Back in 2014, around the time I started writing for a living, I spent most of my meals watching YouTube videos. After emptying my tear ducts with Britain's Got Talent reruns, I came across a few hilarious homegrown parodies. First there was Rowdies, a comical satire on the famous MTV reality show, Roadies. There was one called Gangs of Social Media, a sly and supremely entertaining fusion of Anurag Kashyap's cinema and urban digital culture. Then there was the terrific tongue-in-cheek mimicry of Arnab Goswami to Arvind Kejriwal. All of them came from the same YouTube channel: TVF. When some of these skits went viral, naturally the name 'The Viral Fever' made sense. Even celebrities started to take notice. A few high-profile filmmakers failed to see the point in laughing at themselves, but others like Shah Rukh Khan – and even Kejriwal eventually – gamely played along. Perhaps they recognized the young student fanbase: most of whom were inspired by the TVF engineers-to-storytellers entrepreneurial story, and most of whom began to realize that the Indian obsession with academics made for the best "material". If there was one truth that emerged from the virality of these videos, it was that living was the best CV.
Over the years, TVF became the first mover in the Indian "web series" ecosystem. It started with Permanent Roommates and soon set the standard with Pitchers. But first movers don't often end up as the biggest movers. At one point, with the advent of global streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, I wondered if the modest slice-of-life-ness of TVF stood a chance. But despite a mid-decade lull and a brand-placement formula they never quite cracked, the platform stuck to its USP. Run by a bunch of creators who grew up in the 90s, nostalgia became their weapon of choice. In fact, given the injection of Bollywood budgets and players into the streaming landscape, the "smaller ones" started to own their niche spaces. After all, the youth never tire of seeing themselves on the small screen. Almost a decade of hits and misses later, the institution of TVF is still around, and still an enduring and restless presence in the middle-Indian millennial heart.
On that note, here are 10 of my favourite TVF web shows, in ascending order of ranking:
The comparison might sound absurd. But just like Madhur Bhandarkar's movies once took aim at various 'fields' of professional life back in the day, the TVF palette – minus the sensationalization, plus a sense of middle-class quirk – pays ode to the episodic existentialism of the Indian adolescent-to-adulthood everyman. Cubicles is a breezy if far-too-easy snapshot of the corporate sector through the eyes of an average entry-level coder. "Average" is the theme of the quintessential TVF narrative, and Cubicles rides on the usual one-issue-per-episode format – with character tropes of mentors, potential love interests, cool friends and orthodox parents – to become a safe, sweetly observed take on job jitters. If you can look past those corny mutual fund metaphors, of course.
The boulder that triggered the cultural avalanche, Permanent Roommates holds a special place in the souls of all the early digital loyalists. These were the babysteps of future streaming superstars like actors Sumeet Vyas, Nidhi Singh, Maanvi Gagroo, Rasika Dugal and Jitendra Kumar, creators Biswapati Sarkar and Sameer Saxena, as well as composer Vaibhav Bundhoo. The current landscape is chock-a-block with eccentric relationship tales, but the vignettes of live-in couple Mikesh and Tanya remain the origin story of an immensely popular genre later spearheaded by Dice Media's Little Things. As is the case with a majority of these shows, the second season lacks the raw novelty of the first, but it's the legacy that defines our reading of its modern love.
An underrated predecessor to the more visible Gullak and the more celebrated Yeh Meri Family, Aam Aadmi Family is a charming, clean and nicely cast portrait of the Great Indian Middle Class non-plot. The Sharmas are just ordinary people in a house in a sit-com, with veterans like Brijendra Kala and Kamlesh Gill consistently making something out of the TVF penchant for nothingness. The lack of conflict and pristine reality are an acquired taste for a generation that thrives on drama. But if Schitt's Creek grew into the cuddly demon it did, there's no reason shows like these might fail the test of time.
The Aam Aadmi Family of hostel life, the Adarsh Gourav-led series is a harmless antidote to the rousing pragmatism of Kota Factory. With TVF shows it often feels like one backbencher-student universe dissolves into another, and Hostel Daze is so teary-eyed with college nostalgia that it's almost infectious. The campus tale has a diplomatic personality, driven by likeable performers and a breakout comic turn by Nikhil Vijay as the unhygienic gang hustler. The voiceovers by the adults of the environment are just silly TVF things, as is the caricaturing of the darkness of the Indian education system, but then again, Hostel Daze lands softer because it isn't quite aiming for the sky.
