Biswa Kalyan Rath has a lot to say. If it’s about why bachelors are too lazy to eat pomegranates, the pain of ordering an Uber, or going to school in the 90s, then head to videos of Biswa’s stand-up comedy. For graver and more complex storytelling, like the ills of our education system or our corrupt healthcare industry, binge on his series Laakhon Mein Ek on Amazon Prime Video. Irrespective of which way you go, there’s no denying that he has a strong, original and unique voice. We catch up with him on the eve of Laakhon Mein Ek season 2, which he has co-written with Hussain Haidry and director Abhishek Sengupta. He speaks about the writing life and why he isn’t the star of his own show.
Through Laakhon Main Ek you’ve spoken about the flawed education system and healthcare industry of our country. What are the advantages of expressing through this medium that stand up comedy doesn’t allow?
In stand-up you can raise a issue. People laugh and once they do, it just becomes a laughing matter and it doesn’t have a deeper impact unless you’re a very, very good comedian. Sometimes you need to leave people with a deeper satisfactory sadness. In comedy the joke vanishes into laughter and the next time you’re reminded (of the issue) is when you’re in the situation. You’ll never watch a comedy show and stay up all night thinking about it. So that’s the difference. The second thing is that in stand up the only character I have is me. In this I can express through so many characters. So the subjective expression is way more.
So when you have something to say, do you think about which medium you’d like to write it for?
Yes, definitely. I try to keep easier topics for stand up. For stand up shows people are coming out to have a good time. After your office hours if you’ve just come out to have a drink, then you’ll hear this and say ‘Man, I just wanted to have some fun’. Some people like to do darker topics also for stand up. But when you have time alone on the weekend then the web series works better.
One of the shows biggest strengths is that it is a real deep dive into the problems of healthcare. The research is very solid. How hard is it to take these cold, hard facts and turn it into an entertaining show?
That’s one of the big problems we faced because by itself a medical drama is already heightened because a life is at stake. But then the characters in the same story, for them it’s everyday life. If you speak to doctors, the first death of a patient affects them and then it subsequently goes down and they get immune to it. So while making the story we had to tread that thin line that over dramatic na ho jaaye, or aisa bhi na ho ki bahut cold ho jaaye. There has to be enough amount of drama for the audience to feel but maybe not that much for characters to feel.
Also we put a face on every fact. Another thing we have tried to do is ensure that no character is completely right or wrong – they all have their own reasons. If someone is selling wrong medicines, they are very caring, so people go to them because the caring sometimes heals.
I kept telling the story to every doctor or medical student I met. So as it was developing we checked if it is ringing true with them. And then of course we had doctors on set to see if someone is reacting too much or not reacting enough.
The first season was about engineering coaching classes – a world that you knew personally. How did you understand the world of this season?
I don’t think we still understand. We are still finding out the depths of it. Abhishek’s dad is a doctor so he grew up in this world. He has insane stories about some gangster his father had treated and that gangster was like ‘kabhi kuchh chahiye hoga to batana’. So he had lived this world. Hussain who is the co writer had also worked in a hospital set up as a CFO for a while.
What sort of feedback have you been getting for this series? Has it happened that people who follow you as a comic and on social media come to watch the show and get surprised by just how bleak it is?
I think some 5-10 per cent get very pissed off. They are just happy-go-lucky people who are watching some stand up and suddenly this is like ‘feel karo, feel karo’. But that said, 90 per cent of the audience messages saying ‘Man, it’s not funny but I really like it bro’.
Also you try to make it clear in the trailer that this is a different thing. You’ll be surprised how many people don’t know me and they love the show. Plus they come through Amazon Prime video suggestions so they come with a blank slate.
Did you consider making this show less of a bitter pill? Maybe end with some hope?
We did, and we tried also but, you know, the story has a power of its own so it just naturally tends to… So the medical world, if you make it too light, you’re doing injustice to it. And when you finish (the show) you’ll see that this time it’s not that bitter. Like last time it was. This time it is bittersweet. There’s some kind of hope but still not there.
I’ve watched a couple of other web shows by comics on Amazon. In most cases, they are the star of their show, and therefore the characters feel like an extension of their stage personality. You’ve chosen to go the other way. Why?
Good question. I can’t act so there’s no question of me acting ever.
But the others aren’t trained actors either…
Yes. But I really can’t act. I can’t do basic scenes also. I came into stand up because I was writing something. I thought this would become a book but nobody will buy so let me do stand up so that I can sell the book. So I identify as a writer way more. And it is very clear as a writer that if I’m working on a script, if i am not in it, it is better. In the first season, the moment I wrote it I knew the less I am in it the better, because I’m too close to this world. Obviously a lot of it is also Abhishek, because once you’re on the floor, he is fully in control. So it’s his vision also that comes into play.
It’s very funny but when we started writing season 1, I pitched it as a sitcom. Then after 2 years Amazon Prime came to India. So they were expecting some sitcom to come, and then read the script and thought ‘okay… maybe this will be funny somehow’.
But you’re not tempted to see yourself on a poster or give yourself the best part?
I hate myself on a poster. I don’t like my face. So no, I have no desire. I don’t like popularity also. It’s a burden actually.
Because now people have expectations from you. If you’re a writer, no one knows you and you can just write anything. There’s no burden of anything. Also no one will buy it but you can write. So I try to find a balance where I’m not seen too much but the show goes out. I love being behind the camera.
I follow you on Instagram and you lead a hectic life. You’re always on the move, travelling for shows. How do you bring discipline in your writing?
So the reason you’re saying this is because I was travelling the entire month. But for Laakhon Mein Ek, I stopped doing all shows last year. So from August to December I had no dates available because they were just given to writing the show. We had a office, so me, Abhishek, Hussain and Anuradha, who is our script consultant, would go and start writing. Production happens at the same time and so as the deadline approaches both teams are in sync. So it’s like a proper job from 9-5.
So what’s next? Have you thought about what issue you want to sink your teeth into next?
We want to continue the man vs the system angle. It’s very exciting to find a new angle to it. The problem is once you’ve set the story – man goes to fight against the system – you’ve already said it. How do you find a better angle to it? Right now mind is fully blank but as you start doing research you’ll find such interesting stories… some just resonate.