As far as web series go, the 2016 YouTube series Better Life Foundation was somewhat of an anomaly. Created by Bangalore-based comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts, its mockumentary format and deadpan humour reminded viewers of the comforting familiarity of The Office, but what surprised them were its insightful observations about privilege. The five-episode series about the foundation’s clumsy attempts to improve sanitation in Dharavi became a runaway hit. The show that featured comics like Naveen Richard, Sumukhi Suresh, Utsav Chakraborty, Kumar Varun and Kanan Gill is returning for a second season on streaming giant Hotstar.
Ahead of its premiere on August 10, writer-actor Naveen talks about how he looks back at the first season, how his writing has evolved and what you can expect to see:
I read this interview you did before season 1 came out and you said, ‘I went from shooting things for free at my home in Bangalore to getting a lavish budget of 8-10 lakh per episode and vanity van.’ Does the Hotstar platform enable you to do things you couldn’t before in terms of production?
After the first season, we heard that there were people at Hotstar who really liked the show and we were wondering who was going to pay for the next season. Hotstar was a fan of the show so it was nice to work with a fan as opposed to someone who saw it as a business deal. But if anything, in this season we actually have fewer locations. We realised that comedy isn’t in going to places, we wanted to give ourselves constraints and see how much we could squeeze out of just two or three locations. I don’t think we went that big. The writing has evolved, the sets have gotten better, but the setups are still as simple as they were.
Since season 1, you, Kanan Gill and Sumukhi Suresh have gone on to have your own specials and own shows – was it tough to get together and find the time to figure out season 2?
Somewhat, I mean, no – everyone kind of just said yes to it and then it was just about when – the timing. The thing is, it’s such a fun project to work on, everyone was looking forward to it. So when you say, ‘Can you please block off a month?’ they’re more than happy to. That of course, gets postponed by two-three months, but I think there’s something so nice about working on that show that everybody looks forward to it and that’s why it’s not too hard to get a hold of them.
How has your own writing evolved over the past two years? Do you revisit season 1 and critique your own work?
Yes, we watched the first season now and were like, ‘Oh my god, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.’ And when people are like, ‘We loved the first season’, we’re like, ‘um’. I think we’re being too self-critical but we know the second season is so much better and so much tighter and funnier. I hope the audience agrees with us. I think our first season, we were still figuring it out and I think we got lucky that it worked and we kind of pulled it off. This time, we’re just a lot more confident going into it.
The scripting took about six months. It’s crazy if you think about it in terms of math – if you break it down, it’s one month per episode. We took a lot of breaks I think a good season takes about four-five months. We’re not that experienced compared to American TV writers, I don’t know how they churn out that many episodes. I like to take my time with it.
There are these irreverent jokes in season 1 – a picture of an impoverished child is described as not “beggar” enough, there are others that come off as fat-shamey. Is there a pressure now, in 2018, to be politically correct or to weigh your words more carefully?
All the fat-shaming jokes are a thing that we do, but not rely on. If we did a fat-shaming joke on the show, it immediately had repercussions, no one laughed at it. So we did it in a way that way, ‘Oh that wasn’t cool to say that.’ So we were self-aware when we wrote it. The beggar thing again was self-aware. The moment the character said it, it wasn’t supposed to get a laugh. You say something like that in real life, it becomes awkward and on the show, it became awkward. So we’re not going to hold back, because we know what’s right and wrong. We’re not trying to get a laugh out of punching down. When we punch down, we punish our character for it.
You also tackled topics like beef eating, sharing defamatory content – in the current climate, did you feel the need to take it down a notch?
Last time, we purposely made sure that there was some theme in every episode. This time, I just wanted to have fun with it, but the political climate just worked its way into the script. You can’t help it, that’s how strong the climate it. Whether on set – when we were improvising – or in the script, there are definitely references to it.
Can you tell us what we can expect from the new season? Where does the NGO go under Sumukhi’s direction?
The new season is all about Neil and Sumukhi fighting for who the heck should be head. It’s about their dynamic. It’s also about their relationship with another NGO. Earlier, they were the underdog, but now you really get to see their insecurity. You see a lot of other characters’ insecurities coming out. Sumukhi’s not just the angry person, you also see a different side to Kanan’s character. With just six episodes, there’s only so much you can explore but I like to think that we did a lot emotionally, but not in a cheesy sense. You can expect 10 times more jokes than last time.
Watch season 1 here: