Creator: Anuvab Pal
Cast: Kunaal Roy Kapur, Kubra Sait, Aneesha Shah, Prabal Panjabi, Abhinav Chaturvedi, Zachary Coffin
To be brutally honest, I’ll admit that I’m absolutely clueless – and a little patronizing – when I hear of the job position “social media strategist” these days. I know they exist, and I’m pretty certain they earn enough to hire me as their driver, but I’m not exactly sure of what they do. I’m old school that way: I write, and expect words and films to magically present themselves to the world through strategically placed Juhu beach hoardings, newspaper ads and star-studded premieres. I’m also perhaps in denial of this trending-hashtag (#IsThisHowItsDone?) digital age and an entire alternate industry it has spawned.
As a result, in my mind, this mythical universe plays out much like a fluffy parody. When I imagine the “setup” behind mysterious viral content, I think of millennials half my age strolling into swanky startups without a degree with the most absurd ideas. In a conversation with one of the CEOs of a digital short-content creation company recently, I was stunned to hear clear formulas, criteria, algorithms and creative models in place to get “maximum hits”. Doesn’t that, like, happen by fluke?
Which is why it makes sense that Amazon Prime Video’s consciously satirical web series, Going Viral Pvt. Ltd., is created by someone closer to my age than the generation it represents. Anuvab Pal, the standup comic and playwright, encapsulates his – our – opinion about this new-age sorcery within the filming style he employs: the mockumentary format. True to our fossilized upbringing, we mock what we don’t (want to) understand.
This technique – of using a fictitious documentary crew to capture the politically incorrect moods of a dysfunctional atmosphere – is an old favourite of mine. The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family remain classics because of these nosy, amateurish “camera” eyes. Closer to home, Dice Media’s severely underrated show, Not Fit, profited immensely from this design, as did Kunaal Roy Kapur’s (incidentally this show’s protagonist) clever Bush-lampooning desi comedy, The President Is Coming.
For much of the eight episodes, the series relies on their guest characters – clients, mostly – to deliver merciless brands of South-Park-meets-TVF social commentary.
Pal’s show isn’t in the same league – the writing is too internet-skittish – but there’s a lot to admire in its world building. The problems begin once this world becomes familiar. For one, I enjoyed the premise and characters: an agency that exists solely to create content that goes viral, no matter how ridiculous or scandalous. Clients range from upright politicians to feminist social workers, ambitious stalkers, ex Bollywood “molester” villains (a superb Rajit Kapur) and disillusioned but loaded MBA graduates – all of them determined to go viral for various silly reasons.
@Gaurav (I decoded this “@” reference immediately!), the bumbling, ignorant and endearingly cocky “chief dreamer” of the company is performed fantastically by a Michael-Scott-ish Kunaal Roy Kapur. One can almost sense his improvisations even when he has nothing much to work with. He is nothing less than a Grade-A idiot – something even his more opportunistic and condescending wife, the cash-hungry CFO of the company, Natasha (Kubra Sait), knows and regrets – and yet we want even his most harebrained schemes to succeed. He drives the show with his xenophobic, sexist, racist and hysterically offensive mumblings and ideas – again, @Gaurav is 42, an older “adult” intent on shaping and running a mad, mad kids’ world.
Then there’s Frehan (Prabal Panjabi), the dewy-eyed, poker-faced “Operation Manager” who oscillates between existential musings, his infatuation with Natasha and empty, confused aspirations of standup stardom. The all-in-one, Gaurav-worshipping Office Boy, Peon (Abhinav Chaturvedi), is a peripheral face that needed more time and stakes within these walls; he kicks off the series promisingly with a truly funny gag in which he introduces us to the language of this obscenely opinionated age by crying “abuse” on a self-filmed video to get an innocent employee fired.
My personal favourite, though, purely from a voyeuristic “me against them” view is Shravika – the young, manipulative new fresher and resident ‘Meme expert’. From charging the office for stress to establishing a coffee startup within the startup, Shravika aces the bored-millennial stereotype. She rises beyond her clunky character graph and makes us oldies mortally afraid of having to work under conscious-less smartphone products like her in the not-so-distant future.
Going Viral Pvt. Ltd. makes the mistake of treating its environment as an ongoing story. The “plotting” becomes awkward, and Pal seems totally at sea when the show attempts to go beyond its humble, comedy-set roots.
For much of the eight episodes, the series relies on their guest characters – clients, mostly – to deliver merciless brands of South-Park-meets-TVF social commentary. Gaurav’s video plans, ranging from making politicians say communally sensitive statements (“I promise to eliminate all Bengalis in Mumbai”) to making market analysts offer stock options naked in between bird sounds, paints an exaggerated social-media landscape that would have been funnier if it weren’t half-true.
But the novelty wears off after the fourth episode. It isn’t easy for parodies/spoofs to balance their inherent flakiness with an actual narrative. One-off skits go viral because they have no scripting rules to adhere to. At times, shows can go on forever without really developing any of their characters – depending solely on situational humour – and still be binge-worthy. Going Viral Pvt. Ltd. makes the mistake of treating its environment as an ongoing story. Things become a little jaded when Pal feels the pressure to make Gaurav the underdog and protagonist primed to hit back against all odds. The “plotting” becomes awkward, and Pal seems totally at sea when the show attempts to go beyond its humble, comedy-set roots.
It does help that the self-depreciating grammar of such shows stop us from taking them too seriously; anything goes, which is when it gets difficult to distinguish between bad storytelling and deliberate mischief. Either way, I didn’t quite chuckle even once in the last two episodes – a telling factor for a show that prides itself on how “unfunny” and incompetent its primary players are. You get a sense that Pal is still learning to optimize his material on screen. He manages to do a decent job of physically basing the entire series within the office.
But eventually, his unapologetically sly interpretation of India’s culturally chaotic digital footprint falls prey to its own origins. It feels a bit clumsy, broad and traditional – not as self-defeating as a man making a “hard-hitting” film on feminism, but more like a verbose uncle with a fancy camera spoofing the latest high-school musical movie. He is a bit too self-aware, willing to laugh at his own datedness, yet insists on making sense at the same time. This often amounts to long stretches of disengaging conversation and “almost” moments – when you think a punch line is around the corner, but it never really comes. Much like I sound at parties (#Gettogethers) when spoken to in hip terms beyond my modest comprehension.
Watch the trailer of Going Viral Pvt. Ltd. here: