BEGINNERS GUIDE: INDIAN WEB SERIES [Part One]

Beginners Guides is a new series on Chime that aims to introduce readers to content in other parts of the world that they may not explore otherwise. 

There can be no doubt that India’s streaming wars have revolutionised the nation’s production of drama series. While traditional Indian TV is mass market and mostly aimed at housewives – with its long-running saas-bahu (mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law) and mythological dramas – the shorter, high-end series currently being produced by Netflix, Amazon and a host of local players are targeting several different niche audiences, but most often young, urban professionals. 

Unfettered by the censorship restrictions of broadcast TV, they’re exploring previously taboo subjects, including cohabiting couples, drug use and same-sex relationships. But just as often their stories revolve around tech start-ups, work-life balance issues and the class, caste and religious divides that rock India. 

Some general observations…there’s a lot of bad and middling content, some that is binge-worthy and a few shows that had me totally hooked. One of the distinguishing factors is of course financial resources – some platforms are obviously working with much bigger budgets than others – and as I’m not Indian, there’s going to be content I just don’t “get” because it’s too removed from a Western sensibility. Also, the traditional broadcasters are all in this space, so there are going to be some shows that are too close to what’s already out there on broadcast TV.  

And then there’s talent. India has a large firmament of stars who can dance and romance on the big screen, but a relatively small pool of actors who can hold their own in small screen intimate dramas. So we’re likely to see the same faces over and over again. Radhika Apte seems to appear in every series Netflix makes. Kalki Koechlin plays a cult leader in Sacred Games and a damaged rich kid in Made In Heaven. Ranvir Shorey goofs around as a Desi shopkeeper in Metro Park and becomes a ruthless terrorist in Sacred Games. It’s to the credits of these guys that after four weeks of serious bingeing, I’m not bored of seeing any of them…yet. 

Some shows I couldn’t access as I couldn’t subscribe to those platforms without an Indian credit card and SIM, but friends in India suggested I give a shout out to Bose – Dead/Alive, streaming on Alt Balaji, and Rangbaaz on ZEE5. Bose is a period thriller directed by Pulkit and starring Rajkummar Rao as Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose, whose death in a plane crash in 1945 has been disputed by conspiracy theorists. Rangbaaz is a crime thriller set in the Uttar Pradesh heartlands in the 1990s, produced by renowned indie film producer Ajay Rai (Killa, The New Classmate). 

So after calling for recommendations from friends in the Indian film and TV industries, and spending a month consuming as much content as possible, I’ve come up with a top ten. This is not a scientific exercise – I’ve made decisions based on binge-ability and the likelihood that these shows can find an audience outside of India. But if you want to witness how Indian content is being radically transformed, then this should be a good place to start.

10. CITY OF DREAMS (HOTSTAR)

Written by: Nagesh Kukunoor, Rohit Banawlikar
Directed by: Nagesh Kukunoor
Starring: Priya Bapat, Siddharth Chandekar, Eijaz Khan

Hotstar has so far mostly focused on remakes, which are not so interesting for audiences outside India – if you’ve seen the British version of Criminal Justice with Ben Whishaw, or the US version with Riz Ahmed, you probably don’t need to watch the Hindi version with Vikrant Massey. City Of Dreams is one of its few shows based on an original script, although the family feud set against the political context of Mumbai is well-trodden territory. The new departure is that it’s the daughter who steps up to protect the family legacy, following the attempted assassination of their controversial politician father, pushing aside the hot-headed son. It’s slightly old-fashioned, perhaps self-consciously so. The cops refer to the assassination attempt – gunmen on a motorbike pulling up alongside the politician’s car – as a “flashback” or old school killing. Political corruption is still alive and kicking, but there’s nostalgia for the Mumbai of ‘90s gangster movies.

