Creators: Naveen Richard, Rahul Hota, Navaneeth Sriram
Director: Debbie Rao
Cast: Sumukhi Suresh, Naveen Richard, Utsav Chakraborty, Kumar Varun, Kanan Gill, Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy, Preetika Chawla
Streaming on: Hotstar
With the clever Pushpavalli and two breezy seasons of Better Life Foundation to their credit, Sumukhi Suresh and Naveen Richard seem to be the only Indian standup comics that look like a natural fit in the urban-web-show space. Their screen avatars are not gimmicky extensions of their stage avatars. There's nothing "in-house" about their chemistry either, which aids their reputation as perceptive creators who understand the theatrical dynamics of two separate mediums.
The second season of Better Life Foundation – an Office-style series about a struggling Mumbai-based NGO – is another example of this organic collaboration. Of both, performers and mediums. There has always been a subtle stylistic connect between the "mockumentary" format and professional standup comedy. While the stage exerts on them the pressure of a structural punchline, the running motif of the fake documentary eye deconstructs this real-time grammar and allows the vulnerable artist to use the audience as a behavioral device in their pursuit of fake presentation.
When Sumukhi (as Project Head Sumukhi Chawla) and Naveen (as founder Neil Menon), or a Michael Scott (Steve Carell, in The Office) and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler, in Parks and Recreation), catch a glimpse of the camera from the corner of their eye, they are essentially establishing a direct empathetic thread with the viewer. In a way, they want us to see a "better life" than the one they currently have. They are trying to impress us, conspire with us and be our friends, as well as simultaneously asking us to understand them and their hidden frustrations.
In BLF, the balance is uncanny: Neil represents the former, and Sumukhi the latter. He struggles with signatures, low self-esteem and spoken Hindi (Richard's Malayali accent is a thing of beauty), and she struggles with him (and glares, rather than stares, at the camera). This abusive marriage of personalities dawns upon us explicitly in one of the episodes, in which the married co-founders of another NGO spend an entire interview wondering why Neil and Sumukhi are such a dysfunctional 'couple'.
The conflicts remain internal, and therefore more human, letting the series fluctuate into 'dramedy' territory
The second season does a better job at revealing these inherent idiosyncrasies. The conflicts remain internal, and therefore more human, letting the series fluctuate into 'dramedy' territory. The first one was a little preoccupied with going beyond its characters for effect and presenting an absurd situational comedy. For instance, the BLF money-laundering crisis and CBI raid was something you'd expect to find in sketch-centric shows like Anuvab Pal's Going Viral Pvt. Ltd., where the makers aren't entirely confident of the fact that modern workspace environments can be natural cauldrons of unintended entertainment.
Centering this six-episode narrative on BLF's adventures with the concepts of partnerships and grant money grounds its physicality. The writers work within a certain sociocultural setup, and hence, between its humorous beats, off-handedly explore the satirical classism of privileged sections driving the 'business' of charity.
The others in the "workspace" template here – head intern Aditi (Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy), dopey co-founder Jerry (Utsav Chakraborty), shady accountant Anirban (a remarkable Kumar Varun), outsider Armaan (Kanan Gill) and the entitled 'SoBo' rival Anu (a fantastic Preetika Chawla) – are deliberately caricature-ish, because they are meant to be caught between the two categories of Neil and Sumukhi. They are only "supporting" characters because of their designations. In each of them, comedy is used a front to locate different shades of metropolitan existentialism: the fresh out-of-college intern yet to embrace ambition, the man-child drifter who constantly seeks out outlandish causes to feel relevant, the Bengali immigrant whose accidental creativity is the result of stagnant surroundings, the rich brat with daddy issues who finds acceptance in a company of misfits, and the ditzy rival who is far more self-made and ruthless than she lets on.
There's in fact an entire episode that inverts our perception of Anu – Sumukhi and her even end up bonding over Neil's incompetence. This makes for a rare reflection of office gender politics. Though the show stops short of depicting Neil's armour as toxic, his influence over Sumukhi is a hint that the contemporary female worker always remains at the mercy of male insecurities, no matter how "good-hearted" the boss is or how responsible the employee is. That Anu is unethical and manipulative, and yet so sympathetic of Sumukhi (her sing-song "SuSu" is only half-patronizing), is an indicator of grudging respect between 'The One' and the one that got away – a la Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi, in Newton) and Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) in a parallel universe. Perhaps much of this is down to a female director and writers, but there's something unnerving about it being an exception rather than the norm.
A decent mockumentary series always leaves you curious about the characters' domestic lives, and their attitude within their own four walls when the camera isn't around. The good ones, like Better Life Foundation and Dice Media's Not Fit, prove that in today's fluid professional environment, the partition is weaker than ever. Compartmentalization is a fast-fading myth. For better or worse, there is nothing like a job to bring out the person making a living from it.