Creator: Saurabh Khanna
Director: Raghav Subbu
Cast: Adarsh Gourav, LUV, Nikhil Vijay, Shubham Gaur, Ahsaas Channa
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video
Purani Jeans is passé, but there has been a genetic upheaval of college caricatures. If TVF's Kota Factory was about the playful middlers of the coaching-class universe, TVF's Hostel Daze is its spiritual sequel – about the playful middlers of the engineering-college universe. In that sense, it's the Little Things of the campus-comedy genre – a carefully curated celebration of the everyday nothingness between life's larger landmarks. Combined with Laakhon Mein Ek S01, the Biswa Kalyan Rath-created series about the pensive middlers of the pre-coaching-class ecosystem, these web shows complete the Honest Indian Education System Trilogy ™. (Almost an acronym for HEIST, which might have been depressingly poetic).
Look closely and you might even sense that Ritwik Sahore's Akash grew into Mayur More's Vaibhav, who has now evolved into an affable Adarsh Gourav's Ankit Pandey. Next up could be a show about placements and the first job, followed by one about how the engineer (played by Ranbir Kapoor) gets disillusioned, turns to art, starts a comedy collective and ends up writing shows about the good old hostel days.
On a serious note, the fact that each age-bracket of the engineering ecosystem is today represented by a solid streaming show says as much about the ruthless business of learning as the modern art of storytelling. The students who survived the system a decade ago now have stories to tell – about lived-in experiences and the infrastructures that failed them – and the diverse digital medium has become a melting pot of voices belonging to this artistic generation of deflected academics. Some of them (like Laakhon Mein Ek) recall the past with a mournful gaze, attempting to balance boyish nostalgia with the crippling truths of peer pressure.
But the TVF shows (including the tuition-class series FLAMES) are markedly different in tone and ambition. The sole focus is nostalgia – as if to say that for better or worse, this is how it is and all you can do is come away with the good memories. Hostel Daze, for instance, is sharp, observant and immensely entertaining as a new-age campus show. The young cast – including the few actors inherited from Kota Factory (Ahsaas Channa, Ranjan Raj) – is on point. The texture is anecdotal. But it is clearly made by successful adults who, after being put through the wringer at these colleges, now choose to employ a gentler retrospective lens to paper over the cracks and parody those times rather than critique them. And moments that may have been deadly serious in real-time – like, say, a ragging epidemic or the sight of Ankit being pranked by his mates into believing that a girl likes him – acquire a jocular tone, aided by the self-awareness of hindsight and writing obsessed with the cinematic softness of reminiscence. Which, in a way, is a genre of its own: like Nitesh Tiwari's Chhichhore, where at least the sappy optimism of the campus parts can be justified by the fact that it is a story being narrated (and therefore whitewashed) by a father who wants his suicidal son to embrace nostalgia over peer pressure.
Hostel Daze, for instance, is sharp, observant and immensely entertaining as a new-age campus show. The young cast – including the few actors inherited from Kota Factory (Ahsaas Channa, Ranjan Raj) – is on point. The texture is anecdotal.
Hostel Daze has no such narrative crutch, but it is similarly melancholic in how the bemused adults of the campus – a peon, a security guard, a Xerox shop owner, a chemistry professor – narrate to us the quirks of episodical themes. Or even in how the "hero" has a nerdy roommate (LUV), a rustic roommate (Shubham Gaur) and the filthy Stiffler-like hustler (a terrific Nikhil Vijay) to depict the second-rate status of the college. Just like Kota Factory, the non-story is set in a testing environment but eschews the stress in favour of a caricatured assortment of photo-album vignettes. This works for witty observational humour (the guitar guy is famous for a song called "Jeans, saru, sutta, love…aur pal," the topper named Ravi Teja looks like a premature Telugu film villain), the colourful language and the fluid relationships between characters, but can appear tasteless in certain cases.
For example, a gag in the final episode reveals a hopeless student ditching his half-written suicide note when someone leaks the question paper to him. This is supposed to be part of a funny montage of panicked all-nighters, but instead stands out like a sore thumb amidst a deluge of spoofy situations. As a result, the rare moments of soul – like the one where a chiller wisely remarks how "the only thing the exam-mugging system prepares us for is the handling of pressure" – feel like implanted imposters that are meant to provide scholarly social context to a backbencher series. But it's the clean direction (Raghav Subbu especially designs the infatuation episode very well) and a well-detailed soundtrack (not just Vaibhav Bundoo's catchy score, but also the ambient noise of ceiling fans and crickets) that keep Hostel Daze rooted to its modest purpose.
Early on, one of the adults – who doubles up as the Gullak-style voiceover – sermonizes about how most students enroll in such institutions expecting life to be like 3 Idiots, Student of the Year or even Gulaal. But the reality is different, he says, hinting that Hostel Daze is a more authentic picture of student life. Down the line, I expect a web-show narrator of a small-town college comedy to mention Hostel Daze in this list of aspirational college titles. One's reality is merely another's auto-fiction. The cycle will continue, with each believing in the sanctity of their dazed and confused memories. But look on the bright side: Shows like these allow a diverse cross-section of ex-students to share their stories. In different volumes of voices. And students – as is most evident in today's India – are the teachers as well as creators of history.