Decoupled writer Manu Joseph on why his protagonist is anti-woke’s because he’s a decent man. Author, journalist and screenplay writer on the bigger picture of heightened ‘sensibilities’ which emerged from the clutter of conversations around the (currently trending in the UAE) hit series

Photo by Rohit Chawla
Photo by Rohit Chawla

Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 6 Jan 2022, 6:54 PM

To my mind, he’s one of the finest, most “objective” writers (although the impression I got from him is that objectivity can be entirely subjective) — saying it like it is, at times even treading the area of grey — in contemporary India, who has steered clear of the trap to get boxed into any silo. Not a ‘liberal’ (in the now-faddish manner), not a ‘nationalist’, not even a fence-sitter, author and journalist Manu Joseph, writer of books such as Serious Men and The Illicit Happiness of Other People and much-feted columnist, journalist and (former) editor, has stuck to his own script.

Manu has been trending these days alongside Decoupled — the English-language made-in-India Netflix series that released last month. He’s the ‘creator’: storyteller and screenplay writer. The conversations around Decoupled have, predictably, revealed chips on the shoulders of a few critics; and yet, it has struck a chord with the “masses” — or, at least, the masses that subscribe to OTT services of a certain streaming denomination (read our review on page 33 of this magazine).

In an interview to Khaleej Times’ wknd. magazine, Manu, yet again, sticks to his guns. Decoupled is meant to entertain, not subtextualised in a stock-in-trade attempt to cull out talking points on social media — just because it’s fashionable to miss the woods for the trees.

He’s also au contraire, and this time, I don’t know if he’s being objective or subjective. For instance, the serial’s protagonist Arya has been labelled a “misanthrope”; a lot of people seem to believe that since Arya is admittedly “flawed”, it’s okay to concede R. Madhavan — who plays Arya — did a fantastic job. But then Manu turns it on its head by saying, “all intelligent people are invariably misanthropes. It is one of those words which is poorly described in the dictionary because the dictionary is an unemotional place”.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Do you have a ‘catchment’ of readers who, away from the reigning polarisation, relate to your brand of objectivity? And when you wrote the script for Decoupled, did you have them in mind as your TG?

Not long ago, every writer thought he or she was ‘objective’, by which they meant they were right, and when people said, ‘be objective’, they meant ‘why can’t you be like me?’. Now, people are unable to keep up this farce. It has become evident that it’s too ridiculous for most writers to claim to be objective. Even newspapers like The New York Times have stopped pretending to be ‘objective’. This is one remarkable thing that has happened today: writers have accepted they are not objective. And it makes sense to me. Objectivity, in my view, was never a standard. By that, I mean it is not something you strive to attain. Objectivity is, and always was, a personality type. Only a particular kind of people can be objective, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Objectivity is an excess of something that is yet to be named. I know it’s an excess but of what I do not know because that label has not come up yet.

If you ask me what kind of people read me today, I’d like to say a majority, most people. I’ve lost a particular type of readers, who used to be fond of me when they only knew me as a features writer or as a novelist. They are confused about me now and don’t wish to be exposed to what I might have to say. Also, in the journalistic and literary field, there is a lot of defamation of writers that goes on. It’s just jealousy that masquerades as critique.

One can take Decoupled in one of the two ways. Either treat it as a foibles-ridden social comedy — and be entertained while taking note of a few flags… but not think too hard about the subtext. Or, consider it a ‘commentary’ on urban relationships set in the socio-economic context of a certain zeitgeist. Your thoughts?

I often think of a line I discovered in the film Birdman — “A thing is a thing, not what is said about the thing.”

Humans are very good at experiencing; and, generally, very, very bad at expressing what they have experienced. But today everyone is under pressure to articulate their feelings, and I think people are trying to sound very intellectual about what they have felt. Some days I feel everyone is a parody of some sociology professor whom they have misunderstood as intelligent. Why should people figure out what Decoupled is exactly — or its genre? Just enjoy it.

