Director: Arunima Sharma
Writers: Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal, Arunima Sharma
Cast: Tamannaah Bhatia, Suhail Nayyar, Aashim Gulati, Anya Singh, Sayan Banerjee, Hussain Dalal, Samvedna Suwalka, Simone Singh, Malhar Thakkar
Arunima Sharma’s Jee Karda is an eight-episode series about seven childhood friends in Mumbai. It opens in 2006, with a face reader warning these kids of a choppy future. “Beware of your brother,” he tells a single child. “Beware of your social status,” he tells the only Muslim boy in the group. “Be brave,” he tells the queer kid. “Beware of your father,” he tells the popular kid with a single mother. “Beware of 2022,” he tells the girl with the steady boyfriend. “Beware of shows that think they’re cool and edgy in 2023,” he tells the kid who grows up to become a film critic. (This last warning may or may not be true). It’s a good time to mention that this is the second consecutive series in which co-writers and co-creators Hussain and Abbas Dalal use soothsaying as a narrative gimmick. The Bhuvan Bam-starring Taaza Khabar from earlier this year was a rags-to-riches tale about a slum-dweller who milks a magical app that flashes future headlines. Crystal-gazing isn’t as central in Jee Karda, but the result is doubly frustrating. More on that very soon.
To be honest, I’ve reached a stage where I want to like something as shiny as Jee Karda. It’s about school friends who remain inseparable till their 30s – a sitcom-style luxury I’ve always envied, given the inherent human ability to grow apart and move on. It’s also a fruity, lightweight story in a year of bleak socio-political thrillers and dramatic adaptations: A kind of Four More Shots Please! breaking the stranglehold of the likes of Dahaad and Trial By Fire. All the characters are sweet little stereotypes. There’s Lavanya (Tamannaah Bhatia) and Rishabh (Suhail Nayyar), storied high-school sweethearts on the brink of a big wedding. There’s Arjun (Aashim Gulati; better known as Salim from Taj) – a.k.a “AG the OG” – a Honey Singh-style pop star and playboy who once had a thing for Lavanya. There’s Melroy (Sayan Banerjee), the gay man in a toxic relationship with a closeted dudebro. There’s Preet (Anya Singh), the unlucky-in-love counselor with a thing for Arjun and a penchant for poisonous flings. There’s Shahid (Hussain Dalal), the humble school teacher who secretly resents his friends for being a few rungs above him on the socio-economic ladder. There’s Sheetal (Samvedna Suwalka), the domesticated designer desperate for space in her husband’s cramped Gujarati household. And there are the (2006-07) flashbacks of them all – when the foundation was being laid for this lifelong bond – which start to look like Stranger Things with a terrible case of bed-hair. Over eight episodes, the lives of this human Whatsapp group unravel in tandem with each other.
If it isn’t clear already, my desire to enjoy Jee Karda remained just that: A desire. The tricky part about such shows is that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where they go wrong. There is no single reason. No single department is visibly poor. No actor is worse than the rest. The rot is more fundamental. I’m going to call the problem ‘Vibe Film-making’. Vibe film-making operates (and fails) on two levels. First, conceptually. The premise and characters are designed to be “modern” and not modern. Those air quotes make all the difference. Which is to say, most of the scenes actively call for attention. You can almost hear: “Look, so risque! Look, so forward! Look, so irreverent! Look, so bindaas!”. A few years ago, the image of a successful woman stopping her live-in boyfriend from going down on her because “it’s a jungle there” might have been a clutter breaker. But now it feels like tokenism, as though such moments exist only to provoke a reaction from audiences that they assume have grown up on flower-mating romances. Not to mention the tropey-ness. For instance, Lavanya’s mother Antara (a spirited Simone Singh) is the sort of trendy middle-aged lady who jokes about afternoon sex and abortions with her daughter. We are forced to notice that they’re more like best pals: When Antara goes through another break-up, Lavanya and her girlfriends reach her place with wine and chips for a (musical) sleepover. The nicer parts – like Sheetal and her husband resorting to toilet quickies; Shahid’s simmering equation with the rest; Jeet’s mother getting amused by the men she sneaks into her bedroom every week – get buried in an avalanche of hipster cliches.
There are more examples. Arjun is introduced in a scene where he accidentally live-streams his kinky sex session. Preet getting it on with a TV superhero dressed as a cheetah in his trailer is inter-cut with a flashback of little Jeet getting full marks for a school essay about her ‘vision for the future’. She gives a handjob to this man while he’s driving; their car runs over a dog when he climaxes. (The only evidence that she’s a counselor is an entitled teen client who has no sense of boundaries). A couple goes to a fancy Japanese restaurant, joke about the raw-fish menu, then proceed to eat greasy roadside Chinese food, because is it even a date if the boy is not disarmed by the desi tendencies of a seemingly posh girl? Rishabh’s parents boast about being open-minded before suggesting a pure-veg wedding menu and an ashram event. A crazed fan enters Arjun’s hotel room, requests him to sing a few lines, and then she orgasms while listening to him.
