story with a lot of heart and sensitivity. But all this requires producing a show that’s more serious and less soap opera, and the show’s creators are clearly in it for the drama.
Season three has started filming (in theory, in the middle of India’s Covid catastrophe) with no release date yet. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect from it, but I sincerely hope the show dials down some of the spectacle.
1Literally, sanskaari means “traditional” but the word carries greater depth, particularly used in this way. It’s about being traditional in a very specifically conservative Hindu way: acting properly, being respectful of one’s elders, not speaking out of turn, giving deference to authority.