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Still from Netflix's 'Little Things' : a man and woman sit beside each other in the grass
CategoriesIntimacy and SexualityReview

Review: It’s the Little Things that Make All the Difference

The first thing I noticed about Little Things on Netflix – it did not make co-habitation seem like gasp-worthy drama! Refreshing, no? Especially when Bollywood cinema based on the life and times of the “Indian youth” seems to think that the very concept of a “live-in relationship” is enough to drive entire 3-hour plots. Movies like OK Kanmani (2015) or Shuddh Desi Romance (2013) give us “bold,” “modern” couples who want to have sex before they tie the knot and so, choose to move in with each other. In a clime where marriage is becoming an axis along which “national tradition” is being reimagined, a live-in relationship – particularly the idea of sex before/without marriage – feels transgressive and liberating. But even as you enjoy this transgression, these movies leave you wondering if Bollywood can ever get over its love of aesthetically shot musical symphonies of bare skin and blankets, and explore the everyday negotiations of a relationship. Because, despite the scenes that show couples having sex, there is little talk of how intimacy develops between people in a relationship with each other.

That’s the second thing I noticed about Little Things. The series actually lives up to its name and stays focused on the subtle negotiations that a relationship is about. It explores how the lives of Kavya and Dhruv (played by Mithila Palkar and Dhruv Sehgal) evolve as they learn to negotiate the decisions they make in their individual lives with the decisions they want to make together as a co-habiting couple. Sometimes, theirs is the ideal relationship that makes you want to reset your own relationship goals. Sometimes, you find yourself wondering how their blundering choices are going to undo or unravel something they have carefully built up. But whether you root for this couple or not, Little Things makes you think about the small things ­– like reading out a line from a book of poetry, sharing a friend’s WhatsApp message with your partner, forgetting to wash your dirty socks before they make the room stink – that make or break a relationship. What I enjoy the most is that the series gives us two strong and caring individuals, who are open to conversations which allow them to turn awkward situations into a site for learning something about each other and about their relationship.

Intimacy in Little Things develops through the ordinary and everyday interactions between the couple. Sex is placed in the matrix of these relations between them. The series doesn’t shy away from sex but what it doesn’t do is make sex an end in itself – the couple’s reason for moving in is not sex; neither is sex alone enough to make the couple feel like they are modern, bold and triumphant. Sex happens in the midst of many other exchanges between two 20-something young people trying to understand not only the nuances of living with each other’s particularities, but also the nuances of growing as individuals in a relationship. So, in a sense, Little Things decentralises sex without undermining its importance in a romantic partnership. It instead shows that intimacy develops among ever-changing individuals in an ever-changing relationship. Whether things get more intimate and comfortable or less intimate and awkward depend on the acts of care, on our capacity to be open to another person, and on our ability to maintain a sense of self while also working on a sense of being in a partnership.

In focusing on a relationship, Little Things does not underplay the importance of an individual’s sense of self. Kavya and Dhruv have lives – friends, jobs, families – independent of each other before they meet, and continue to enjoy these spaces of independence from each other after they move in. But as they get to know each other through conversations, observations, and activities, their independent worlds begin to collide. While I have wondered if things are a tad rosy in the series, I also recognise that I love watching a show where a couple actually does know how to negotiate this collision. Sometimes, you see the protagonists plan and introduce their partner to facets of their individual lives; sometimes their personal lives intrude unannounced on their lives together. Either way, the couple seems to be able to talk to each other and perform little acts of care that ease the tension and the awkwardness. What’s good about the show is that in the process they don’t efface their individual selves; instead you see how the growing intimacy between them as a couple also shapes their relationships with themselves, and with other people in their lives. One fine example is Kavya’s relationship with her mother. While the mother and daughter already enjoy a “good” rapport, it is based entirely on the fact that her mother is a giver and Kavya is a receiver in that relationship. Now add Dhruv to the mix, and her mother begins to share facets of her life with him that helps Kavya see her mother differently. This then shapes her own sense of self, and the kind of partner she thinks she wants to be.

Little Things, by being attentive to the constancy of change, doesn’t give you intimacy as an end goal. The question never is whether or not you have intimacy. Intimacy ebbs and flows through the everyday negotiations of this couple. Thus, Little Things shows that intimacy takes constant effort, on both sides. As Kavya and Dhruv evolve in their professional lives, in their friendships, in their relationships with their families, and with each other, they bring newer and newer facets of each other to the table. Intimacy can never therefore be taken for granted. It lies in how they respond to these new sides of themselves and of each other, and whether or not they can reconcile with differences. The show’s second season in fact is all about subtle irreconcilable differences, and the small ways in which they alter a relationship, requiring the couple to focus on awkward and uncomfortable moments and work through them.

Little Things is not a perfect show. It is a small-scale production that depends on product placement (sometimes a little too much). It does not offer a critique on intersectionality, particularly the negotiation of gender with class and caste. It celebrates the neoliberal world of corporate jobs without much critique. It also sometimes makes you wonder if it subscribes to an evolutionary ladder, where living-in is just a phase on the way to marriage. But in spite of these problems or gaps, the show does offer an interesting commentary on the subtle negotiations that make or undo relationships. And for shifting attention away from sex in live-in relationships as a measure of boldness among young people to the subtle matrix of negotiations  within which sex becomes a pleasurable and intimate exchange between a cohabiting couple, I would recommend this show.

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Shweta's life is a little bit like a patchwork quilt. She started her career as a medical doctor, and then worked as a medical writer, producing multimedia content on sexual and reproductive health for several NGOs. Currently, she is a student of sociocultural anthropology, discovering the pleasures of being entangled with transnational and queer feminist scholarship and activism. She is grateful to the many people she has met in her life—family, friends, co-workers and mentors—who constantly push her to made her political views more and more nuanced. She hopes her writing reflects her openness to new modes of engaging with the world, and her curiosity about life. She writes about gender and sexuality both from her personal experiences, and from the academic interest she takes in the subtle textures of human experiences. She has called many places home in her life. Currently, she resides in Washington DC, USA and Chennai, India.

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