Woken up early by her husband’s cell phone alarm, when a grudging Shanti Mishra heads to the kitchen to roll out aloo ke paranthe, off goes the electric water pump. Sunday could not have started on a more discordant note. While she pushes her husband, Santosh Mishra, to call the handyman, Mishraji dilly-dallies to save costs even as he toys with a screwdriver. Bickering with her sons, Annu and Aman, over water and a sundry other things, an argument breaks out between the couple over a trivial issue. The sons clam up as quarrel snowballs into hurtful jibes. After the awkward moment, Mishraji is seen making tea to mollify his upset wife.
Going by how Amrit Raj Gupta’s Gullak has fared, it’s pretty evident that most of India knows how the Sunday morning ended for the Mishras. Interestingly, the refrain from the floored audience about The Viral Fever (TVF) creation is that ‘humarein yahaan bhi aisa hota hai. Perhaps, it is this familiarity that has made the web series tick. Rather, this feeling of ‘this is us’ has been the bedrock of success for TVF, an Indian video on demand and OTT streaming service that has been churning out heart-warming tales for a while now. It’s not just Gullak. Their dream run is evident with viewers lapping up shows such as Panchayat, Kota Factory, Pitchers, Aspirants, Hostel Daze and more.
Clearly, TVF is delivering what the audience has been craving for in the sea of shows that have constantly been alienating the mainstream middle-class audience while misleading them with distorted and false narratives of what India essentially is. This yawning gap has been fortunately bridged with themes and subjects that feel closer to home, embolden the concept of families and carry a whiff of an India that is. These are tales of people we can relate to because they project the identity of a flawed yet fabulous country. A Bharatiya connection has been firmly established.
Mirroring India’s middle-class issues
Says Shreyansh Pandey, the head of TVF Originals, “More than fifty per cent of India’s populace is middle class. Themes like education, employment and entrepreneurship are subjects that middle-class households and the children who grow up in them, relate to. In that, we try to introduce ideas that are progressive, positive and aspirational. Every young person is chasing a goal no matter what field he or she belongs to. At some point of our lives, we have been through these situations, too. Yes, circumstances might have altered a bit here and there but there is resonance. Hence, at TVF we like to explore these ideas which we have all lived through and encourage scripts, writing and conversations that the audience can relate to even as they learn something from them.” The theme of employment and education are the driving forces of almost all these shows, but each one of them handles the topic from different angles. For instance, while in Gullak, the balance between finances, aspirations and education is constantly harped at, Aspirants depicts the excruciating work required to pass UPSC, the world’s second most difficult competitive examination and the emotions that get embroiled with it. Kota Factory is a funny, light-hearted take on the paraphernalia of IIT, but it never diverts from its seriousness. And Panchayat? The chronicling of rural India’s evolution has served as a wonder drug for the starved OTT audience.
The positive feel
Not dwelling too much on what makes a populist narrative, the TVF team focuses on telling a good story that is relatable and positive without trivialising the issue. No agenda or propaganda is waiting to be peddled. “We only look at how original and interesting a story is. How many people can connect with what we have to offer? These are some rules that govern the kind of scripts we choose. And, evidence has shown that they don’t backfire,” says Vijay Koshy, president at TVF.
For instance, in Aspirants, Sandeep Bhaiyya tells Abhilash, “Power se bulb jal sakta hain aur power se log electrocute bhi ho sakte hain. You have to decide how you want to use power.” There is a distinct ray of optimism mouthed by the character played with remarkable restraint by Sunny Hinduja. Towards the end, the train of thought in the series affirms that there always is a Plan B if Plan A backfires but in the process, the lessons life dishes out can have no alternatives. The same sentiment is reiterated in Gullak as the Mishra parents stand rock solid behind their children, who grapple with failure and dejection from time to time. In crunch situations, this love and reassurance hold them in good stead. The invaluable lesson of respect and honesty that Annu Mishra learns from his father is enough to make the family sail through when Mishra ji faces a financial and medical blow.
Stories like Panchayat find favour because they glorify the power of a collective. Just like how Raghav Subbu and Saurabh Khanna’s Kota Factory did. Here was a story set in Kota, a small educational hub known for its coaching centres that was upbeat, fun and heartwarming. Tracing the journeys of youngsters like Vaibhav Pandey, Balmukund Meena and Vartika Ratawal aiming for the IITs guided by the practical but driven Jeetu Bhaiya, a cloak of familiarity ensconced the series. While the writing never evaded crucial competition issues, parental pressure or coaching centre politics, the genuineness, attention to technical detail, and realistic characterisation stuck on. The narrative doesn’t misguide, but the voice is inspiring and mirrors small-town dreams and aspirations perfectly.