9. METRO PARK (EROS NOW)

Written by: Sagar Haveli, Ajayan Venugopalan
Directed by: Abi Varghese, Ajayan Venugopalan
Starring: Ranvir Shorey, Purbi Joshi, Omi Vaidya, Vega Tamotia

Eros International has bet the bank on its ErosNow streaming service and production of web series, but so far its digital output has not generated the same buzz as shows from Netflix and others. Among the Eros shows released so far, this comedy about an Indian family living in New Jersey seems the most likely to travel. Ranvir Shorey is funny and relatable as the hapless father, a shopkeeper and wannabe insurance agent, humoured by his beauty salon owner wife and ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) kids. It’s a guilty pleasure – with caricatures of Gujaratis and South Indians, it feels a bit like an Indian version of Open all Hours. But like that 1970s-born British show, it’s devoid of malice and has some genuinely laugh out loud moments like the e-pooja scene in the first episode. It was also a relaxing break from gangsters, yuppies and terrifying visions of a future dystopian India.

8. THINKISTAN (MX PLAYER)

Written by: Spandan Mishra, N. Padmakumar
Directed by: N. Padmakumar
Starring: Shravan Reddy, Naveen Kasturia, Mandira Bedi

Set in an advertising agency in Mumbai in the late ‘90s, regarded as the Golden Age of Indian advertising due to the rise of satellite television, Thinkistan mostly revolves around two characters – the city slicker English-language copywriter, who fast becomes a rising star at the agency, and the small town Hindi copywriter, who is struggling financially and mocked by his colleagues. Directed and co-written by N. Padmakumar, an advertising filmmaker who also directed the movie A Billion Colour Story (2016), the show has a few moments of cringe-worthy or stilted dialogue, but on the whole is an engaging introduction to the contradictions of contemporary India – English vs. Hindi, North vs. South, urban vs. rural and modern vs. traditional. It also attempts to touch on issues like homophobia and sexism, but is most successful when tackling the complexities of India’s class and language politics. Navreen Kasturia is excellent as the Hindi copywriter.

7. KOTA FACTORY (TVF)

Created by: Saurabh Khanna
Starring: Mayur More, Ranjan Raj, Revathi Pillai

Back in the prehistoric mists of Indian web series (around 2015) there were only two players in town – The Viral Fever (TVF) and Yash Raj Films’ Y-Films. Both produced some groundbreaking shows before the bosses of both went down in flames during Bollywood’s #MeToo era. While Y-Films has since been quiet, TVF bounced back with Yeh Meri Family, about a typical ‘90s Indian family, and Kota Factory, set in a city in Rajasthan, famous for prepping students for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance exam. Between the two, Kota Factory should generate more interest outside of India and will either inspire morbid fascination at the horrors of institutionalised education or be totally relatable, depending on where you went to school. TVF’s business model is based on sponsorship, which is less jarring in Kota Factory than some other shows, but having a learning app as a sponsor means it’s perhaps not as critical of the system as it could be.

6. LEILA (NETFLIX)

Created by: Urmi Juvekar
Directed by: Shanker Raman, Deepa Mehta, Pawan Kumar
Starring: Huma Qureshi, Rahul Khanna, Siddharth

Set in the dystopian near future nation of Aryavarta, this six-part drama follows a middle class woman who is sent to a re-education camp, after her family is caught wasting water, and her search for her missing daughter when she finally escapes. Initially I had this series much higher up the list – Huma Qureshi does a great job and the world-building and production values are solid – but couldn’t get past the glaring similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s novel Leila, which I haven’t read, so perhaps the source material is uncomfortably close to the Margaret Atwood novel the Hulu series is based on. There are some local twists, including more of a focus on climate change (water shortages are already a frightening reality in some parts of India) and caste and religious segregation – literal walls are built between different communities. But while it’s groundbreaking for India, and definitely worth a watch, it’s not a new concept for foreign audiences. In India, it was critisised for being anti-Hindu (as in the religion), a charge that has been thrown at a few recent web series.

Tune in next week for the top five…