The Viral Fever (TVF) has spun itself into a dream factory for those whose dreams align closely with their circumstances; for those who dream within their circumstances. Not to be an overnight film star, picked up from a supermarket on a hazy afternoon by a casting agent and dusted off into the floodlights of fame, or even a TVF writer emerging relatively unscathed from the pipeline of Kota's engineering to Versova's glitterati, but to be a good student, to be a good employee, to be a good civil servant, to be a good
In many ways, TVF can be read as self-help for the millennial Indian man (and the occasional woman), struggling, surviving, and striving to see himself as a hero in his own stories. It is also why the scope of TVF's storytelling — emotionally, narratively, sociologically — is so piecemeal and narrow, and its aim so accurate. It is easy, inoffensive charm.
But that is also the limitation of these characters and shows. They find themselves cozying up against the limits of society, they don't recognize the issues with having limits in the first place. Or they make peace with these limits with an alarming ease. It is what it is. Romanticize within the leash.
Evidence can be found in Kota Factory, where mothers are seen as caretaking solutions, as productivity hacks, or in Cubicles where posters around the homogenizing, surveilling cubicles reads "Listen Learn Grow" as an unironic gesture of empowerment in a cesspit of snakes and ladders where ruthlessness is an acquired trait, a valued taint in personality.
Also Read: Cubicles Season 1 Review
There are limits to this rose tinted-ness, which I discussed in my review of the first season of Cubicles. So, for example, the protagonist Piyush Prajapati (Abhishek Chauhan) complains about a lacking salary, making it seem like a universal quip relatable to everyone, but Cubicles refuses to show what this lacking salary is — in fact, it actively blurs the salary when Piyush is trying to take a peek at his colleague's contract — so the cover of one's relative eliteness isn't kicked open. It is rich-ish people pretending to be middle-class. (As Rukmini S. notes in her recent book Whole Numbers and Half Truths, anyone in urban India spending more than 8,500 rupees per month is slotted in the top 5% of this country.)
The first season was sponsored by a mutual funds company, a sponsorship which required characters, such as the boss Megha (Nidhi Bisht), to say, "My employees are like my mutual fund investments. Like a smart investor I don't expect everything from them. I patiently wait and watch how they perform in the long term." In this season, the metaphors are about work as marriage, but this cannot be faulted to a matrimonial website's sponsorship. It is just the writing. It is also a testament to TVF who began their journey as hasty but hearty marriages between storytelling and advertising to now being picked by Netflix (Little Things, Kota Factory) and SonyLIV (Gullak) in order to cleave off the pressure of product placements. Now the characters stand and can be judged on their own.
Piyush is a perfect proxy for the average male, like a watery astrology prediction in a newspaper that is easy to find relatable and specific to you. The kind of guy who buys his belt so long, it tucks almost one and a half times around his waist, Piyush looks at life as a collection of symptoms to be diagnosed into a condition, a collection of data points to be aggregated into a truth. (There are 250 resumes for every corporate opening; the first smile rips through the façade of a dead face on a Monday morning only after 11 a.m.) Armed with data, he keeps running into dead ends. His realization, at the edge of episode three is, "Statistics don't define us. How we react to real life facts — that definitely defines us." Read that line again. What does it mean? Why are statistics and reacting to real life facts treated like a binary? These are profundities whose vagueness or meaninglessness is made possible through the voice-over, which plays out like a background score, anyway.
Alternatively struck by and stuck at work, disillusionment creeps in and is flushed out just as easily. Each quick episode deals with an issue — like the first season but more seamlessly — Monday blues or quarter life crises or the tyranny of appraisals, which it folds over, awaiting the next episode's treatment. Badri Chavan plays both the flatmate and cubicle-mate, a proximity that isn't shown or played out as claustrophobic. His arc of a quarter life crisis is brushed aside by throwing a dating app at it. Then, there is a new entrant, the excessively competitive feminine reprieve played by Ayushi Gupta, a stand-in lesson for those who cherish and hone their cut-throat natures. Bisht continues being the boss who is demanding but never daunting. The Viral Fever does casting and easy chemistry unlike few others in the business. Look at characters on the edge of the frame, and even they look like they are engaged in a conversation, not in an exchange of dialogues. Even when the writing has the subtlety of street side pani-puri, like that drawn out metaphor comparing the workspace to Shawshank Redemption, there is the kind grace the actors lend their lines.
For these are characters swirling around, reaching towards goodness, often making terrible choices, but you can never fault them for it. It is what makes it easy to see yourself in their image, made easier by the sound of inviting, romantic flutes in the background. That this is you. This can be your life.