Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Cast: Ritvik Sahore, Tanya Maniktala, Shivam Kakar, Sunakshi Grover, Deepesh Sumitra Jagdish
Young Ritvik Sahore, who charmed movie-going audiences in Ferrari ki Sawaari and Dangal, has been the protagonist of two web shows over the last year. In Amazon Prime's Laakhon Mein Ek, he played the sweaty face of Indian peer pressure – a "weak" student named Aakash, who, thanks to his small-town parents' irrational dreams, is enrolled into a full-time pre-IIT Coaching-Institute-cum-Junior-College far away. Much of the series revolved around his struggles to keep afloat in the nation's cutthroat academic culture, based entirely within the adult-designed confines of the teenaged machine-making institute. TVF's Flames is, in many ways, a natural – and low-budget – extension of this universe. It advertises the other side of Sahore's coaching-class experience.
This time, it's Sunshine Tuition Class in Delhi. Except, here he plays a "hero" named Rajat – opposite a heroine, and not his own existential dread. The tagline is 'Padhai aur Pyaar': studies and love.
Evidently, Flames seems to have been constructed as more of a tonal reaction to Laakhon Mein Ek – Rajat is not a duffer but a topper, Sunshine is a junior-college coaching institute (Rajat's IIT coaching occurs on weekends, which we only hear of but never see), his strict parents are spoken of in an intimidating light but never seen, the teacher is empathetic (like the "cool" dad of multiplex rom-coms) beyond his role as stern headmaster, the characters spend time outside of classrooms and bond over street food, and most notably, it's first love that forms the central theme of the show. It's not really about "padhai," though both are sort of correlated for someone as studious as Rajat.
Much of the series revolved around his struggles to keep afloat in the nation's cutthroat academic culture, based entirely within the adult-designed confines of the teenaged machine-making institute.
It's almost as if the creators decided to override the original bleakness of Laakhon Mein Ek – and most angst-ridden, modern-day coming-of-age stories – to make the otherwise-monotonous education environment more accessible. "Remember when crushes were a thing?" – they seem to be asking us, repeatedly. Flames isn't very modest about advertising its old-school 'throwback' aura. There's the good-hearted, foul-mouthed best friend (a promising Shivam Kakar, as Pandey), a tomboyish third wheel (Sunakshi Grover, as Anusha), and a moralistic conflict designed solely to renew our faith in young Delhi's skewed gender politics. It becomes most obvious when a notorious local gangster makes an entry to teach the Institute bullies a lesson, and departs – completely against type – with a holier-than-thou "I respect ladies" line. A voiceover spouts overwrought chemistry metaphors ("Metal ke electron bond ke liye ready hai") – again, a deliberate device meant to remind us that Flames is the innocent tale we need in an era of complicated affections.
The romantic dimension they choose for Rajat – one which was justifiably missing from Aakash's tense life – is too familiar, politically correct and overenthusiastic in its inspiration from the simple, sweet dynamics of 1990s Bollywood. It is happy to simply pivot on the idea of nostalgia. For example, Kundan Shah, Shah Rukh Khan, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan are thanked in the end credits. The 'Pehla Nasha' theme peppers Rajat's infatuation with newcomer Ishita (a very expressive Tanya Maniktala); their 'bunk' dates around the city comprise of long conversations and a not-so-organic Before-Sunrise-music-booth scene relocated to 'Pehla Pehla Pyaar Hai' within a shy rickshaw ride. Each of the five episodes are titled after a famous song (Pehla Nasha, Ae Kash Ke Hum, Kya Se Kya Ho Gaya, Meri Soni Meri Tamanna) – which, to be fair, pretty much explains the emotional graph of Rajat's short journey.
The makers, however, get some of the littler things right. Consistent with the dramatic norms of pre-college life, they amplify Rajat's harmless problems and paint him as a sheltered boy who makes mountains out of molehills. True to spirit, back in the day everything felt like a national crisis – which is why the overplayed conflict and resolution somewhat fits into their filmy existence. After Rajat and Ishita share a first hug, he is so excited, but has no point of comparison except the heady feeling of finishing his board exams. These are perceptive moments that highlight the makers' decision to tell an unremarkable story from the limited perspective of a righteous teenager.
Despite its stubborn form, the templates of modern cinema are still embedded in the DNA of Flames – it is vaguely hinted at that Rajat is interested in the arts (he might just turn into a Ranbir Kapoor hero), the sarcastic professor (Deepesh Sumitra Jagdish) inexplicably sheds his 'adult image' when classes are over, Ishita has a tragic-Alia-Bhatt-ish backstory, and Pandey's Circuit-like loyalty contrives to accommodate a non-misogynist and pure respect for the opposite sex.
This is not to say such sanitized youngness doesn't exist anymore – it does, but Flames is too self-aware and derivative to identify this paradise-like phase of life. Other than occasionally invoking the uncluttered romance of the childhood game it represents (you remember – the acronym for Friends, Lovers, Affectionate, Marriage, Enemies, Sex), the show doesn't attempt to be more than a cutesy toddler in the Indian web space.
And though Sahore has that baby-faced millennial befuddled look about him, perhaps it's time for him to stop obsessing about the classes and just answer those omnipresent exams. Life is waiting for the Aakashs and Rajats of the world.