Action shifts to Mumbai’s thriving metropolis in Pitchers, where four young men embark on their desire to launch a start-up, quitting their corporate jobs’ safety net. This deep yearning to bring about a change and do something that satiates the entrepreneurial bug in oneself is a narrative that the Indian urban youth is hooked by today. IIM and tech graduates who work hard to give wings to their dreams instead of burning away at their plateau jobs is what this mini-series was about. The characters enacted by Naveen Kasturia, Jitendra Kumar, Abhay Mahajan and Arunabh Kumar resonated with perhaps all those persevering individuals who want to branch out on their own but feel jittery for very practical reasons. Pitchers paint the struggles, pain, losses, and chances in pragmatic colours, but it also reinforces the pleasant notions of friendship, camaraderie and the thought of ‘never giving up’.
These stories and their execution could have been the usual diatribe against India and its culture that Left-oriented filmmakers and storytellers have been presenting for a while now, their success lies in how they have adhered to a unique perspective in identifying with a changing, progressing India. In tandem with the political shift in the country’s ambience, the tone that is sticking with the mainstream OTT audience is a hopeful, confident one, the language simple and the approach not dark or depressing, which does not mean that Bharat’s flaws are being brushed under the carpet. But, there is no unnecessary magnification. There is ample usage of tongue-in-cheek humour without demonising the system, and most importantly, India is depicted as is. That our country can be a happy place without the gloss of fake superficiality has been established. Phulera is a ready reckoner.
The shift in narratives
Not long before, the urban audience has been subject to a superfluity of sexual depravities, drug dosages and abusive parlance via web series such as Paatal Lok, Mirzapur, Rasbhari and the like. Not to mention trigger happy rural civilians, corrupt law and order and machiavellian characters who stumped masses with their dissonance from the reality. This rabble-rousing about Bharat in the mind of urban Indians was earlier pushed by so-called ‘progressive arthouse cinema’. Since commercial cinema showed village life as vulgar and nonsense, arthouse cinema’s reply to it lay in grating reminders of casteism, sexual subjugation, exploitation by zamindars, oppression and an overall vocabulary of disgust and deplorable existence.
The other end of the spectrum was the incomprehensible privileged setups rendered via Karan Johar or Zoya Akhtar productions with their mainstay on fancy homes, designer clothes and swanky cars. Stories and characterisation are relegated as the least important necessity; these were stories fooling impressionable minds with self-loathing ideas of want, need and greed.
Maybe that is why the reception showered on an unassuming Abhishek Tripathi despite him being a disillusioned graduate, too, biding his time as the Gram Panchayat secretary who would love to flee Phulara once he pockets a secure management seat seems so endearing. Chandan Kumar, the writer, didn’t paint his protagonist as a saviour. He made him one of us, real and grounded. Yes, there are teething problems in his wake as he tries to negotiate through the curious and whimsical actualities in the nondescript village, but there is a sense of ‘I could be in his place’ playing in our minds as he takes it all in his stride.
More than fifty percent of India’s populace is middle class. Themes like education, employment, and entrepreneurship are subjects that middle-class households and the children who grow up in them relate to. In that, we try to introduce ideas that are progressive, positive, and aspirational. Every young person is chasing a goal no matter what field he or she belongs to
— Shreyansh Pandey, Head of TVFOriginals
A sweeping sense of pragmatism hovers as Tripathi decides to assist the villagers as a Government employee who is not even remotely interested in being a God sent to deliver the downtrodden from penury. Hence, his character development is noteworthy, especially when he stands up to ‘banrakas’ Bhushan even as he learns to juggle grameen politics. He gets angry and frustrated, too, but his life lessons comprise honest, earnest experiences and strength of meaningful relationships though he figures that a wee bit of diplomacy could come handy.
The progressive move
Fortunately, TVF has sensed the pulse of today’s India that is courting rapid change while finding a confident voice to move ahead (note the modern miracle of cell phone penetration, installation of CCTV cameras in Panchayat) even as they stick to a sustainable module of living. There are enough instances in the show where while the villagers need Government support, life isn’t about helplessness, drudgery, murders, rapes and violence. While most rural dramas have so far painted our villages as quicksand patches of cruelty meted by feudal lords (think Hum Paanch, Nishant) and evils committed against women (Mirch Masala was a visual delight. However, it thoroughly projected rural India as a hub of monstrosity and patriarchy against women), here the character of Rinky is pretty progressive. She is young, educated, drives a scooty and doesn’t hold back her opinions from her parents.
Manju Devi, the Gram Pradhan, is a grihalakshmi but has better political instincts than her husband. She is an equal who is initially reluctant to take decisions as the elected village head but slowly gets out of her comfort zone to participate in important administrative matters when needed. With a feisty mind of her own, she doesn’t mince words while berating erring folks. She balances this toughness with a compassionate side, guarding her people when needed even as she puts elitist MLAs in their place.
