Director: Ajay Singh
Cast: Nakuul Mehta, Alekh Sangal, Ram Menon, Bhupesh Singh
A few years ago, a web series called Not Fit caught my attention. It was conceived by, and starred, young Malayalam actor Sudev Nair – and fittingly revolved around a Mumbai-based ‘Versova’ struggler navigating the murky world of Bollywood casting studios, auditions, cheap house parties and low self-esteems. It was shot as a mockumentary, a la Modern Family and The Office, lending a resourceful, indie feel to its characters.
This particular treatment suited the motif wonderfully – it captured the stark tragicomic reality of wannabe model-actors, perpetually light in the pocket and head, fancifully aspiring to be neatly framed velvety stars gracing larger-than-life canvas.
To put things further into context, there’s no rung lower on the financial ladder than a struggling film actor. Their real life looks poor and cobbled together, meriting curious questions (hence, the crew following them) about a stubborn lifestyle. Television actors in India, however, face a different kind of existential predicament: artistic idiot-box soul-selling before they pursue big-screen, Friday-release dreams. TV becomes their drug.
Some of them can’t make it out of this addictive hole of instant money, living-room fame and inhuman working hours. Which is why even their dreams, emotions and vision acquire the excessive, heightened hues of the medium they occupy.
This explains the sardonic, quasi-dramatic language of Indian television star Nakuul Mehta’s foray into web entertainment. It’s loud, unapologetic and corny about a loud, unapologetic and corny industry – a style worthy of its deluded subject.
I Don’t Watch TV (appropriately, a Pulp Fiction reference, invoking the lofty cinematic ambitions of the protagonists) is Mehta’s Not Fit, because fortunately, like Sudev Nair did, he sees the funny side – the sheer unforgiving irony – of his chosen vocation, too. It’s a risky move, where he probes and playfully questions the machinations of a culture that pays his bills. And because he’s the producer/co-creator, there’s a nagging element of lived-in truth to this satirical take on the notoriety of the Indian television industry.
The five-episode series on Arre revolves around TV star Nox (Mehta; very Hrithik-isque), his best friend and Pacino-obsessed ‘hero ka bhai’ Al (Alekh Sangal), and their disillusioned writer pal RK (Ram Menon), and begins after Nox’s drunken television-hating award-function rant goes viral.
I Don’t Watch TV is more or less designed – tonally, technically, thematically, conversationally – like an over-the-top soap opera of a buddy flick. As a result, we see visually whacky (and deliberately tacky), skit-like interpretations of widely-known ‘rumours’: a dominatrix-style Madam (Delnaz Irani, having a ball) running her saas-bahu empire from a dark lair, a separate entrance door reserved for Ram Kapoor, M torturing a famous film critic for writing an unfavorable review, young careers ended for disobeying her, ‘sanskaari’ heroes from her serials turned comatose for disobeying her, sanskaari heroines lighting up/snorting as soon as their shot is canned, a shady adult-film director and his shameless methods, 140-year-old “Baa” and the real feelings of her tired family, and so on and so forth.
The caricaturing isn’t completely lazy, and everyone seems to be a good sport. Watching extraordinary people have ordinary fun with themselves on screen can be a strangely liberating experience.
One can also sense a lot of closeted frustration of these ‘shackled’ celebrities (many of who have sneaky cameos) channeled – in a humorous, self-depreciating, though not self-loathing way – into this vivid series. It’s nice to see that they’re aware, and are willing to acknowledge, as well as laugh at themselves about the factory-line world they inhabit. Most TV folks can get defensive and territorial, and can mistake popularity for art, which is why Mehta and Sangal’s Delhi-Belly-ish antics have an added element of honesty about them.
That said, the show does tend to play out like a continuous line of parody-fueled gags. Most of it is witty and laced with sarcasm, but there’s no real focus on a conventional narrative – that is, the storytelling itself is secondary, with characters just finding themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. Some scenes, mostly droll takes on other famous films, stretch themselves thin long after the novelty wears off – an example is the writer’s stunted and inconsistent track (he’s not important enough), and a 3 Idiots inspired exchange with his traditional South Indian father. Ditto for the Clockwork-Orange-ish atmosphere of M’s dungeon, and her long-winded interactions with her slaves. Such moments just don’t quit when they’re ahead.
I Don’t Watch TV is more or less designed – tonally, technically, thematically, conversationally – like an over-the-top soap opera of a buddy flick
This is well and good for curious souls looking for a chuckle, but the protagonist’s journey is too short and overcrowded to be a memorable one. This is a natural constraint of an episodic made-for-web comedy, but it’s important to balance the pursuit of not being self-serious with the inherent risk of the content becoming one long inside joke.
You get the feeling the makers want to say so much so bitingly about so many things that they perhaps overlook the basic devices that connects them. This isn’t entirely a drawback, but then again, the more we acquaint ourselves with a gang of strangers, the more human they become for us. And maybe Mehta and co. may not have wanted that to happen. After all, only lifeless remote-controlled drones operate in their universe. There is no space for practical, sane-minded ‘artistry’.