Creators: Anirban Dasgupta, Dibya Chatterjee
Director: Anubhuti Kashyap
Cast: Gulshan Devaiah, Anjali Patil, Aakash Dahiya, Robin Das, Heeba Shah
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video
Afsos, quite literally, has a killer setup. A man fails at committing suicide so often that he hires an assassin to finish him off. If this wasn't black-comedy enough, the fun begins when he changes his mind and decides to live. The assassin, a woman who thinks she is an artist of death, is dangerously committed to her job. A contract is a contract: that's the hit(wo)man's code.
One would imagine this plot alone is psychologically twisted and narratively wicked enough to define the first season of a new show. But Afsos isn't satisfied with a quirky cat-and-mouse game. It aspires, quite literally, to be immortal. The makers then cram the chase with a therapist, a journalist, an Uttarakhandi Sadhu Baba, a cop, a scientist, a Russian tourist – and the search for an elusive bottle of immortality potion ("Amrit"). Soon, the assassin track becomes a subplot, which is a pity for Killing Eve fans. But that's not to say that the rest of Afsos is any less irreverent and entertaining. Even when it's confused and crowded (the intercutting between timelines lacks clarity), there's something about its charming lack of heavy-handedness that makes Afsos a perversely enjoyable experience. A bit like Breathe, but without the moral posturing.
The eight-episode Amazon series opens with the protagonist, Nakul (Gulshan Devaiah), in the middle of his 11th suicide attempt. He finds a pillow to rest his head on a railway track, (somewhat) determined to end it all. An old vagabond appears and botches his plan. He has tried everything – drowning, poison, crossing roads blindfolded, watching Ram Jaane on repeat. That last one may not be true. But all his attempts end in someone else's tragedy – at some point, one out of four fishermen who jump into the river to rescue him fails to resurface. He tells his therapist, Shloka (Anjali Patil), that she is the only one who speaks to him, mostly because it's her job. He has been dumped thrice and fired four times. Naturally, he is also a failed writer ("My life story is so poorly written that I feel like I've written it myself"). His luck is so bad that even when the assassin, Upadhyay (Heeba Shah), sets out to "free" her latest client, she shoots someone at the wrong address.
Down the line, as other characters and sub-threads start taking centerstage, Afsos makes sure to maintain Nakul's incompetence. Unlike most messy protagonists stuck in sticky situations, he barely has a say in his own destiny. Nakul, in a sense, is such an inept lead that not even his own web series allows him to steal the show. For large portions, he is left babysitting the Sadhu, fleeing from the assassin and looking for Shloka. Those around him live and die and save and kill and jump, but Nakul – so passively performed by Gulshan Devaiah – is denied a sense of agency. The one time he gets shot, a medical miracle downplays his crisis. The one time he tries to be the hero, he reaches an entirely different part of the city.
It's not easy to make death look funny. Given the recent awakening of our generation to conversations around mental health, it's even harder to weaponize the self-harm culture without seeming offensive. But Afsos isn't so much about political correctness and sensitivity as it is about puncturing the walls of creative self-seriousness. It walks the thin line between black comedy and heavy existentialism by employing a wry, middle-class tone that satirizes its own motives. In a way, Afsos unravels in the Mumbai of The Family Man – the ordinary, everyman suburbs that look deliberately at odds with the lofty mythology-meets-mediocrity palette of the plot. This dissonance between (authentic) environment and (audacious) story is actually the clincher. Much of the satirical undercurrents are derived from the almost Bob-Biswas-in-Kahaani nonchalance of the characters.
For instance, the deadly Upadhyay works for an agency called Emergency Exit ("Want to leave?" the pamphlet cheerfully asks) run by a nice catholic lady named Maria (the fantastic Ratnabali Bhattacharya). She operates from an unassuming sales van parked at the edge of a cliff, and spends most days supervising her employees pushing suicidal people off the edge (literally, again). Naturally, she demands an advance payment before politely promising her clients that they will, 100 percent guaranteed, die in a day. She hates the term "murder". Upadhyay is the loose cannon in her company. One can only assume that she is so addicted to the craft of killing that she agrees to make a living out of its lowest and most humanitarian form, 'assisted suicide' – like a righteous vampire who would rather get her blood from dead bodies than able citizens.
The tone is important, otherwise, the sight of depressed and innocent people being killed for a laugh might have attracted all sorts of scrutiny. It consciously takes place in a parallel world without pesky plot-interrupting devices like law, order, investigations and consequences. The poker-faced Pink-Panther-ish feel to the comedy is elevated by the distinctly unglamorous filmmaking – director Anubhuti Kashyap smartly eschews melodrama in favour of a droll, matter-of-fact rhythm. Solid supporting actors like Jamie Alter, Robin Das and Aakash Dahiya add to this language without being greedy. Some of them have hefty lines about immortality and purpose, gamely hijacking the show from Devaiah at different points. Together, they succeed in transforming an absurd tragicomedy into a criminally watchable show.
All through, the show's suspense revolves around a chiranjeevi ("immortal one") hidden in plain sight. The only visible creative choice is the framing of the faces. Most of them are placed either the left or right of the frame, as if to hint that none of them lie at the centre of this universe. Only the immortal one has that privilege. Which brings me to the central conceit: Imagine being able to live forever. Life – and everyone else's death – becomes a cruel joke. Drama becomes a never-ending punchline. Which is, literally, what Afsos is.