You see what I mean? Jee Karda tries too hard to defy the traditions of Hindi storytelling, and therefore comes across as aggressively hip and showy. It doesn’t mine the ironies of urban living so much as flaunt them. (If you criticize it, you are in danger of being called a prude). Very little looks organic – whether it’s the cussing, the innuendos, the intimacy or the millennial rage. A couple prefixing every exchange with “yaar” and “bro” is so 2014 that it hurts. Ditto for the Hinglish, which seems to be combed from cringey reality shows rather than natural life itself. It’s not that such people don’t exist, but the series fetishizes them instead of humanizing their quirks. If you don’t believe me, ask the camera that insists on being all jittery and handheld around every face. Or ask the narrative that struggles to juggle seven lives, not to mention the childhood flashbacks that start off as a decent idea before abandoning all sense of pattern.
The second – and bigger – downside of ‘Vibe Film-making’ is stylistic. Let’s start with the small stuff. Towards the end, a half-stubbed cigarette leads to a nightclub fire. It’s the most random crisis ever, but it soon emerges that the blaze happens only so that one betrayed friend can deliver this punchline to the other: “You burnt my house down, bro”. Shahid’s track borders on poverty porn. His friends tease him for his ‘victim complex,’ which is fine, but the writing is what victimizes him. After getting his heart broken, he interviews with an NGO (“these kids will stay here and help the nation prosper, unlike the rich multinational-aspiring brats I used to teach”), hoping to start a school for underprivileged children by promising selfies with his pop-star friend. It feels like a different film altogether, complete with motivational montages of him going from door to door and finding purpose in life. There’s also a subplot featuring a sexual predator, clumsy in its attempt to be the connective tissue for the adult gang’s arcs.
Then there’s the one-song-per-emotion crime. The basic Sachin-Jigar soundtrack aside, every scene has a whispery indie ballad scoring its drama. The lyrics leave nothing to chance. On a character’s 30th birthday and a massive tantrum, it’s “My friend, you’ve lost your youth”. When the predator is nailed, it’s “Your days are gone far behind, now leave me alone”. When a breakup happens, it’s “Emptiness will kill me”. When a physical alternation becomes a tender hug, it’s “Hold me now(www)”. When one character cheats on a partner, “It’s so stupid” turns the moment into a glorified music video. A breezy friendship song plays when the four men hang out at Marine Drive, and a breezy friendship song plays when the three women have a sleepover. It’s not my pet peeve anymore; it’s my wild peeve. An uneven background score is one thing, a background score determined to mansplain every single mood to the viewer is another.
Which brings me to the biggest problem of Vibe Film-making. Every moment is treated like a checklist of actions. There’s no breathing space, no sense of stillness or narrative space to ‘react’ like normal people do. The storytelling is compressed to the point of farce – the same moment is composed to go from happy to angry to sad to funny. There is no rhythm to the way an argument escalates, or to the way even a conversation happens. A woman decides to leave her husband. She then tells her mother-in-law she is pregnant. The older lady is delighted. Then the woman wonders how she will raise her child in such strife; the mother-in-law apologizes for the situation, says a few kind words, and the woman leaves for a party on her own. Ideally, this exchange should happen over an entire evening (a screen-time of two minutes), but it all happens in one rushed scene here. You can actually see the older lady having to fast-forward her emotions. At another point, a man finds out he’s lost all his savings. His wife yells at him, they have a showdown, he walks away and has a near-fatal accident in nearly the same breath. There’s no time for niceties like tension-building. Which begs the questions: Does every moment need to be maximized into a ‘Buy 1 Get 1 free’ narrative offer? What is the point of simulating such real characters when the staging feels so robotic?
In the age of Succession and School of Lies – where verbal jousts and deep-rooted trauma become set pieces of their own – Jee Karda stands out like a sore thumb. It can be argued (in slow-motion, don’t worry) that the same yardstick cannot be used to judge shows that aspire to be fluffy new-age entertainment and nothing more. However, when the yardstick is craft and tonal fluidity, there are no excuses. If a scene just feels off, it’s the vision that’s lacking, irrespective of the genre. It’s the control that’s missing. A future-predicting premise is futile if the film-making stays stuck in the past. “Beware of vibes,” the cranky face reader told the web series that refused to grow up.