This time last December, I was struggling to find five decent Indian web shows in 2017, forget naming the frontbenchers (maybe it was appropriate that an underdog tuition-class drama, Laakhon Mein Ek, "ranked" first). Naturally, I wondered if this particular year-ender would soon be renamed the 'Least Worst of' list then.
But 2018, I am happy to report, has been considerably – if not infinitely – better. Evolution, I suppose. The new medium has expanded, and with it, its commercial and creative range. More streaming platforms, more content, more money, and more bad decisions…but also more risks and more breakthroughs. In a country like ours, perhaps it makes sense that "more" is nothing and everything. More is also diverse. The result: every genre finds representation here – a coming-of-age companionship drama, a workspace comedy, two starkly different cop-v/s-criminal time-sensitive thrillers, a hinterland mafia thriller, a socio-supernatural horror series, a nostalgia-filled '90s childhood portrait, and even a self-referential Bollywood satire.
This year, I find it almost unfair to rate them against one another – separate spaces, separate perceptions of the engagement-versus-entertainment and lightweight-versus-heavyweight debate.
And with this cripplingly non-committal disclaimer, here are the 5 best Indian web shows of 2018, in no particular order:
The show deserves better than a controversy. Hotstar's kneejerk decision to pull the entire second season in the wake of actor/comedian Utsav Chakraborty's sexual misdemeanors shouldn't define what BLF S02 actually achieved in context of the web landscape. The Office-style parody about a bumbling Mumbai-based NGO remains a rare instance where Indian creators have employed the precise interactional language of the 'mockumentary' (mock-documentary) as more than just a visual gimmick. The series builds upon a promising first season to localize its ambitions, integrate a sense of craft into observational standup-comic commentary and stretch beyond the limited intellectuality of its format. Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, it satirizes everything from a toxic workspace culture, abusive start-up equations, gender privilege and hierarchical imbalance – all of which ironically defined the 'foundation' of the Indian #MeToo movement. I thoroughly enjoyed the chemistry between Naveen Richard and Sumukhi Suresh – incidentally also the two behind last year's deceptively powerful stalker dramedy, Pushpavalli.
Watching a famous title months after its release is both a boon and a curse. Boon, because the hype machine and pop-culture posturing subsides – I managed to see Sacred Games as less of an event (India's first Netflix original) and more of a…web show. With the luxury of hindsight. Curse, because of precisely the same thing: Artistic expression in this day and age can seldom be critiqued in isolation from its cultural context – that is, the day and age of its own voice. Hindsight, like sports highlights, isn't the same as real time. I haven't read author Vikram Chandra's sprawling novel. But I suspect Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane's exquisitely performed screen adaptation has subconsciously been translated by writers who might have internalized the social undertones, subtexts and latitudinal beats of the 928-page drama so deeply that its interlinked structure and preconceived obsession with narrative suspense are both beguiling and frustrating. It's not a new problem; the best of writers often tend to forget that viewers can't read between the lines that they are tasked to live with. Kashyap's portions – chronicling the rise of Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a gangster kingpin – are not too different, density and mood-wise, from Faizal Khan's corresponding track in the Gangs of Wasseypur universe. Motwane's portions with Saif Ali Khan as an under-confident Sikh inspector expose the textural underbelly of a city – and more importantly, a sense of time –far more originally. That being said, I'm not sure Sacred Games is ready to be judged yet. The first season is only the setup – it wasn't designed to be a whole. The next season is likely to offer a fuller picture: one where the show's reality might inch closer to the viewer's, and not the reader's, expectations.
Pound for pound – or should I say organ for organ? – Breathe is the bravest Indian show of 2018. It is another cat-and-mouse cop-versus-criminal thriller, yes, but beneath its flashy hit-and-miss exterior is a profoundly twisted moral universe that forces us to reconsider the very concept of crime. Some might understandably dismiss the strange plot as a front for 'torture porn,' but I was consistently intrigued by the simple emotional core of a tragically complex situation. The protagonist is a father faced with the ethical predicament of having to systematically eliminate organ donors, without actively "killing" them, in order to bump his dying child up the receivers' list. The antagonist is a grieving cop who decides to seek his own closure by hunting down this unlikely murderer. Between hero and villain lies the viewer crippled with guilt for being unable to distinguish between the two. Casting someone like R. Madhavan so brutally against type is what transforms this occasionally contrived chase into an exciting collision of parental fates. Amit Sadh's track of a troubled policeman with a loyal sidekick is similar to that of Sartaj Singh and Katekar; his brooding gait turns him into the perverse reflection of the everyman serial killer he is after. The season finale is a copout, but it has to be mentioned that Alokananda Dasgupta's haunting string-heavy score – one that is audibly a tonal companion to her music in Sacred Games – lends Breathe a shock that defibrillates its body into showing a "pulse" that transcends some awkward world-building.
The makers of Inside Edge seem to be operating at the other end of the Indian web spectrum as compared to, say, a Sacred Games. Their vision is in your face and loud, and they aim for accessibility over subtlety. But unlike an ALTBalaji with similar aspirations, they have located a balance that doesn't completely sacrifice art at the altar of digital commerce and keyword entertainment. Their writing is carefully calibrated, in that it trusts the psychology of its characters over the elaborations of a plot. As a result, the superbly cast Mirzapur – a middle-Indian gangster-legacy drama that arguably boasts of the two most riveting performances of 2018 – is a study in long-form world-building. It is both "binge-worthy" and clever, and doesn't shy away from the bouts of gory/bold indulgence that have plagued this genre of filmmaking over the last decade. In contrast to the movies, though, the nine-episode show has the time and bandwidth to shape its edgy faces, outline its narrative core and coax out individual moments from a talented ensemble. It isn't surprising that the purists – especially those who swear by its Netflix competitor – are the ones to have dismissed this show as a cheap Gangs of Wasseypur rip-off. That, in my opinion, is perhaps a sign of Mirzapur's unusual but inevitable triumph: a show that unabashedly highlights the "telling" in storytelling, and the "making" in filmmaking.
Read the full review here
I haven't always sworn by Dice Media's "snackable" content-generation formula, but there was a lot of growing up visible in the second season of Little Things – by both, creators and characters. Mithila Palkar and Dhruv Sehgal became online sensations with the first season, which briefly examined the cross-cultural oddities that beset a young unmarried couple living together in a big city. The only problem might have been the way ahead. Unlike most modern-day romances, this one already began with a sense of familiarity and lived-in companionship, as opposed to the heady intoxication of cinematic love. This time around, however, the skit-like novelty is replaced by a larger conflict of long-term compatibility. The emotional narrative exudes a reluctant adultness – like a bittersweet Before Midnight to the series' inherent Before Sunset-ness. Little debates turn into big blow-ups, and small voices turn into full-throated screams – a portrait of marriage-like truth that jolts an unsuspecting millennial fan-base out of their smart-screen reverie. I will never forget how uneasy an ugly hotel spat made me feel. Before this, I never quite expected them to understand the meaning of confronting their fears. In that lies a coming-of-age show's necessary victory.