Die Trying Review: Generic Elevator Music, Film Companion
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Director: Khuzema Haveliwala

Creator: Kenny Sebastian

Cast: Kenny Sebastian, Vidyuth Gargi, Adarsh Gourav, Soundarya Jayachandran, Lyra Dutt

Amazon Prime Video’s umpteenth web show created by a stand-up comic, Die Trying, doesn’t work on so many levels that one could construct a high-rise out of its shortcomings. There’s not an ounce of depth to it, the unoriginal ‘bromance’ conflict gives the decade-old Rock On an inferiority complex and the stock characters are profoundly unremarkable – as if a 1990s MTV skit were trying hard to inflate itself into a frothy, full-blown narrative.

It’s ironic that while a bunch of these very popular stage (OML) performers delve into the storytelling medium, the best Indian show in the last few years – TVF’s Humorously Yours – is incidentally a funny, informed and cynically measured take on, well, India’s burgeoning stand-up comic scene. It felt like a real show about real people who like being funny for a living, unlike shows created by funny people who are now trying to be real for a living. Like most of his contemporaries, Kenny Sebastian had a cool cameo in that series, as well as a memorably desperate one in Sumukhi Suresh’s Pushpavalli. Irrespective of whether Sebastian’s own show here is inspired by – or homage to – the similarly themed hit HBO television series, Flight of the Conchords (2007), it simply lacks the ambition and scale of the environment it sets out to explore.

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The up side about this Amazon web epidemic is that most of the comedians are using this golden opportunity to be honest about their own experiences. The down side is that not all of them are interesting enough. And some, like the makers here, go a little overboard accessorising their lives through the prism of sitcom humour. As a result, it ends up being neither an insightful parody nor a self-depreciatory dramedy about youngsters unable to recognize their own limitations.

Sebastian, like Biswa Kalyan Rath (Laakhon Mein Ek) and Sumukhi Suresh (Pushpavalli), designs Die Trying as a semi-fictitious version of his own struggles – as an upcoming slacker-musician in Bangalore. He plays the submissive, quirky part of a two-man band called Kenny & Rohan; Rohan (Vidyuth Gargi) is the angry alpha-male purist who scoffs at sell-out pop culture and cover bands, and is perpetually in denial about his own band’s irrelevance. They set about their goal of closing a prestigious music festival (insert NH7 Weekender plug) by hook or crook. Never mind that none of the gigs look like they’re being performed beyond a decorated living room – a detail that unintentionally befits the sad incompetence of the pair. Of course their situational crises are further propelled by a disturbingly loyal drifter named Jason (Adarsh Gourav who, for once, is not a brooding teenager), their unofficial manager.

Unlike Laakhon Mein Ek, which was defined by its frantic coaching-class milieu, and Pushpavalli, which pivoted on the spiraling mindscape of its stalker protagonist (which, in turn, justified the economical but superbly performed surroundings), Die Trying is inexplicably generic for a show about music.  

It is set in 2004, which pretty much frees the plot of social media, broadband internet and politically correct gender discourse. Yet, a few stray mentions of Orkut and dial-up connections aside, the stage-like production value (single locations, indoors, sanitized pubs, warm sepia-tinged filters to disguise low budgets) is such that could have been set in virtually any decade. There is zero personality to its setting. Unlike Laakhon Mein Ek, which was defined by its frantic coaching-class milieu, and Pushpavalli, which pivoted on the spiraling mindscape of its stalker protagonist (which, in turn, justified the economical but superbly performed surroundings), Die Trying is inexplicably generic for a show about music. It seems unwilling to go beyond the dewy-eyed naivety of its lead performers, and lacks the DIY creativity – imagine the innovative possibilities, the improvised lyrics, the pulpy music videos, the shady faces – of the pre-digital, indie scene it occupies.

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The core of the message, though, is devoid of mainstream formula: seven episodes about two losers who must confront their own mediocrity. After all, not all strugglers are talented. Yet, the focus on the adventures-of escapades of Kenny and Rohan is peppered by the very tropes they aim to satirize – rival bands, hipster Kannadiga grandmothers, abusive event bosses, unapologetic female stereotypes (cue smoking/flings) and demanding fathers convolute the texture of an orthodox story too obsessed with its unorthodox own voice to warrant our emotional investment.

Perhaps it’s more disappointing because one of its co-writers, fellow comedian Naveen Richard, was the pen behind two distinctly novel shows in Better Life Foundation and Pushpavalli. Die Trying instead feels like a product of a rapid weeklong brainstorming session, lacking the ambition that much of the Indian internet space is positioned to demand. Yet, it never does. Even intimate, lived-in stories turn into metropolitan, millennial skits designed to assure audiences that they need not commute to multiplexes to be entertained in the same way. When in fact, these shows should be striving to create a mobile platform not as an alternative to the silver screen, but as an independent, individual and self-respecting experience that can exist nowhere else. Instead of downgrading the concept of cinema, they should be upgrading the concept of art.

Amazon Prime Video’s umpteenth web show created by a stand-up comic, Die Trying, doesn’t work on so many levels that one could construct a high-rise out of its shortcomings.

Sadly, Die Trying and its likes come across as quick-fix solutions in a conveyer belt of contracted new-age content. When we review feature-length films these days, the go-to term for describing a lazy, vapid and consciously overpopulated effort is “…bears a tacky web-series look”: a clear indicator of the trend that desi digital creators simply don’t take the medium seriously enough. Whereas comparing a movie to most international Netflix/Amazon Originals would be construed as a backhanded compliment.

I understand the lack of vision and resources at the top. I understand that not all of what I suggest and yearn for is as simple as it sounds. But this is a crucial time for this medium. The foundation, though, is weak, and the direction this space is assuming seems eerily familiar to that of its big-budget cousins. One can even say that standup comics, whose existing fans and celebrity status the studios are attempting to capitalize on, are the vague web equivalent of the star Khan syndrome. Except, they are afforded more freedom, which is why a tame failure like this feels more pronounced because of the risks it refuses to take.

And it becomes equally discouraging for a viewer – as it does for the hard-working, misguided makers – when bland shows are repeatedly churned out to meet annual studio targets, while capable writers die trying to pitch ideas from the side lanes of suburban Mumbai.

Rating:   star

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