Creator: Zakir Khan
Director: Vikas Chandra
Cast: Zakir Khan, Zakir Hussain, Alka Amin, Abhimanyu Singh, Varun Kumar, Vyom Sharma, Venus Singh
There will come a day when I find myself writing about an Amazon Prime show created by a stand-up comic who – contrary to type – might have inadvertently used the stage as a stepping stone to fulfill his/her destiny of being a talented fiction storyteller.
Today is not that day.
With Zakir Khan's Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, the writing is on the (digital) wall – the studio is merely using the web space as a ruse to cash in on the Indian standup boom. They are more than happy to capitalize on an existing fan base rather than define a medium that is still at its embryonic stage. At first, I thought this to be a noble business idea. After all, the core of these observant, sharp, witty voices lies in a form of sociocultural storytelling that captures the popular mood through the country's favourite language: irreverent humour. All they have to do is lend this style a coherent brand of imagery on screen to retain its essence.
But after the first round of opportunities – Sumukhi Suresh's Pushpavalli and Biswa Kalyan Rath's Laakhon Mein Ek are the rare exceptions – it has become depressingly evident that creating isn't the same as 'content creation'.
After Varun Thakur and Kenny Sebastian, it is now Zakir Khan who bears the misguided look of Michael Jordan on a baseball field. He is way out of depth in a show that struggles to manufacture any. From what I understand, he more or less plays himself – a 'Sakht Launda' spin-off that attempts to manifest the sheepish, small-town and supremely timed meninism that propelled his refined Pyaar-Ka-Punchnama-ish monologues to web superstardom. His journey is therefore peppered with familiar templates from his special – a pretty girl who friend-zones him, a sarcastic but indulgent father, an emotional mother, a nosy sister, intellectually diminished but loyal best friends, a shady mentor and a reputation built on airy castles. But he plays himself through the prism of mainstream Bollywood – in that he speaks like the Zakir Khan we know, but emotes like the heroes that can't.
As Ronny Pathak, a directionless 26-year-old hustler slacking his way across Indore, he sounds like a Haq Se Single prototype forced to occupy a conventional middle-Indian underdog narrative – with all the grace of Anil Kapoor doing a split. For example, in the first out of eight episodes, there is a scene that is designed precisely to invoke his famous stand-up persona. He catches up with his childhood friends (Anwar and Kranti play the culturally diverse shoulder angel/devils of his conscience) after a failed IPS stint in Delhi. Here, Ronny colourfully describes a posh Delhi slam-poetry session – replete with playful jibes at the excesses of big-city elitism. This is Zakir performing for an adoring audience of two – in his comfort zone, decorating stories and redecorating urban caricatures. He has virtually built a career out of sniggering upward. Moments later, when he is supposed to express the chemistry they share – that is, when he has to perform inwardly – he comes across as a newbie struggling to enact the "feeling" of the lines he wrote. He is trying to act natural rather than talk about it.
In trying to lend some sentimental conflict-resolution meat to his 'Sakht Launda' swag, Khan looks like an amateur parodying the concept of emotions rather than actually being a boy humbled by his own shortcoming
This isn't entirely Khan's fault. Irrespective of experience, it isn't easy to be the self-depreciatory snapshot of your own hometown. It is even harder to humanize the tu-jaanta-hai-mera-baap-kaun-hai syndrome – the title translates to "My uncle is an MLA" – in a good-natured slacker way meant to invoke the ambiguous morality of Shah Rukh Khan's Sunil from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. This can be a complicated role. Ronny is a compulsive liar, a cheat, a scammer, a toxic influence and an all-round delusional dummy – it's almost an illness – and yet the makers end up trivializing his attitude by passing him off as a flawed do-gooder and aspiring politician. He simply isn't redeemable, but we have patient characters belatedly outlining his "pure" intentions so that the show can hinge on a happy ending. "He can't see others in trouble," they tell each other, desperate to convince us of his virtuous roguishness.
Every episode is designed around Ronny's far-fetched solutions to his own self-inflicted problems. Which is fine, in a Tinkle-protagonist sort of way. But everything – including the filmmaking, which repetitively introduces a stock piano score to indicate the mental turmoil of a jobless father – goes downhill as soon as Ronny paints himself into a serious corner. In trying to lend some sentimental conflict-resolution meat to his 'Sakht Launda' swag, Khan looks like an amateur parodying the concept of emotions rather than actually being a boy humbled by his own shortcomings. At one point, he even walks out of his parents' room, in slow motion, to the tunes of a mandatory sad 'maula' song. The awful crying scenes, especially, make Zakir Khan the web version of Salman Khan. Not in a superstar way, but in a "my fans will understand" way.
I can't say I enjoyed having to binge-watch this show. It felt like work. It is utterly unremarkable, crippled by the selling-point-is-also-its-weakness paradox. By now it's obvious that for every second Amazon series, I'm trying to rephrase my doubts about the current setup. The landscape is crowded, with everyone quite content to be 'taking a shot'. Perhaps they might learn, and perhaps they might stop feeling the pressure to headline these passion projects. Biswa did that, and on a different level, screenwriter-lyricist-comic Varun Grover does that too.
For this to happen, in this age of unconditional adulation, I hope the target audience is honest enough about their new-age idols invading a different medium. Because, on screen, no matter who your chacha is, there is more to the idea of entertainment than simply reminding your viewers of your lineage. There is more to comedy than making them laugh.