Creator: Varun Thakur

Director: Ajay Singh

Cast: Varun Thakur, Bhupesh Singh, Neha Chauhan, Pippa Hughes, Shweta Singh, Adi Irani

We do have a sense of humour. It’s sort of nice that professional stand-up comics are suddenly the prime creators of digital content in a country that isn’t known to laugh at itself. This exposes an entire generation of new-age watchers to observational, sarcastic and quick-witted environments that subtly expose the social and cultural fabric of our times.

For a relatively fresh medium that must primarily thrive on narrative fiction, this may be a decent strategy in the long run. We’ve seen comedians across the world evolve into outstanding screen artists – Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Maya Rudolph, Emma Thompson, Tina Fey, Simon Pegg, Steve Carell and Billy Crystal being some of the illustrious names.

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But I’m not quite sure their Indian counterparts are ready yet. Some might well go on to alter the landscape of acting and writing and filmmaking, but for now, they are still at the “beginning” of this long journey. Their baby steps are rather expensive. The freedom afforded to them, however, is encouraging. It is important to recognize, though, that they are still at a level where their storytelling frailties (skit-like setups, handpicked caricatures) overshadow some funny – and even insightful – ideas. They rely on parts over the whole. This phase is best characterized by a series such as Varun Thakur’s Shaitaan Haveli, as well as previous Amazon Prime shows like Anuvab Pal’s Going Viral Pvt. Ltd. and Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Laakhon Mein Ek. Sumukhi Suresh’s Pushpavalli got closer to “real” storytelling than most others. Yet, none of them are truly binge-worthy shows – but they remain the best we have at the moment.

All the cross-referencing in the world can’t disguise the fact that Shaitaan Haveli is, at its core, a fiercely derivative exercise. It ridicules a kind of cinema that is beyond ridicule, and therefore risks a type of tonal overlapping that prevents it from distinguishing itself from a wannabe viral video

Shaitaan Haveli, in fact, is the perfect example of a pop-culture joke gone too far and too long. It employs the spoofy film crew-stuck-in-genre-trash template of Tropic Thunder, the iconic action satire made by another funnyman-turned-creator, Ben Stiller. Stiller’s ingenious film, though, was fashioned as a parody of America’s favourite “serious” genre – the Vietnam War movie. A more appropriate comparison would be Edgar Wright’s fantastic horror comedy, Shaun of the Dead. What’s essential to note here is that the Simon Pegg starrer parodied a legitimate genre (gore, zombie horror) that its occupants had already made a competent industry out of. It laughed at a proven formula. Thakur’s show, in contrast, might have missed a trick or two by over-satirizing a genre that is unintentionally amusing to begin with.

One just needs to watch reruns of the 1980s Ramsay gems – or, more recently, Vikram Bhatt’s relentless supernatural thrillers – to enjoy the so-bad-it’s-good brand, unfiltered. Spoofing the B-grade composition is somewhat self-defeating in 2018, given that most of those flicks have attained belated cult status precisely because of their outdated, seedy nature. There’s more joy to be found in unabashed parodies of the Rohit Shetty or Salman Khan universe – that is, traditional money-spinners who refuse to admit to their own mediocrity. Which is why perhaps the droller moments of Shaitaan Haveli revolves around the inept Bollywood production crew and their attempts to shoot a bad film, rather than the overall haunted-mansion plot and its self-aware demons. The flesh-and-zombie-ness itself is repetitive and boring, especially in a post Go Goa Gone era whose novelty has worn off with every successive “borrowed” Hollywood concept.

This one recreates the kitschy retro madness to the T, but gets carried away merely by assuming that 180 minutes (8 episodes) of this glorified leg-pulling will keep us entertained. In stretching the silly tropes of those movies – something a TVF Bachelors does twice as effectively in one half-hour episode – this well detailed show bursts at its own seams with its niche jibes and in-house throwaway lines.

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There are of course the easy comic patterns – the desperate has-been B-movie director (Bhupesh Singh) whose attempts to evolve with the times (“family sex” dramas) have failed, the snooty TV actress in for a quick buck (Neha Chauhan, who should be doing more film work), the bizarre “toxic relationship” between the needy witch (Shweta Singh) and her resurrected ghoul-master (Surender Thakur), the “firang” starlet (Pippa Hughes) who can speak Hindi, the bankrolling gangster’s gym-loving and talentless son (overdoing the Salman-isms) as the hero, and an ageing ex-superstar who agrees to play a flimsy Dracula-ish villain. In fact, Varun Thakur, as the struggling supporting actor who turns into the savior, is the “straightest” and weakest link in an atmosphere that is triggered by cinematic exaggeration.

Each of them stands out in different set pieces, but they occupy an overindulgent narrative that overdoses on its own cleverness. At one point, with no more originality left to flaunt, a character resorts to aping a Shaun of the Dead scene seconds after his director admits to ripping off Hollywood movies. All the cross-referencing in the world can’t disguise the fact that Shaitaan Haveli is, at its core, a fiercely derivative exercise. It ridicules a kind of cinema that is beyond ridicule, and therefore risks a type of tonal overlapping that prevents it from distinguishing itself from a wannabe viral video.

It can be argued that “actual” film writers should be the ones churning out some of the best web storytelling these days. But perhaps the purists are too conscious of their limits (Inside Edge, Bose, It’s Not That Simple), or are working towards a grander, broader medium. Until they step up with the sole ambition of boosting the internet space – the way the many Western Netflix shows currently do – it’s the comics that will laugh their way into our digital future. All we can do, as with a Shaitaan Haveli, is smile with them till they decide to take themselves seriously.

Watch the trailer of Shaitaan Haveli here:

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