Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Writers: Deepesh Sumitra Jagdish, Ashutosh Pankaj
Cast: Naveen Kasturia, Shivankit Singh Parihar, Abhilash Thapliyal, Sunny Hinduja, Namita Dubey, Tengam Celine
Streaming on: Prime Video
The glass-half-full aesthetic of TVF (The Viral Fever) shows is easy to like, but it’s hard to admire. Nostalgia becomes a weapon of choice. It stages a country’s most pressing challenges – academics, peer pressure, entrepreneurship, dysfunctional familyhood, sexism, middle-class ambition – as cutesy social vignettes. Real-world stories seem to unfold in a world that’s afraid of being too real. Politics, caste and religion rarely exist here. If they do, they’re reduced to generic problems with bleeding-heart solutions. This utopian gaze often feels like cultural revisionism; Kota Factory is an example of how the makers reframe the coaching-class experience as an aspirational memory rather than a lived-in truth. But sometimes, this bubble works – like in Panchayat, Gullak, and parts of Aspirants. Because sometimes, the sugarcoating implies that the salt persists.
Season 2 continues the juxtaposition of two timelines. The past features the Old Rajindra Nagar adventures of three young UPSC hopefuls – Abhilash (Naveen Kasturia), Guri (Shivankit Singh Parihar) and SK (Abhilash Thapliyal) – hurtling towards yet another civil services exam attempt. Abhilash returns for a fifth and final crack, but he is no longer in touch with the other two; his new friend is an Arunachali woman named Deepa (Tengam Celine). The present-day portions revolve around their frayed adult dynamic six years later: Abhilash is the hotshot DM (District Magistrate) of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, Guri is a Delhi businessman married to Abhilash’s ex-girlfriend Dhairya (Namita Dubey), SK is a professor at a coaching institute, and their former mentor Sandeep bhaiya (Sunny Hinduja) is an ALC (Assistant Labour Commissioner) who reports to Abhilash.
In a way, these two timelines start to reflect the relationship between knowledge and application, between the ‘theory’ and ‘practical’ versions of a syllabus. The former is defined by the selfish desire to be; the latter is shaped by the selfless duty to do. The transitions aren’t always smooth, but you can sense the identity crisis of both periods – one is the past striving to be the present, while the other is the present striving to be the future. A different way to read it is that the younger parts convey the formulaic fiction that TVF is guilty of, while the adult phase conveys the post-credits consequences of those fictions.
One might argue that Aspirants 2 is almost pro-establishment, in that it portrays vengeful industrialists and politicians as people who are capable of reforming at the drop of a hat. It also rationalizes an IAS officer’s decision to displace the poor – and arm-twist workers into ending a strike – with a meek ‘everyone wins’ resolution. Characters quote from the Bhagavad Gita, and there’s still a distinct “be the change you want to see” (or in this context: “serve the country instead of criticizing it”) vibe. The safety-first approach is a bit grating. But Aspirants 2 is rescued – and counterbalanced – by a screenplay that positions Abhilash as an unlikable protagonist of sorts. Naveen Kasturia’s sharp performance ensures that Abhilash’s patriotism remains complicated. His arc suggests that – much like the protagonist of Newton (2017) – the character thinks he’s a hero by virtue of being righteous. His vision of Rampur as the center of a biofuel movement is progressive, his intent is correct, but it’s rooted in a violent idealism that fractures his ability to feel. We see this in the tension of his friendships: Guri and SK hesitate to trust him for favours, Dhairya is cagey, and Sandeep begins to lose faith in his judgment. Abhilash is driven by dated concepts – that a nation is a land rather than a people; that human attachment is a distraction; and that the heart weakens the resolve of the mind. His passion lacks compassion, which suggests that his methods are bookish, the kind that stem from treating practicals as a moral extension of theory.
Some of this is spelt out in a scene that does exposition well – Abhilash is criticized for his ‘rehearsed answers’ during a mock interview. When he robotically responds to a question about choosing between diffusing a riot and saving a loved one, the panelist scoffs at him. She thinks he’s faking it. But it’s to the show’s credit that Abhilash’s journey is rooted in his equation with the fabled Sandeep bhaiya. His big-picture pragmatism is pitted against Sandeep’s grassroots emotion.
For the most part, it seems like the show understands that Sandeep is the actual hero – for defending the downtrodden, for being loyal, for being a friend, for respecting his boss until he can’t. In most other stories, he’d be the brave underdog who rebels against the system while being within it. But the last ten minutes of this season are disappointing for what they imply; a cigarette appears, a broken spirit emerges, and a ‘rivalry’ is born out of sheer disillusionment. It’s a very TVF thing to do – an apolitical copout in what is virtually an origin story of a politician.
It’s uneasy to watch, of course, just as some other trademark missteps: The incessant slow-motion shots (at one point, I paused to check if my screen was frozen), the spoon-feeding score, and mostly, the awkward female characters. There’s a moment where Abhilash inspires Deepa to kick her smoking habit (because hey, aspirants only drink), except it never feels like she’s a smoker to begin with. There’s no visual evidence up until then, even though she’s introduced near a tea-shop and on a terrace, the two spots that students frequent for a quick drag. It’s a small detail but an important one, because Deepa is otherwise just a man’s exotic idea of a ‘strong’ woman. All we see is an unlit cigarette, an unwitting metaphor for the way TVF writes the opposite sex.
It’s also hard to believe that Dhairya keeps sacrificing her genius at the altar of her husband’s stuttering career. I’m not saying that it’s implausible or regressive, and I even like that Guri – who scolds her for the martyrdom – buckles under the pressure of having to justify her support. He encourages her to not miss out so that he doesn’t feel guilty. But Dhairya, just like Deepa, exists in the (civil) service of the tortured men. She’s apparently an NGO visionary, but she is presented more as a partner who works part-time. Never mind that most of her story is dutifully narrated at dinners by SK, the third wheel of the ‘UPSC Na Milegi Dobara’ trio whose neck-scarf in summer and spring is supposed to signify his retro-prof prowess.
Yet, I’d like to believe that Aspirants 2 is a grown-up version of the first season. There are no teething problems (like blatant brand endorsement), and there’s an elaborate plot that’s willing to address the pitfalls of a culture where surviving is the ultimate aspiration. The little touches that Kasturia adds – like the fidgeting, the inert eyes, the stilted phrasing, the imaginary bowling action while walking down a street – reveals a history of memorizing without meaning, of learning without grasping. It’s almost like Abhilash is trying to transcend his inner TVF. He’s striving to break free of his narrative fate. There’s no winning, but at least it creates the illusion of a place where the oppressors resemble the oppressed. On this front, Aspirants 2 is a rare – if slightly misguided – reminder that success can be costlier than failure; that exam conquests are only a prelude to life quests.