Reviewing a web series is one thing, but how do you review a streaming platform? Of course, one could watch everything in it. But I didn't want to overstuff myself, lest the fatigue influences my experience — do we eat all the items in the menu card when we review a restaurant? Instead, I decided to pick as I browsed through the website — completely ad-free and a neatly designed one — trying to cover all the genres the platform has to offer.
I began with the widely publicised Dupur Thakurpo. A sex comedic twist to the "mess-house" trope — which has a special place in Bengali cinema and TV — it is less Sharey Chuattar (1953), and more Grand Masti (2013). The only watchable thing in this puerile comedy is Swastika Chatterjee, who seems to be playing roles of The Seductress with a certain self-awareness. I skipped the series on Byomkesh, because who wants to watch another Byomkesh?
The supernatural and the strange
I turned to the scary, and there is both good news and bad. The platform has content, of all shapes and sizes, on the horror, supernatural and psychological genres. And the fact that Cartoon wants to come across as a product of this new age of global TV is made clear in the title of its pilot episode; it's called, well, Stranger Things.
It's about Aritra (Mainak Banerjee), an illustrator in the children's section of a newspaper, who starts experiencing spooky things after he who moves in to a new apartment with his girlfriend Jinia (Payel Sarkar). Its not all in Aritra's head, as people around him seem to think; the kid-friendly drawings he faxes to his editor transforms into grotesque figures, smeared with blood. There is the germ of a fresh idea here. But the performances are weak — Banerjee's scared facial expressions are unintentionally funny — and the atmosphere is devoid of any dread. If you want the Netflix audience to watch this show, you have to do better than showing The Joker from Batman looking at the camera from an unfinished canvas.
Enthusiasts of the eerie might want to give a shot to Shuopoka (The Inmates), one of the short films under Hoichoi's Original. It substitutes the "haunted house" with a stark, plain looking flat in Kolkata. The action takes place in broad daylight, when a single woman, interested in renting the place, is ushered in by a broker. You can see where the plot is going from a mile away, but what works in the 26-minute film is the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Hoichoi, which launched in September, 2017, has a separate section for psychological thriller series' called "Paranoia" — which has 3 shows as of now. But Bhuture sounds more exciting, where we ride along with the 4 characters to popular "haunted" places in West Bengal.
Twisted idea, Wasted opportunity
Hello!, featuring Raima Sen in the lead, can be seen as the twisted, feminist take on the regressive saas-bahu serials. Nandita, the eldest daughter-in-law in the Roychowdhury household, finds out about his husband's affair, when the family is gearing up for Durga Puja. She receives a video on her phone of him in bed with his lover; more follow. What drives the 8-episode show, which takes place during the entire span of Durga Puja, is not the dilemma of whether Nandini will leave her husband, or if she will stand up to her prejudiced mother-in-law, but the question of who is the mysterious sender of those video messages is.
Is he a well wisher of Nandita's, a secret lover? Who is to say its a 'he' at all? Hello! flirts with ambitious ideas like sexual ambiguity within its seemingly family-friendly set-up, and keeps us intrigued. Until it becomes just another preposterous thriller that doesn't know how to tie its knots; a laughably executed ending making a mockery of its intentions. Watch a few episodes, and take a call whether you want to continue watching it.
Hoichoi's collection of old Bengali films might be the only high quality content available on the platform, till it comes up with its own.
Shrimoti Bhoyonkori, a 50-minute film produced under Hoichoi Originals, has a similarly interesting premise. A strange condition afflicts Binoy(Gaurav Chakraborty). He finds himself almost paralysed when he sees an attractive woman. The condition, we learn, is called Venustraphobia. The film is decently acted — with Ritabhari Chakraborty as the female lead — and treats the subject with sensitive hands, perhaps a tad too much. A lighter approach might have been worked better. An instance being when the lady psychiatrist(Kamalika Banerjee) diagnosing Binoy tells him that he isn't making eye contact with her, part-flattered, part-worried. I cracked up.
Old Bengali classics
Hoichoi's subscription rates are Rs 399 for 12 months, Rs 249 for six months. Try out the cheapest one — Rs 149 for three. What might make it worth is the film catalogue; there are titles from the newer lot, like Projapoti Biscuit (2017) and Cinemawala (2016). But more exciting is the rich spread of classics: the Uttam Kumar-starrer breezy rom-coms like Deya Neya (1963), Basanta Bilaap (1973), films of the auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Rituparno Ghosh. Many of these are available on Amazon Prime. The real gold — not available for legal streaming anywhere else — is the comedies: Sharey Chuattor (1953), Jomalaye Jibanta Manush (1958), Bhanu Goenda Jahar Assistant (1971).
I hope that this category will have a steady flow of older films. Run by Sri Venkatesh Films, the biggest studio in West Bengal, Hoichoi should have the resources to acquire the rights for films they haven't produced. It might be the only high quality content available on the platform, till it comes up with its own.