Director: Nikhil Gonsalves

Writers: Nikkhil Advani, Vir Das, Nikhil Gonsalves, Neeraj Pandey, Amogh Ranadive, Suparn Verma

Cast: Vir Das, Ranvir Shorey, Suhail Nayyar, Amrita Bagchi, Ravi Kishan

Streaming on: Netflix

So quick bright things come to confusion. That’s William Shakespeare in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This line kept bouncing in my brain as I watched Hasmukh, the new 10-part series on Netflix.

Hasmukh, and please forgive the pun, starts with a killer idea. Vir Das, a hugely successful and talented real-life comic, plays Hasmukh, a comedian from a small town who can only perform on stage if he murders someone right before his set. Throttling people, mostly with his belt, gives him, what he calls, feel – basically the Viagra that he needs to wow the crowd. So a man whose profession it is to make people laugh also has to be a serial killer. He can’t be one without the other.

Think of the possibilities here – the interplay of comedy and tragedy, the exploration of ambition versus morality, the conundrum of an artist who murders to hone his craft. This should have been devious, delicious, dark and head-scrambling. It’s exactly the type of material that streaming platforms were made for. Instead we get a rambling, sloppily-made drama. It’s basically mediocre Bollywood masquerading as cutting-edge digital content.

There is a spectacularly inane love angle between Hasmukh and a European girl. They can’t understand each other but they find a connection

The idea – by Vir himself – is instantly intriguing. But six writers managed to flatten the eccentricity and fun out of it – this includes Vir himself and co-producer Nikkhil Advani. The series begins in Saharanpur with great promise. We meet the beleaguered and bullied Hasmukh, apprentice to Gulati, the king of comedy in UP. Gulati is horrific and abusive, especially to Hasmukh who, in a desperately sad attempt to hold on to his tattered dignity, insists: Hum naukar nahi, comedy ke student hain. Manoj Pahwa, in a ruffled shirt and bad wig, is pitch perfect as Gulati. So is Ranvir Shorey as the smarmy, juggadu manager Jimmy who tells Hasmukh: Ab tu aaya hai Jimmy the Maker ke paas. Which instantly took me back to Subhash Ghai’s Karz in which Pinchoo Kapoor, as the godfather of the pop star Monty, keeps asking: Who is the maker? I am the maker.

Director Nikhil Gonsalves starts smoothly – Hasmukh is so insecure and timid that he stammers in front of a crowd but once he kills, the jokes flow like water. So he becomes a smash hit at the daroga ke behen ki shaadi.  His journey to stardom and Mumbai begins, which is exactly where the series starts to derail. Hasmukh is summoned to Mumbai to be the wild card entry in a television show called Comedy Baadshaho. Hasmukh and Jimmy make a pact that he will only kill bad people. Jimmy reasons that Bambai toh mahanagar hai. Aasani se mil jayenge.

Vir Das is solid as the tormented Hasmukh. He needs to be a menacing murderer but also innocent enough so we can empathize with him. He manages to do both

As it turns out, the television industry is filled with low lives – the channel head, Pratap Sinha, played by Ravi Kishan, is the sort of boss who purposely drops his pen so that his secretary, who dutifully wears low-cut tops, can bend down and pick it up. The showrunner Promila is so ambitious that when a colleague crosses her, she grabs his balls and puts him in his place. The star of the comedy show is the loutish, entitled K.K who keeps telling the television executive: Tu chaat raha hai par maza nahi aa ra. And then we get a Bollywood superstar Rahul Kapoor who does drugs in the middle of the shoot and strips. This after he has watched film critic Rajeev Masand give zero stars to his recent release. That felt like the only authentic moment in the entire set-up.

People keep dying. Cops show up – of course, one has to be overweight, lazy and cheerfully incompetent – the sort who will polish off a plate of food even in front of a corpse. There’s Raza Murad as the don of Film City. And there is a spectacularly inane love angle between Hasmukh and a European girl. They can’t understand each other but they find a connection. These characters are written in the broadest strokes possible. Here’s a sample of the lines – in one scene Pratap says about a clip, bukhar ki tarah faila do and his secretary helpfully translates that as – make it go viral. The unkindest cut is that the jokes aren’t funny. With a comic at the helm of affairs, how did so much lame material get into the show?

Vir Das is solid as the tormented Hasmukh. Vir has a tough job. He needs to be a menacing murderer but also innocent enough so we can empathize with him. He manages to do both. Until the end, I was hoping that Hasmukh gets away with it. Vir and Ranvir work nicely off each other. I loved that Jimmy’s caller tune is Jimmy, jimmy aja aja. But these characters and actors don’t get the series they deserve. This could have been and should have been so much more!

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