Producers: The Viral Fever
Director: Amit Golani
Cast: Vipul Goyal, Rasika Dugal, Abhishek Banerjee
A year ago, I sat down at a pub in Khar to watch an open-mic event. Aspiring stand-up comics would ply their trade for three minutes in front of an unforgiving, beer-happy audience. It made for a fun evening – filled with jeering, hoots, sympathetic awws, nervous but sporty humorists and plenty of laughs. Until the moment a famous face (one of AIB’s four wheels) walked onto the stage in what looked like a disheveled-genius-screaming bathrobe and shorts. With handwritten notes and a rushed demeanor, his performance entailed reciting most of his ‘new’ material to test it on the ‘aam junta’ before a big show. There was this aura of next-level celebrity-hood about his behavior – which I hadn’t taken to very kindly back then.
Ironically, it took me a TVF series to realize that his conduct, in fact, was perfectly acceptable and an essential part of a very extensive creative process. What he did was akin to a screenplay writer using his friends as guinea pigs for messy narrations; only, because his medium thrives on real-time public reactions, we were those experimental buddies. Apparently, it’s a done thing. Humorously Yours, TVF’s latest original web-show about the fictitious life and factual times of a standup comic (Vipul Goyal), touches upon a similar ‘preparation’ montage (the writer equivalent of, say, Rocky Balboa’s ‘Gonna Fly Now’ sequence) in its fifth and final episode.
Goyal is under pressure to justify the sudden hype of being the latest brown-eyed boy on the scene. He has a month to come up with brand new content for a show – A-grade stuff, unlike the repetitive gags he had gone viral with. He spends his days writing, and his nights testing it on unsuspecting pub goers. We see many of his jokes tanking, as he stands with a sheepish grin, cancelling ‘options’ with a pen on stage.
This is enlightening to an outsider like myself. By now, I had invested in his persona heavily enough to understand that it wasn’t arrogance, but all part of the job – one that lives and dies by the sword of collective validation. The least we can do is grant him his cynicism, anti-establishment smugness, serious-artist insecurities, crippling idealism and self-inflicted misery.
These tinier details come across effortlessly, which is very important for a series ‘dissecting’ an entire profession. It doesn’t feel like the writers are shoving their research down our throats. By integrating it into standard urban-underdog motifs, such scenes become natural stages of evolution in a journey centered on storytelling.
This can be quite a tightrope act. When filmmakers explore a slightly unorthodox (Indian translation: daring) occupation on screen – this is TVF’s second such effort after Pitchers, which concentrated on budding entrepreneurs and startups – they must tread the fine line between two objectives: introducing an unfamiliar world to novice viewers without patronizing them by going too ‘in-house’, and appealing in wink-wink nudge-nudge vignettes to those within or close to the community. That is, simultaneously earning the loyalty of greenhorns and grizzled veterans. It’s as much about authenticity as it is about the ability to humanize (and not dumb down) these technicalities.
Humorously Yours, much like its predecessor, excels on both counts. It serves as, both, a frothy dramedy as well as a crash-course handbook about its craft. Of course, there is an individual protagonist and we see the problems and contradictions of the ‘business’ from his perspective. Which is to say, much of the turmoil (and simply the darkness of being a married, frustrated, penniless artist in this country) is shrugged off, episodically, with the sarcastic wryness of a comedian.
I’d say this is his version of a comedian’s life – a Seinfeld-ish narrative sprinkled with live performances, thematic punchlines, minimal sadness and heightened situations. Minus the artificial applause. The version that would make for a harmless watch, not the humble-pie-eating, meltdown-addled version he should be telling us. It remains regionally relevant (Mumbai’s parking and ‘bai’ problems at the forefront), and supremely observant – the superpower of comics, who somehow derive humour from the most mundane situations (tipping waiters, for example, is turned into a five-minute-long masterclass in freewheeling wickedness).
Humorously Yours has the added advantage of lead actor Vipul Goyal being an actual stand-up comic, and one of the show’s writers. As a result, there is a visible been-there-done-that ease about the episodes.
The title credits, set to a quasi-melancholic theme, personifies the tone of this series – just because it’s about funny people doesn’t make it a funny story, much like how comedians shouldn’t be expected to be hysterical even off-stage at parties (“tell us your best joke, no?”), or how small-talk with a film critic doesn’t necessarily need to begin with ‘which movie should I watch this weekend?’
Most importantly, all the quirky gyaan-giving cameos (Tanmay Bhatt, Kanan Gill, Zakir Khan, Varun Thakur) aside, Goyal’s personal life is peppered with strangely optimistic characters that allow him to be the perpetually self-sabotaging (read tortured, for commoners) struggler. His wife Kavya (a radiant Rasika Dugal) and slacker pal Bhushi (a stoner-faced Abhishek Banerjee) lend him the mileage to bumble his way through managerial conflicts, soul-sucking corporate clients and surprisingly mature domestic squabbles.
There’s also the added advantage of Goyal being an actual stand-up comic, and one of the show’s writers. As a result, there is a visible been-there-done-that ease about the episodes. Even his ‘house-husband’ shenanigans stick to the sloppy-manchild template, a fairly generic picture of most young, middle-class, big-city couples. At one point, once he has finally entered the big league, forever unsatisfied and in need of fresh dispute, he still moans to his wife about ‘how you 9-to-5 types don’t understand the methods of us creators’. She sets him straight with an angry monologue about this misplaced superiority complex – without forgetting to nurse his inferiority complex, by encouraging him to work more systematically for the new show.
But perhaps the most impressive part is the manner in which an age-old ideology-clash is dealt with. It is no secret that most comics detest the ‘art-destroying’ drill of conforming to populist sensibilities, of having to perform for oversensitive family audiences and censor-happy corporate events. Yet, the easy money makes this the quintessential lucrative quickie – an allegory for any artist torn between survival and ambition. Humorously Yours dedicates more than an episode to Goyal’s train-wreck sellout moments, but acknowledges it more as a humbling trial-by-fire than a necessary evil.
While Goyal is predictably disgusted by the disrespectful lack of appreciation for his art, an organizer slyly reminds him that ‘knowing the audience pulse’ is an art of its own. After which we sense him mellowing down and straddling both worlds, ‘adapting’ instead of compromising, perhaps lending credibility to a debate that originated in Jaideep Verma’s expertly compiled documentary, I Am Offended.
TVF’s only competition is with itself, as far as India’s made-for-internet space goes. Most platforms treat web storytelling as a stepping-stone to reach the ultimate goal of conquering mainstream feature-length cinema.
Verma’s film presented interviews from both sides of the warzone, simultaneously questioning and exploring the growing culture of intolerance through the canvas of the country’s burgeoning stand-up comedy scene. This series can’t delve as deep, but reluctantly suggests the possibility of there being two sides to this jaded coin. It is thankfully not as bitter as its subject, evident by the absence of a suit-wearing, ball-talking antagonist (Pitchers’ only downside). Because eventually, an artist’s most aggressive conflict lies within.
Similarly, TVF’s only competition is with itself, as far as India’s made-for-internet space goes. Most platforms treat web storytelling as a stepping-stone to reach the ultimate goal of conquering mainstream feature-length cinema. I don’t see why, given that the very concept of hierarchy in artistic expression is a self-defeating one.
Each space is its own distinct beast, with only economics drawing the borders. Hence, it’s gratifying to see at least one player with its priorities set on ‘building’ a new medium instead of joining an old one. The show ends on a Hirani-ish note, contriving – successfully – to capture the fleeting innocence of any performing art. Often, it should come down to a single question: why do we do what we do?
Watch Episode One Of Humorously Yours here