The Indian web series space is still at an infancy stage. This is evident from the fact that I’ve struggled to pick five decent titles in a year overpopulated with short-form content. Three of them have been created by standup comics, while the big-budget headliners have either gotten too greedy or too TV-soap-ish. And even in top player TVF’s worst year, they still manage to find a representative.
The following is the list of my five best – or the “least worst” – local web shows across all digital platforms in 2017:
5. INSIDE EDGE
Creator: Karan Anshuman
Amazon Prime Video’s first original Indian web series is a semi-fictitious (I hope), large-scale show that runs over ten episodes for more than 400 minutes of content. It is, to put it mildly, vast. Yet, it unfurls with a noisy aura of “exposing” the country’s biggest religion: cricket. A heightened, mainstream account of the behind-the-scene, murky politics and larger-than-life faces that populate the cash-rich Indian Premier League, Inside Edge is notable for the kind of ambitious writing that has long gone missing from Indian television. Usually, even if the broad canvas exists, most flamboyant shows don’t come near potentially controversial themes – thanks to the epidemic of intolerance promoted by the government’s sports twin, the BCCI. But Inside Edge goes the whole hog, with plenty of play-and-misses and wild heaves: coaches die, coke is inhaled, marriages are ended, uglies are bumped, millionaire team owners snarl and threaten, captains struggle to contain their boisterous superstars, spot-fixing is decoded (in the season’s best episode), while Vivek Oberoi and Richa Chadha threaten to undo everything with impossibly hammy turns. This full-throated-ness works for those who like their news breaking and heroes shaking.
4. GOING VIRAL PVT. LTD.
Creator: Anuvab Pal
This “mockumentary” show about an incompetent digital agency that exists solely to create viral content is not the most sophisticated storytelling. But it boasts of some truly endearing Office-style characters. The wry world-building overshadows its technical roughness; I thoroughly enjoyed a Michael-Scott-ish Kunaal Roy Kapoor, whose official name @Gaurav is almost as disturbingly hipster as his new-age position titled “Chief Dreamer”. He is a desperate oldie in a young battlefield: pathetic and hysterical, needy and overbearing, manly and childish, politically incorrect and socially apathetic – a perfect internet-age allegory that could have achieved cult status if not for the show’s weak narrative posturing. He leads a motley group of faces in a surreal workspace that is closer to reality than freelancers like me imagine. Its world becomes too familiar too soon, but it leaves us with bittersweet memories about its absurd “moments” – spurts of generational awkwardness that its creator, Pal, has made a standup career out of.
3. TVF BACHELORS (SEASON 2)
TVF ended last year with Humorously Yours – a smart, informative satire on the ballooning desi stand-up scene, and easily the finest Indian web show of 2016. It hasn’t been a great 2017 for them, both on the personal and professional front (Bisht Please, F.A.T.H.E.R.S were misfires). But Bachelors, their ongoing parody about the adventures of a ragtag bunch of Mumbai flat mates, is why TVF became a prime content brand to begin with. Even today, nobody lampoons the excesses of Bollywood better, and more contextually, than they do. Though Bachelors is composed of one-off skit-like episodes without a broader narrative, beneath all the irreverent humour and custom-remade musical numbers, there’s an observational sense of young city-life that works superbly within a homegrown Broadway format. For instance, one 25-minute episode, designed as a “reverse” Dangal spoof, revolves around the boys being coached by a Haryanvi mother (Vibha Chibber) on the art of domestic cooking. Another becomes a Shaun-of-the-Dead-ish zombie adventure about a virus called DEBT – an ingenious spin on the age-old millennial habit of going dead broke by the end of a salary month. The actors, especially TVF loyalist Gopal Datt, are a hoot, while their writers are the ones who should be hired to revamp the criminally boring primetime award shows.
Creator: Sumukhi Suresh
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before OML came up with a web show about a female stalker. Earlier this year its founder Vijay Nair’s harrowing episode was well documented by an extensive HuffPost piece. Fortunately, Pushpavalli isn’t heavy on male perspective. It’s made by women, and is designed around the mentality and fragile confidence of a sheltered heart with zero life experience. Sumukhi Suresh, an energetic standup comic, plays the role of the conservative girl (Pushpavalli = “creeper”) who goes from bumbling teddy bear to bumbling wolf. As is the case in most comic-created shows, the heightened environment is an extension of their observational sets, ripe with forcibly idiosyncratic characters (a temple visitor muttering “sab scam hai,” twin mean-girl flat-mates, a sociopathic landlady, an abusive boss) one can imagine her mimicking on stage. This loud mood isn’t necessary, but it lulls us into generic-skit territory before things get real. Suresh’s physicality – which is on the heavier side – is important because of the way it influences her psychologically; it converts Pushpavalli’s startling innocence into a dangerously childish neediness, forcing her to process the idea of human interaction very differently. The series creeps up on us over eight short episodes. It vaguely explores the origins of a serial offender, without fully empathizing with her nature. We are always cinematically inclined to feel sorry for such folks – but lesser so through such shows, where it looks like they’re amidst us, in complete denial about their condition.
1. LAAKHON MEIN EK
Creator: Biswa Kalyan Rath
There’s something to be said about hawkeyed standup comics manufacturing culturally relevant web biospheres – compensating in topicality and design for a lack of storytelling finesse – that regularly outdo the “television industry” shows. Laakhon Mein Ek, though far from a perfect series, reinforces this trend. I’m not complaining. It explores the kind of bastardized atmosphere that digital mediums exist for. Set within the claustrophobic teenaged confines of an IIT Coaching Institute, it follows the graph of a mediocre student (a suitably tense Ritwik Sahore) built to crumble under crippling peer pressure. This is a tough, sweaty drama, and not a trivial comedy as one would expect from its makers. It derails towards the end, descending into loose-canon mode, but there’s a degree of authenticity and lived-in frustration about its halls. It is relatable to an entire breed of “deflected” professionals. It stands out because of the time it occupies; Indian cinema’s notorious tendency to commercialize the education system, or merely use it as a flimsy backdrop, is why shows like this one might take some getting used to. It delves into the unglamorous glass-roots of a stale system that eventually produces the heroes who populate a glossy 3 Idiots or 2 States. Yet, in the long run, I suspect there will be few better nutshells of India’s infamous young “rat-race” mentality.
Bose: Dead/Alive (ALTBalaji)