What were you thinking when you plotted, what was the thought process that went into the scripting? Was it simply a creative evolution, or was there a rigour — because you had a plan that it was going to turn out a certain way?

I wrote Decoupled because I wanted a playful expression of my ideas. I wanted absurdity and sadness and love and India to all collide. I was not attempting anything too deep. I wanted me and you to have fun, maybe a laugh here and there. I knew I could do it because I have written many, many screenplays in my 20s which never amounted to anything. I know this form of writing very well and I like it. Also, I am an admirer of a particular kind of comedy because I find fantasy a complete waste of time and most of the time, in fiction, only comedy comes close to being something that is not a fantasy.

I thought Arya’s character — simply because he’s the most interesting one, and because he’s also emerged most controversial — is not really flawed, not in the Shakespearean sense at least. Every time he’s “obnoxious”, it’s like he’s having an out-of-body experience, maybe because he’s having a midlife crisis, maybe because he’s bored/jaded — and I didn’t think he was behaving the way he did because he takes himself too seriously; it was a way of having disruptive fun in a linear life. Did you imagine Arya to be a misanthrope, or is that an extrapolation?

A few days ago, I was returning from Goa. I noticed that some bureaucrat in the Airports Authority got the bright idea to get a guy to stand near the departure gates and sing karaoke. He had four speakers. As this was going on, airlines, too, were trying to announce their flights. In my view, in these circumstances, you can’t sit here and read or just sit or even listen to music or do anything. But almost everyone else was fine. Some were even enjoying the music. In this world, in every situation there is the tyranny of the majority. Humans, as a community, do great things but they also do a lot of stupid things — as a herd. Some of us don’t belong to this herd and we wish to intervene and correct a minor injustice. The world is so obsessed with grand injustice, but most of life is about very small things, small victories, small sweetness and small injustices. Arya is someone who does not tolerate the tyranny of the herd. In that sense, he is a superhero of small things.

Also, all intelligent people are invariably misanthropes. It is one of those words which is poorly described in the dictionary because the dictionary is an unemotional place. A misanthrope, if we need to make sense of the term, is a person who does not hate humans as such but what humans are capable of.

That one scene where Arya tosses his jacket to “technically not his wife” Shruti, when her dress strap snaps at a party — I thought it couched a very strong EQ. Do you agree?

Yes. Arya is a good man. In fact, most of Arya’s problems emerge from his moral confidence. He has no need to pretend because he knows he is decent. That is why he is anti-woke. A woke man is a person who is so removed from decency that he has to make bad conjectures about what decency might be. Woke-dom is the overcompensation of an unremarkable jerk for his moral or ethical mediocrity. That is why you will find that most wokes so love the world but are very unkind to their own family or their lovers or the people who care for them.

Are any of the characters and situations drawn from real life?

Nothing I do in fiction is made up. I make up only the plot, which is merely an arrangement of moments. For legal reasons though, I must point out all characters and events in the series are fictitious and any resemblance… blah blah.

Tatvam Mansionz, the almost oxymoronic gated community built like a suburban bubble with kids whose role model is Greta Thunberg: how representative is this of 21st century urban India? And how disconnected (or not) is it from the reality outside the gates?

What posh Indians think is global culture is someone’s local culture or someone’s mental illness which has colonised the world in the form of exalted concepts. We don’t realise it and fall for it all the time. I wanted all this to be the backdrop of Decoupled.

Decoupled has a very international feel. Many non-Indians I know, who have fairly stereotyped notions of India, were struck by how ‘modern’ the narrative is: they thought it portrayed a completely ‘different’ face of India than the one they read about…

Yes, I have encountered this strange behaviour. There are foreigners who actually get annoyed when they realise Indians are not so exotic as they imagined and that many aspects of our lives are universal. It’s a bit like how they want aliens to be familiar enough to be comprehensible, but have two heads or three breasts to be exotic enough.

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