Director: Apoorv Singh Karki
Created by: Arunabh Kumar, Shreyansh Pandey
Writer: Deepesh Sumitra Jagdish
Cinematography: Georgy John, Arjun Kukreti
Edited by: Tushar Manocha
Cast: Naveen Kasturia, Shivankit Singh Parihar, Abhilash Thapliyal, Sunny Hinduja, Namita Dubey
Streaming on: YouTube
Technically, the spiritual name of almost every The Viral Fever (TVF) web series is "Aspirants". Take the Indian Coaching Classes Universe™: FLAMES, Kota Factory, Hostel Daze. Take the Indian Job Blues Universe™: Pitchers, Cubicles, Humorously Yours, Panchayat. Take also the Middle Indian Family Universe™ (Yeh Meri Family, Gullak, Aam Aadmi Family): each of these families features an aspiring…aspirant. It's a broad term, really. And a smart one. A mismanaged country like India is capable of turning everything – including breathing – into an aspiration. Nothing comes easy. TVF creators have invariably chosen to eschew the crippling struggles of academic and peer pressure to present a glass-half-full picture: the nostalgia, the yaaron-dosti, the puppy love. (Rockford has to be the TVF Bible.) It's as though the company motto is Make Education Great Again™.
But if the millions-strong fanbase is anything to go by, it's clear that any sort of cultural representation – especially if it's rose-tinted and selective in memory – is deeply appreciated. I imagine these shows are reassuring to those on the hamster wheel. The "all is not lost" message is a therapeutic one. Rather than indict the opportunistic system, TVF chooses to heal its occupants instead. To feel seen, after all, is a privilege in the Third World™.
Naturally, then, a series actually named Aspirants restores the definition to its most primal form. You run a rat-race, but you run a country. The fabled Civil Services (UPSC) exam defines the backdrop of three IAS hopefuls studying in Delhi's old Rajinder Nagar. Maybe the time is ripe to understand the minds that want to change our nation. Who are these youngsters? What makes them tick? For better or worse, Aspirants is not that series. Over the years, most of the TVF Striver stories have gotten one thing right. Ambition in India is derived from the desire to be someone rather than do something. So these stories aren't about kids who dream of reaching the stars, they're about kids who dream of leaving the ground. The middle-class protagonists aspire to a generic status – of wealth, power, high-paying jobs, exam topping – rather than a specific ambition. The system is built to feed hunger, not passion: success is not a destination, but a goal. Everyone is too seduced by the promise of passing to care about where it takes them. Aspirants, too, features a central character, Abhilash Sharma (Naveen Kasturia), who is obsessed with acing his final attempt at the exams – it's a make-or-break year. He's taken a sabbatical from his job. He's not some underdog who wants to undo the tragedy of his roots. He just wants to 'crack it'.
The first episode is in fact all about Abhilash choosing between History and Literature as his optional subject. The conflict – of heart versus mind (he loves History, but Literature boosts his chance of scoring) – remains confined to the parameters of process. Four of the five episodes, then, navigate issues that have less to do with a profession being pursued than the core culture of education itself. The second episode, for instance, features the students confronting an age-old predicament: can failed professionals make great teachers? The fourth, the best of the lot, poses questions about the anatomy of success: does a "Plan B" mentality weaken the resolve to succeed? Do love stories that begin in the emotional prison of coaching-class epicentres ever transcend an identity of crisis survival? What if one partner passes and the other is left behind? These are worthy blanket problems. By exploring them, the series refuses to alienate viewers who aspire in other fields of life – without sacrificing the vibe of the Civil Services journey. Fear is the glue that keeps the friends together.
