The Bengali web series Rest in Prem is something like an R-rated family entertainer. It has an accessible story with a big heart, but is also vulgar and provocative in the best sense of the word. The hero is a stoner, he falls in love with a ghost, his mother is blind and his best friend is a junkie. There are songs, including a romantic number, where pleasant pop-rock melody is complemented by disturbingly morbid lyrics — it's called "Cancer". The tone lies somewhere between parody and genuine feeling.
It's a weird little show that blends traditional things with the shock of the new. On the one hand, you have a mom
The storytelling is zippy, with a surprise at every corner: suddenly, you'll have a plot twist that'll prove to be unexpectedly touching, but before you register it, Rest in Prem has turned it into a joke.
The basic premise is not entirely new. In the Hollywood film Just Like Heaven, Mark Ruffalo's character moves into a new apartment only to find out that the previous tenant, played by Reese Witherspoon, hasn't quite left; following rom-com routine, initial bickering turns flirtatious until they fall in love, as they must in such stories. Rest in Prem not only takes this central idea to unpredictable directions, it enlivens it with local colour. It speaks of a different side of Bengali culture and Kolkata, one where young people from districts and small towns live and work in the city: the protagonist, Adi (Sayan Ghosh), is from Birbhum and his love interest, Porna (Sumona Das), is from Hali Shohor. There's a rootedness that's as stereotype-busting—Adi is a videographer, who is street-smart, owns a MacBook, drives a car—as it is refreshing to watch. It informs everything about the show, from the lingo spoken by the characters to the sense of humour on display, which is dry, goofy, homegrown, and all its own.
It's hard to put your fingers on what's funny about a scene, but it has a lot to do with the characters, and the actors playing them. Stand-up comic Dipangshu Acharya plays Putki bhai, the junkie friend who deserves his own spin-off (and deservedly stars in a song named after him), and who has a matchbox strip attached to his shirt pocket so that it's easier to light up a joint. Madhumita Biswas, the actor playing the mother is a hoot — she's the show's trump card and forms the emotional core of the story.
Ghosh is perfect as the dazed and confused protagonist, and Das, as his girlfriend, plays along. Even minor characters are superbly cast: whether it's the man who plays the broker Adi meets at the teashop — he seems to show both avuncular affection for him as well as have a selfish interest in his misery, when he is rendered homeless after being kicked out by his ex girlfriend; or the next-door-neighbour, who talks about Adi and Porna's romance in the way one would gossip about a scandalous love affair.
In a way, the romance between the leads is purely platonic: an idea that's built into the show by virtue of its very premise — it's a love story of a guy and a ghost. We don't even see them kiss, but it's something that's addressed in a tongue-in-cheek manner. (The trailer begins with the lines 'Can you fall in love with someone who you can't touch'?) It's a smartly veiled critique on the (very Indian) trend of titillating use of sex in web series, best exemplified in the incendiary scene at the end of episode 2 — which was taken off by YouTube India on vague grounds of obscenity, but more on that later.
I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's a scene that's going to rile up many, gross out some, and many would thereafter discontinue watching the series. I was intrigued. And then I saw what Ghosh had to say about it, in an interview with Aritra Banerjee on his YouTube channel, where he was accompanied by the show's creator Arijit Sorkar and the composer Arob Dey. "Here, we are shown porn in the name of sex comedies. There is no comedy, but you are supposed to get horny… We wanted to do the reverse," Ghosh said, making a suggestive hand gesture, "If someone starts masturbating while watching the scene, he or she should get turned off". Now that's a statement.
Barring Ghosh and Acharya, most of the actors in Rest in Prem are new and unknown; so is Sorkar and Dey. The show has been produced under an independent unit called Confused Picture, formed by Sorkar, that has previously dabbled in music videos, a chat show and a short film. In the above mentioned interview, Sorkar said the series was made with a budget that would roughly cover "the catering services of an average Bengali film shoot", using resources that were available, and with cheap equipments for a decidedly "indie look and feel": unfussy camera, drone shots, minimal special effects.
The term 'indie' gets tossed around too loosely these days but Rest in Prem might actually be deserving of the tag not just because of the way it has been made (without the support of an established production house or a studio), but the way it has been distributed, with all its 5 episodes from Season 1, roughly 20 minutes each, released on YouTube for free. It came with a price; the second episode was taken down by YouTube India, only to be brought back later. After an exchange with YouTube, Sorkar and team were told that the episode was pulled down not because it was flagged by multiple users, but because it was reported by a single large entity — which could either be a big production house or a big rival channel. (Seriously, what is it with the Bengali film industry that every time there's an independent work out, there's some hint of sabotage? — a fate that has previously struck smaller films struggling to get theatres).
But YouTube is a different ballgame, and the makers of Rest in Prem know how to play it. First up, they unleashed on the world "Tumpa", a song that has become a sensation in Bengal. It's a ridiculously catchy song, written with a certain irony, with allusions to the theme of the series — and a smarter marketing strategy.
In recent times, the fast-paced dance track, typically with a flashy music video, has become a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy in mainstream Indian cinema, unimaginatively used to promote a film. It's out of character for an 'indie' like Rest in Prem to use an 'item number' like "Tumpa" to reach out to the audience, but it's a great example of how to outsmart the big guns at their own game: with 49 million views (at present), the song has generated buzz for the web series. The song's wild commercial success has not only been achieved without paid views (which the series doesn't have the budget for), it shows that the makers of Rest in Prem understand the pulse of the audience — there's a Bengali slang for it: "maacha". "Tumpa" doesn't take away anything from their indie-ness; if anything, it makes them rule breakers.