Director: Himank Gaur
Writers: Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal
Cast: Bhuvam Bam, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Prathamesh Parab, Deven Bhojani, Shilpa Shukla, J.D. Chakravarthi
A kind slumdog. A miracle. A meteoric rise to the top. A God complex. Taaza Khabar – a six-episode drama starring Youtube star Bhuvam Bam – is set in a world that its makers seem to have no idea about. So what do they do? Borrow – in tone, treatment, truth – from older movies set in this world, of course. The Slumdog Millionaire (2008) hangover is strong. The Gully Boy (2019) hangover is stronger. The Vaastav (1999) hangover is strongest. Every character behaves like they’ve watched too many Bollywood stories about Mumbai. Every word of slang spoken sounds like a cityslicker’s stale idea of ‘tapori bhasha’. Every scene is drunk on cultural appropriation and narrative stereotypes. This drunkenness, too, seems to emerge more from ghetto-themed pubs than smoky quarter bars. Some might call this a campy ode to rags-to-riches cinema. I call it a stale imitation of the same.
The one-line premise is almost interesting: A poor man gets blessed with the power to see the future. Even the gimmick – an app on his phone that flashes breaking-news headlines before they actually happen – is a cheeky update of magic realism. The opening scene is nicely designed to foreshadow the story. Like the headlines on the app, this dream sequence is a literal sign of things to come. The camera pans between a fancy car snaking through a slum and a bottle rocket being launched into the air. The firework explodes once it reaches too high, mirroring the arc of the show’s hero. And the rich man in the car soon comes face to face with his downtrodden doppelganger – a reflection of Bam’s own rocket-like rise to fame as someone who plays multiple characters. So much thought is spent on this first sequence that it’s natural to do that forbidden thing frightfully early in the year: Hope.
But the one-note setting soon sinks the series. If I had a penny for every Nineties’ trope at play, I’d be slapping strangers with heavier wads of cash in slower motion than the protagonist does. For context, there are so many shots of money (which isn’t the same as money shots, mind you) in Taaza Khabar that it can trigger demonetisation PTSD. Vasant (Bam) runs a local Sulabh Sauchalay so that the script has an excuse to peddle tired toilet puns. Case in point: “Naseeb ki baarish hai ya kismat mere pe moot rahi hai?”. (Incidentally, one of the writers is Hussain Dalal, whose fantasy-for-toddlers dialogue in Brahmastra came under heavy scrutiny). Vasant’s mother (Atisha Naik) works as a maid who is regularly humiliated by an employer, and his father (Vijay Nikam) is rude and abusive. His gang in the Byculla slum is secular in the least subtle way: A Catholic best friend named Peter (Prathamesh Parab) who speaks like the illegitimate child of Circuit from Munnabhai M.B.B.S. (2003) and Dedh Footiya from Vaastav: The Reality, a Muslim bakery owner named Mehboob (Deven Bhojani) who looks and sounds like a Gujarati pretending to be a Muslim, and a golden-hearted sex worker named Madhu (Shriya Pilgaonkar) with whom Vasant is in love. There’s also a sleazy politician named Shetty (J.D. Chakravarthy from the 1998 film Satya, a Mumbai movie turning in its grave at the sight of Taaza Khabar), Madhu’s frequent client, whose aura is not half as ominous as the character thinks it is.
Taaza Khabar is so visibly staged as a platform for Bam that it overlooks several potent themes. For instance, most stories might have milked the internal conflict of Vasant. Should he use his power to become a superhero-like vigilante and thwart fate? Or should he use it for his own personal gain? Except for the one instance where Vasant suffers for neglecting the news of a factory fire, the series rarely delves into complex moral territory. Instead, it keeps finding excuses for Bam to go gangster on us – there’s nary a frame in which his Vasant isn’t flaunting the stylistic excesses of a humble-to-greedy journey. At one point, the writing nearly forgets that he is being hunted by Shetty for losing his black money (and daring to romance Madhu). Vasant continues to strive in the locality without any tangible threat to his life. After a few false starts, the plot makes Vasant take the shortest and most unimaginative route: Underground cricket betting. That’s how Vasant earns his fortune, smokes like he’s a college kid posing in front of a mirror, and inevitably, gets arrogant. It’s all too predictable.
You also get a sense that Taaza Khabar isn’t too bothered about things like detailing and texture. Like the slang, the Hindi swearing sounds anything but organic, like urban folks ‘acting’ crudely because the camera is on them. I almost had to watch an episode of The Family Man – the cultural equivalent of cleaning my ears – to rebuild my trust in the poetry of cussing. Then there are the shortcuts. For a show defined by the suspense of illegal betting, there’s not a single shot of cricket on TV screens. Copyright issues aside, the least the makers can do is at least evoke the illusion of live sport; all we get here are faces of people reacting to unseen on-field action or, at best, tacky Hindi commentary. It’s particularly jarring when it all comes down to the (2019) England-New Zealand World Cup final. The internet-sketch production value of Taaza Khabar is not surprising, given that it’s made by the team behind Dhindora (2021), Bhuvam Bam’s popular Youtube skit-show. The corny design informs a comedy, but a drama cannot afford the same language.
It shows in Bam’s own performance, too, which comes across like he’s mimicking different men rather than presenting different versions of the same man. The tonal disparity between sweet-Vasant, smart-Vasant and pompous-Vasant is too stark, with no connective tissue in between. Every mood evokes a new character, a new emotion meant to overpower the premise. While this might be a testament to Bam’s shape-shifting skills (or his uncanny resemblance to KL Rahul), it bombs in a story that relies on the continuity of human nature. The final episode ends on a cliffhanger, setting the stage for the next season. If I had Vasant’s crystal-gazing app, any moment now it might flash a future review headline like: Old News, Older Bottle.