Oddly, despite this setting, Aspirants occasionally attempts to break character. The series fumbles when it tries to frame Abhilash's nature as a narrative of awakening. Take the character names: Abhilash, Dhairya, Pragati, Pratishtha (I'm kidding about Pratishtha, but if you look hard enough, you might spot her as/in one of the candidates). The third episode, for example, is cringeworthy in its effort to "transform" Abhilash from drifter to doer. It's where Abhilash is supposed to understand what cracking the UPSC truly requires – not just brains to criticise, but the heart to find solutions. Where have we heard that before? Consequently, we see him mending bridges with his landlord and saying things straight out of an Akshay Kumar social drama. The episode actually closes with Abhilash having a pothole filled and sermonising about "making a difference in society". In the same vein, Aspirants also commits another crime. In its grand chase of mainstream meaning, it succumbs to the Bollywood male-buddy template.
The series opens with adult Abhilash, already a hot-shot IAS officer, tutoring the 'aam junta' at a bus-stop about a plastic-bottle scam. It's a patronising scene straight out of the climax of 3 Idiots. The rest of the series inter-cuts between the pensive present day and the old coaching-class days. The situation, we soon learn, is a hybrid of Dil UPSC Chahta Hai and UPSC Na Milegi Dobara: hero Abhilash and Jatt boy Guri (a Shikhar Dhawan-esque Shivankit Singh Parihar) have a cold war on, while middle-man SK (a distinctive Abhilash Thapliyal) is the Saif/Abhay of the tripod. At one point, SK even references Dil Chahta Hai in a rant, but that doesn't absolve Aspirants of its derivative tone. Given that TVF has built a legacy on spoofing commercial Hindi cinema, these 'meta' parts ironically look like a spoof of the spoofs – which is practically back to square one.
The baby steps into the glass-half-empty zone aren't entirely disastrous. Sure, there are the usual rousing professor speeches featuring tired tortoise-and-the-hare metaphors. But there's also a senior Jeetu Bhaiya-style character who is, for once, a simmering tragedy. Sunny Hinduja is soulful as Sandeep, Abhilash's mentor-like roommate who doesn't just exist to inspire the newbies. Sandeep's is a common story, and a rare instance of TVF acknowledging the lesser side of striving. He defines the penultimate episode and its potentially iconic climax involving exam results and slow-motion rainfall. But just when you think Sandeep is the darkness that these shows have sorely missed, the final episode engages in an epic copout; another sentimental speech undoes all the legwork.
The other performances are alright, even if some seem to be playing to the gallery of fandom. As uncomfortable as he looks with a sarkaari moustache, it's nice to see Naveen Kasturia break back into this space after breaking out with the landscape-altering Pitchers in 2015. He is tailor-made to play the kind of person that Abhilash is – determined but naïve at once. The organic perplexed-beta-male look that Kasturia wears has probably limited his roles over time, but it informs an important part of Abhilash's arc. Abhilash puts his relationship in jeopardy because he typifies the Indian male who theorises – rather than experiences – everything in life. He has a textbook knowledge of living, including loving and relationships, which allows Kasturia to make a Whiplash-like split-up sequence look feasible. He also humanises the kind of wide-eyed student who idolises seniors so that he gets a legitimate excuse to bolster his own philosophies.
That being said, I'm choosing to end this review on a critical note – by dedicating a few lines to TVF's exasperating, over-smart, forced and downright unsubtle brand endorsement problem. It's not harmless anymore. It's all-out, soul-selling disfiguration: the plugs of an online-teaching app (which I refuse to name) are unrelenting in Aspirants, ruining the rhythm of entire episodes. Remember how Jackie Shroff's character in Yaadein has 'a weakness' for Pass Pass and Coca Cola? This is worse. I understand that most web shows are sustained by their sponsors, but in every other scene, one character asks another if he's downloaded the super-cool app and accessed its latest features. The writers try to get cute and integrate it into the setting, but I can almost smell the ink on the contract clauses. There is simply no escaping the creative compromise that a web series must make just to exist. The dry mentions pull you out of the Aspirants universe and dump you into the cash-grabbing interval at a suburban multiplex – or worse, a pop-up ad obstructing a YouTube video. I'm not sure that's an aspirational message to give the kids today. But then again, it flatters the spirit of future government employees.