One of the most poignant lessons I have learned growing up is that snaking up the ladder—in age, capital, experience, honour, popularity, or sex appeal—does not necessarily widen the scope of your freedom. As we grow, it is not so much that we become freer as we trade one kind of freedom for another. The rest of our lives are spent yearning for past freedoms while trying to explain—to others, to ourselves—what the trade-off was; that it was worth it.
This is tied to the lovely illusion that our existence is naturally, incontestably bending towards something meaningful, fuller, richer, better. This capitalist utopia of eternal growth is grafted onto the way we sketch our life’s trajectory. Where each day is an economic unit, one sedimenting upon another, a grand eternal crescendo, as opposed to a seamless, contextless meander.
When we were young—without capital or experience— we craned our necks towards the dreamy mirage of adulthood as a domain of untrammelled choice, a luxury, a vex-less bubble.
I remember, as a child, staring at a handsome father in the supermarket carting his child around in the shopping cart, paying for things without the boy having to ask if he could have it, thinking how wonderful that life was. That image was a trap I am still trying to extricate myself from.
The mistaking of financial security as the ultimate form of freedom. Sometimes, at the end of the exhausted workday, alone, cooking, mentally listing the vegetables to be bought for the next meal, the coffee, the sugar, making sure the bills are paid, a sharp ringing plea crosses the mind. Is this all there is to it?
‘Posh people angst’
This lesson seems all the more ingrained in the latest cinematic genre, what film critic Anupama Chopra called “posh people angst” speaking of Zoya Akhtar’s filmography, and what we are increasingly seeing on the smaller screen—through shows like Succession, The Crown, The Gilded Age, TheWhite Lotus, Made in Heaven, and Bombay Begums. Stories of rich people agonising through life, their richness a cushion on which they weep, on which they can be eternally, glamorously vexed. But vexed, nonetheless.
Reality television, too, has thrown its ring into this fire, from Keeping up with the Kardashians to Real Housewives, from Selling Sunset to Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives to what I consider the most iconic, most blinkered pinnacle of this genre—Dubai Bling. Reality TV has always smelled of desperation, as something in which only those participated who needed to, from Roadies to the many million iterations of Bigg Boss, to the recent Lock Upp, where contestants were “locked up” in a fake jail waiting to be eliminated, that is, leave the jail. Becoming free was to lose.
When comedian Munawar Faruqui, who was really jailed for a joke he did not crack, was announced as one of the participants of Lock Upp, anchored by the right-wing-poisoned Kangana Ranaut, people were disappointed, wondering why he would go on a show that not just fetishises the prison complex but is anchored by a spokesperson of everything he stands against. Some murmured that he might need the money; after all, a lot of his shows were being cancelled by the right wing. Yes, that made sense.
But surely the rich do not need to be desperate, wanting to, as writer Jia Tolentino notes, “[enact] the various self-delusions of the emotionally immature: the dream that you are being closely watched, assessed, and categorised”. False, clearly false. Money does not alter the DNA, it only gilds its loopy steps a little. Now, suddenly, you have the richest of the rich allowing cameras into their homes, allowing themselves to be filmed, willingly, enthusiastically.
To be clear, the two categories of participants are not exactly the same. The rich housewives have control over the final look of the show in a way Munawar does not in Lock Upp because of their proximity to the producer Karan Johar. Money allows you to produce shows where the camera is turned adoringly on you, like the recent documentary Harry & Meghan has shown. In some sense, this is what money allows: more editorial control over your life’s representation. How does it matter though? At the end of the day, all you become is a meme on an Instagram account and that becomes the legacy of the show. The currency of popularity is still the same—controversy.
Dubai Bling cranks this voyeuristic impulse up a notch, a shameless ode not just to a city but to a lifestyle built upon the active erasure of the very thing it fetishises—its past, its “culture”. The United Arab Emirates, with the world’s fastest roller coaster, the biggest man-made port, the largest mall, the tallest tower, underwater rooms dipping into the sea, enormous art museum, air-conditioned bus-stops, islands constructed by carting one billion cubic feet of sand and sculpting land out of the sea, is ultimately a culture of smoke and mirrors.
Here is how architect and urbanist George Katodrytis describes the gluttony: “Dubai is a prototype of the new post-global city, which creates appetites rather than solves problems.” The question is: what does this recursive, spiralling appetite mask?
Do not forget this is the country that provided refuge to Dawood Ibrahim, that allowed smuggling to build its financial bedrock, where there is no demand for transparency, in fact an active refusal of it. I still remember, in the years I lived there, how the murmur of the Arab Spring was silently but mercilessly shut down. The horror stories of migrant workers whose passports are yanked away. “In many complex and surprising ways, Dubai actually earns its living from fear,” Marxist writer Mike Davis notes.
Then, there are the characters who populate Dubai Bling. One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is that through the multiple catfights that dot the season, the worst insult they bestow on one another is the word “fake”. The worst thing you can be in this world, the absolute dregs, is to pretend to be someone you are not. The fear of being fake, of being perceived as fake runs, and ruins, their lifestyle.
“To be rich is not enough. To perform richness as effortlessly as possible is the goal.”
To be rich is not enough. To perform richness as effortlessly as possible is the goal. This is where the distinction between old money and new money comes in, where the latter have progressed in pocket but still think in terms of limits.
Dubai Bling, then, looks at that trade-off I spoke of earlier—what are the freedoms you are giving up, the dignities you are swapping as you grow in wealth. This is a question old wealth never had to contend with because they had never experienced anything else. Moneyed freedom is something they were born into. It is why a Diana found it so hard to walk into The Palace, why she found it bizarre that they referred to themselves not as a family but as a “system”. She was giving up a freedom that her in-laws had never experienced.
Keep in mind this is a world populated by characters who dress in the most extravagant haute couture outfits and buy emeralds worth millions of dollars after a fight with the husband. Their wealth is perverse in a city that Davis calls a “dreamworld of conspicuous consumption… bursting with architectural steroids… apocalyptic luxuries”. The phallic Burj Khalifa keeps appearing in the backdrop, to imply the wealth of the location, the finest example of scale overpowering beauty.
The show hints at internal anguish but quickly papers it over with glitter and diamonds. We are not shown the labour behind the scenes, the hours that go into make-up and hair, because that would break the illusion that these folks landed in the lap of television pre-designed into perfection. At first, they seem absurd, with their demands for synthetic abs and surrogate children and being flown down in helicopters for a date, but you realise these people are also totemic of “post-global” aspirations.
In that sense, Dubai Bling is ideologically ambivalent, acknowledging the perverse wealth, allowing us to mock it, even as it frames it with this dream-like glow. To want the very thing you mock, to be unsure of why you are mocking something. Is it because you can never have it?
Like The Crown, Dubai Bling is unsure of itself. These shows are designed as “guilty pleasures” but in themselves they are unable to answer the basic question about what that guilt is premised on. Is it in mocking others, is it in feeling better seeing the rich but undeserving participants, in yearning for the very thing we mock, or guilt about the hypocrisy? Gucci over gamcha any day, right? Oh, but what will our Marxist friends think?
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.