Director: Chaitanya Kumbhakonum
Writers: Amit Golani, Avinash Singh, Vijay Narayan Verma
Cast: Abhishek Chauhan, Nidhi Bisht, Arnav Bhasin, Badri Chavan, Niketan Sharma, Srishti Rindani,
Streaming Platform: YouTube, TVF
I have a bone to pick with Cubicles, the latest web-series to be churned out of the feel-good factory of The Viral Fever (TVF), a comforting, though momentarily distracted narration of hope and mope in the corporate sector.
There is Piyush Prajapati, played by a characteristically clueless Abhishek Chauhan. There is something charming about him, the engineering kid who lacks social skills, and is suitably hopeful about the world, coming out of the cultural propaganda of college, convincing himself that the cubicle, a symbol of putrid capitalism, is where the world changes. He is staring at his phone looking at his bank balance before his salary gets credited. He only has 1,105.03 Rupees in his bank account.
Cut to, salary being credited, and we have a happy Piyush. But how much salary was credited in his account? How much is he paid?
The problem with not knowing this, of course, is that we have no sense of what Piyush's labour is worth in the eyes of his employer. All we know is that it isn't 'enough'.
This whole series is trying to put a gilded, almost floral filter on the corporate space, trying to show how people seek value from their work. But this value is not just satisfaction at the end of the day i.e. your job as your vocational soul-mate. It is also the salary that airdrops into the bank account. So if you can show the satisfaction, and you can show how much in need of money these corporate yuppies are, then show the airdrop of the slowly depreciating currency too. Tell me how much he earns. Let the audience know that this is how much an entry-level coding job in an MNC in Pune can get you.
(Another bone to pick is that Piyush's brief office lover, Richa keeps office plants but refuses to name them- she calls them 'it'. She says "They are plants not pets". As an anxious plant owner, this is blaspheme. I am glad this love track didn't extend beyond the one episode, though narratively it felt jolt-like.)
Spanning 5 episodes, around 25 minutes each, Cubicles tonally rhymes with The Kota Factory, another TVF whiz-kid. Both are heartwarming, entertaining, and know exactly when to stop. You have a new entrant into an ecosystem, trying to make sense of it. You have parents he is trying to make proud, friends he is trying to make and sustain, a lover he tries to pursue briefly, and a mentor figure who keeps doling out seemingly prophetic advice through metaphors and platitudes. (Both the main characters even try to prove themselves the first time by cheating, and learn their lesson)
At one point, Megha (Nidhi Bisht in a superb see-saw between boss and friend-you-can't-take-for-granted) tells him "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." This might be witty, but since the show is sponsored by a mutual fund company, the constant referencing of mutual funds tires; the ads, the conversations that suddenly sound like ads, and the unsubtle visual cues. I am convinced that there is a subtle, and more effective way of brand placement. We haven't quite cracked that.
Each episode of this one season deals with one issue, either first day jitters, a love life, understanding how salary is credited, how to spend it, and room-mate spats. There is little beyond these 'issues' in each episode, which get resolved, and so at the end of the season, you have one character who has undergone five resolved issues. While each episode is heartwarming, and moves brusquely, it is easy to understand why then, the series feels only like the sum of its parts. Not more.
Each resolved issue comes at the heels of the previous resolved issue, and the sequence is important. You need to make sure that we deal with Piyush's love life only after he feels settled at work, and has gotten the ropes. Similarly Piyush's domestic troubles can only come after he has achieved stability at work and in love. You cannot have them play out simultaneously. This reminds me of sage advice a mentor gave me when I moved to Mumbai, "Don't change cities, apartments, and lovers at the same time. Go slow." Great advice for living. Not so much for a web-series.