The first glimpse of Ashish Arora (Gagan Arora) in The Viral Fever’s SK Sir Ki Class is enough to tell you what his future holds. Eyes glazed in front of a videogame, a packet of chips within arm’s reach and more calls for biryani paint the picture of a spoiled brat – and you know the boy is about to be schooled soon. The unemployed, 20-something Ashish lives it up in the house of his bureaucrat father, Charanjeet Arora (Rajesh Jais), a man defined and hardened by the desperation that once fuelled him to pass the gruelling Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam. When Charanjeet calls upon his son to ask him what exactly he wants to do with his life, Ashish becomes visibly smaller. “Nahi pata (I don’t know),” he says, injecting vulnerability into the couch potato we saw minutes ago and voicing the insecurities of an entire generation of millennials crippled by choice, limitless access and a shrinking world.
This is clearly a case for SK sir (played by Abhilash Thapliyal), whom we last saw in TVF’s widely-watched Aspirants, the 2021 series that followed the ups and downs of three friends and UPSC aspirants. Mild-mannered and shayari-spouting, SK sir is a product of cinema’s long line of inspiring teachers – curious creatures of unending faith, humility and transformative wisdom. Much like Aamir Khan’s Nikumbh sir in Taare Zameen Par or Robbin Williams’ Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, SK sir is more than a mentor – he is the mythical, awe-inspiring, fully-formed being that we as children once believed all adults were. To a drowning child, he represents escape not through brute force but through an intimate understanding of the tragedy that is the human condition. SK is keenly aware of his ‘failings’ in life: the IAS post he never achieved; the friends who, despite his earnest requests, never visit; and the way he has fossilised himself in a time that has gone by. But he has also remained soft, laughing at the gentle digs his students take at him and following the possibility of love over cutting chai. This is SK Sir Ki Class’ biggest victory – that it recognises that there is no one in a better position to teach than those who remain acquainted with life’s rawest pulse.
Ashish meets SK Sir after his father packs the young man off to Old Rajinder Nagar, the familiar west Delhi hub of UPSC aspirants, just so that he has something to do. Alien places are always tough and while there is some perverse pleasure in watching Ashish squirm on public transport, Old Rajinder Nagar reeks distinctly of the desperation that comes from manic ambition. Here, the rooms are stiflingly tiny so that “bade kamre main UPSC ka lakshya kahi kho naa jaay (one doesn’t lose the goal of UPSC in a large room).” In Rajinder Nagar’s sea of coaching classes sits SK sir’s Saarthi IAS, where Ashish is enrolled. SK has a keen interest in Ashish, not only because his father demands periodic progress reports but because SK senses that under the youth’s prickly sullenness lies the need for a deeper saving, one that goes beyond ‘making it in life’.
For a country full of young people who are pushed to fit standardised moulds and walk on much-trodden paths towards an established notion of success, the premise of SK Sir ki Class is rich with promise. The show has already got 10 million views on The Viral Fever’s YouTube channel, which suggests this is as relatable as content gets. However, despite its best intentions, director Pratish Mehta’s SK Sir Ki Class is a simplistic take on a complex subject and its short runtime – just three episodes – doesn’t help. The story takes shortcuts that don’t serve it well. For example, SK, over phone calls with an acerbic Guri (Shivankit Singh Parihar, reprising his role from Aspirants), realises profound things about his student, but his solution to the situation is a transparent trick that could fool no child, much less a grown man and even lesser, a grown audience. As Ashish bumbles his way around Rajinder Nagar, it’s hard to identify with his small wins and his character arc starts feeling contrived. Halfway through the series, Prashant Kumar’s screenplay rides solely on sentimentality, a recurring trait of TVF series, given their focus on emotional heft.
Still, the saving grace of SK’s naive plan is in the series finale. The most interesting part of SK Sir Ki Class is the chafing between Ashish and his father, built less by dialogue and more by the absence of one between the two. It’s clear that Ashish fears his father’s biting disappointment and like all endeavours in his life, views Charanjeet as a battle already lost. But when the show’s most significant nugget of wisdom arrives – that not giving up is more important than winning – it re-shapes not the pursuit of UPSC or ambition, but the concept of self-care. In gathering the courage to speak to his father, Ashish allows himself to fail, to deal with the possibility that his parent may always remain beyond reach. He opens himself up to the blissful activity of trying and lets himself believe that the journey counts for more than the destination.
The idea of failing is something that SK Sir Ki Class toys with from the very beginning – it is based, after all, against the backdrop of an exam that has a 99.99% failure rate. Yet it's with the final lesson that the series really comes into its own. Despite its failings, SK Sir Ki Class deserves applause for how it nudges its protagonist (and perhaps viewers) not towards what Ashish’s passion needs to be, but who he needs to be to find his way forward.