The theme of employment and education are the driving forces of almost all these shows, but each one of them handles the topic from different angles. For instance, while in Gullak, the balance between finances, aspirations and education is constantly harped at, Aspirants depicts the excruciating work required to pass UPSC, the world’s second most difficult competitive examination and the emotions that get embroiled with it
Shanti Mishra is smart and sharp but she also is the binding force of the Gullak family from a quaint by lane of India. Saumya promises to share the financial load with Jeetu in Pitchers if he goes the start-way. Shreya, Naveen’s girlfriend, makes his professional struggles a wee bit easy. The women in the TVF scheme of things are strong yet have an aura of subtle grace.
Real and Relatable
The TVF trick tells original stories via excellent writing and makes it look as real as possible on camera. While they never stop experimenting, the honesty in their voice has contributed to their success. For instance, when the narrator in Gullak says that this is not a piggy bank, it directly discards the Western concept of plastic money collectors and upholds the Bharatiya fixation for simple earthen containers that every middle-class home has been keeping for a change that could come of use on a rainy day. The setting of every show is tangibly neighbourly. Be it the bachelor pad in Pitchers, the Old Rajinder Nagar colonies in Aspirants, the PG quarters in Kota Factory or the falling apart yet standing strong Kothi mohallas in Gullak. When Shanti Mishra saves up to buy a mixer grinder, nothing really changes in her grimy kitchen but just like our mothers would heave a sigh of relief and smile, she does, too. Tripathi’s travails in the Sarkari panchayat accommodation are a contrast to the comfortable rustic ghar of Brij Bhushan Pandey because that is what rural homes are all about. Basic but beautiful.
The actors of these web series don ‘normal’ clothes instead of overhyped designer creations or high street fashion. Be it Manju Devi’s printed georgette or Chanderi sarees, Tripathi’s check and striped shirts and
Abhilash’s smart pullovers.
Importance to Talent and Skill
Merit and a thirst to learn are two prerequisites for working with TVF, says Pandey. “When we go in search of good talent, we find new faces. India’s small towns are filled with gifted actors, writers, musicians and all kinds of creative people. We choose via auditions and give supreme importance to talent and skill,” he says. Names like Jitendra Kumar, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Chandan Roy, Faisal Malik, Mayur More, Ranjan Raj, Alam Khan, Ahsaas Channa, Naveen Kasturia, Abhay Mahajan, Jameel Khan, Harsh Mayar and Sanvikaa have entered our households and living room conversations thanks to the precision with which they were chosen to play their parts. Armed with candour and earnestness to deliver their roles to perfection, they have elbowed out the Khans and Kapoors out of Indian cinema lover’s consciousness.
“Since the inception of TVF almost a decade ago we have been able to bring alive almost 100-150 odd characters whom people remember. Like ‘Jeetu Bhaiya’, ‘Sandeep bhaiya’, ‘Abhilash’, ‘Naveen’, ‘Mickey Bhaiya’, ‘Prahlad Cha’, ‘Pradhan ji’ or ‘Vikas’. The list is long. There are several endearing female characters like ‘Shreya’ from Pitchers or ‘Tanu’ from Permanent Roommates, ‘Kavya’ from Humorously Yours. This carving out of loveable characters is what good writing and performance do. In the journey of bringing these characters alive, we have been able to launch almost 60-65 new actors. These actors were extremely new, and did not have a following but they played characters that people loved so much, who now pull audiences on a thumbnail,” elaborates Koshy.
The road ahead
The initial years are never easy for newbies. “We had no data to support that our ideas will be accepted by audiences. So, for the first six years, we were entirely dependent on brands as there was no other source of revenue. The other challenge was that the market and facilitators did not believe that our stories will resonate with India, so we found it difficult to create them. Even now, the challenges haven’t gone away completely. Some of our most ambitious ideas are turned down by a lot of people, but we are grateful to the partners who support us and who have seen merit in associating with us” explains Pandey.
‘We only look at how original and interesting a story is. How many people can connect with what we have to offer? These are some rules that govern the kind of scripts we choose. And, evidence has shown that they don’t backfire’
— Vijay Koshy, President TVF
The road ahead, despite the roadblocks, looks exciting. As ambitious as it gets, TVF has more than 30-odd shows comprising of subsequent seasons of our existing IPs and new ones (Tripling Season 3, Hostel Dayz Season 3, Flames Season 3). Two brand new shows are in the offing. One, set in Delhi, is about a female entrepreneur. Another is about a group of friends who find camaraderie and joy in playing tennis ball cricket. Regional language shows in Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are in the pipeline as well. Sounds quite choc a bloc!
Sharmi Adhikary is a senior lifestyle journalist and columnist with a yen for exploring interesting concepts in fashion, culture and cinema.