The Guptas. Jaipur. Late 1990s. A 12-year-old protagonist. Summer holidays. Air coolers. Tendulkar's Sharjah storm. Cordless phones. Rooh Afza. Aslam and Shibani Kashyap's Ho Gayi Hai Mohabbat. The perfect nostalgasm – almost numbing in its conviction of remembrance. Yeh Meri Family meant something to small-city 90s kids like myself: a place rather than a time, a feeling rather than a narrative. The makers nail the warm, fuzziness of nuclear families in lazy summers; it's interesting that, unlike the more dramatic big-platform series, the TVF creators often construct conformist environments with a sense of fondness and hindsight, as if they too were trying to recognize the final moments of childhood before education, adulthood, pressure and expectations took over. This is a definitive series for that "lastness"; the train is about to pull away.
The most recent and easily the most unassuming superhero of the TVF Family universe, Gullak has grown in stature over its two seasons, attracting the subconscious and the subliminal in the cinematic age of scale. Most of it is just a family bickering and bantering in an unnamed Indian small town, with a piggy bank ('gullak') providing the sermonous voiceover. The immersiveness is such that the viewer can afford to tune out and tune in at leisure, like absent-minded kids in a classroom, and yet come away with a sense of being. The performances – led by Geetanjali Kulkarni as the crabby housewife – are elevated by actors hungry to be heard, in a show that thrives on the gentle din of middle-class activity. In terms of casting, TVF is to the OTT universe what Anurag Kashyap became to Hindi cinema – they created their own self-sustainable ecosystems of talent that went unrecognized in the mainstream industry. The others have taken cue, and "tinseltown" is now a more fertile, happier place.
It's an unusual stance – to challenge public perspective and highlight the "fun" of the IIT coaching class epidemic instead of the trauma. The adventures of Vaibhav, Meena, Uday and of course the iconic Jeetu Bhaiya make for a near-aspirational portrait of peer pressure. But I wouldn't call the series dishonest or romantic by any stretch of imagination. The fact is that a majority of kids packed off to Kota so young are none the wiser. One can't rationalize a phase while they're in it. This series too occurs in the present tense, without the luxury of hindsight, which makes the gang just a bunch of students trying to adjust to their new environment. We are aware that their future might not be as rosy, which in a strange way makes Kota Factory all the more melancholic – they know not what awaits them, instead revelling in the missteps of academics and youth. The black-and-white cinematography is a clue: colourful characters in a colourless environment.
Stand-up comedy stories are now in vogue, but casting actors as professional comedians is a fatal flaw. Back in 2016, though, TVF cast a comic as himself in a self-referential show about his own field: Vipul Goyal plays a flesh-and-blood version of the artists we see on stage, with petty domestic and financial struggles as well as the quirks of a stuttering (and legitimate) career. Given Goyal's grassroots arc and everyday issues, there is no room for exaggeration: Static corporate gigs, desperate alter egos, dry runs, misguided best friends and low-profile cameos. The second season lacks the definition of the first, but there's no denying that Goyal and co. first captured the circuit at a transformational period, as a fundamental "job" taking flight – before governments waged a war against it.
A frat-boy dream from the Silicon Valley era, TVF Pitchers was technically the head of the monster: an enjoyable, deeply felt trendsetter that more or less changed – by establishing – the Hindi web medium. Four extremely male friends invading the start-up space at a time Indian audiences weren't conditioned to look beyond the arts and sciences – it could either go horribly wrong or terribly right. Fortunately, despite the painfully obvious product placement scenes (they meet at a pub with 'pitchers' of branded beer), the series did a fine job of adapting Western stereotypes within the Indian metropolitan context. The in-house gang at that point, led by the affable Naveen Kasturia with Jitendra "Jeetu" Kumar in an eye-catching supporting role, turned striving into an all-in-one narrative: love, friendship, individualism, heartbreak. It was the first time we sensed young actors not trying to be young for the sake of posterity. It felt fluid, relatable and revolutionary at once, as though a show wasn't pitching its value so much as living it.
Turning a traditionally serious template – a typically TVF urban man (a rat-race loser) trapped in a rural setting – into a gentle, slice-of-life language is a minor miracle. But Panchayat wasn't all about the timing: the onset of the pandemic meant that audiences lapped up the first feel-good "light" offering in sight. The cast was exquisitely low-key and the writing, a genuine balance of sentimentality and situational awareness. Raghubir Yadav's overnight fame
was more than 30 years in the making, while Jitendra Kumar's uncanny white collar angst felt like the culmination of every single TVF series prior to Panchayat. In context of the TVF legacy, the question this series posed revealed a sense of creative continuity: Adolescence is a sequence of small movies, but can adulthood be a movie of big sequences?