One of the most frustrating aspects of the Indian entertainment industry is the abysmally poor quality of television content. It is like a bunch of buffoons with a primitive sense of humour and no sense of quality get to decide what is shown on the small screen. So, on one hand, in the name of programs targeted towards family audiences (read housewives), we have mostly middle aged women in gaudy make-ups and vicious facial expressions hamming their asses off, mouthing ludicrous dialogues from a contrived script, trying hopelessly to manufacture drama and manipulate some tension with apocalyptic background music playing in the background. On the other hand, we have a host of reality television programs where, I am told, the major attraction is the charade of once semi-famous celebrity judges shouting at poor contestants or picking up stage managed fights with one another. There are also comedy shows in between, where the definition of humour is men dressing up as women, developing an effete mannerism and flirting with male celebrities. In fact, at times, the quality of jokes is so pathetic that they need the presence of Navjot Singh Sidhu whose one line job description is to laugh at every joke, however inane it is, as a cue for the audience to start laughing. Which still makes you wonder about the exact dose of nitrous oxide Sidhu is subjected to before he is brought on screen.
In fact, things are so bad that people have resorted to watching debates on third grade news channels as their source of prime time entertainment. For these debates are not civilized, educational exchange of ideas between a few erudite personalities but are live telecasts of shouting matches between a smattering of politicians, celebrities, wannabes and self-proclaimed pundits, moderated(or rather instigated) by an over the top, self-righteous anchor, on topics that range from the simply bizarre to the downright disturbing.
What makes this paucity of quality content on Indian television even more baffling is that across the world, in UK and mostly in USA, television production is going through what may easily be termed as its golden age. Television in USA has in fact been flooded with high quality content on a huge variety of genres with much improved production values and stellar cast of actors and directors. While previously, well known Hollywood actors were roped in to star in a television series as a guest actor for single episodes to lend the show some star value, things have now turned the other way round. Nowadays, movie actors very often come back to television to revive their careers. Someone like Matthew McConaughey, at the peak of his Hollywood career, decided to star in ‘True Detectives’, an off-beat slow paced detective drama. Directors like David Fincher and actors like Kevin Spacey are involved in ‘Houses of Cards’, a political drama which is released directly into Netflix. Benedict Cumberbatch became a global celebrity largely after his performance as the maniac detective in ‘Sherlock’. And the epic scale and production value of ‘Game of Thrones’ can only be compared with the most high-budgeted top-studio summer flicks that Hollywood can offer.
One can justify the poverty of television content in India citing, somewhat condescendingly, the fact that cable television has penetrated rural India only a few years ago. Television also serves as the predominant source of entertainment in rural and small town India whereas in urban India, it has to compete with various other media platforms and entertainment options. As a result, the largest demographics watching television today are rural and small town population and urban housewives. One can only imagine that the network bosses think that such demographics are more than happy to watch and relate to the saas-bahu dramas and are enraptured by celebrities fighting each other and being made fun of in public.
But what about the millions and millions of educated young people, recent graduates out of colleges or the ones with young families, mostly engineers and MBAs, who stay in large cities, outside the comfort of their home towns, working five or six days a week in white collar jobs in mostly service sector companies?. What option do they have of watching on television when the Indian Premier League is not going on? Why are they willing to watch re-runs of ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ but none of the non-sense that comes on Indian channels? Apparently, the network executives in India have never asked such questions or do not like the answers. They have shown a stubborn willingness to remain ensconced in their own circle of mediocrity, something that will make every frog in every well really proud.
It is in this context that I watched and really liked the first season of TVF Pitchers. TVF (which stands for The Viral Fever) had produced excellent viral videos in the past, including some hilarious takedowns of Arnab Goswami and the assorted array of his regular guests. They had also dabbed into situational comedies with the first season of ‘Permanent Roommates’ an understated, tentative and often funny take on a twenty something, extremely dissimilar couple trying to find love, living together in Mumbai. ‘Permanent Roommates’ was an inconsistent effort, very good in some patches, but also betraying its low budget and the inexperience of its makers.
The first season of ‘TVF Pitchers’, on the other hand, is a far more assured and polished work. It tells the story of four people, again in their twenties, who give up their plush careers in middle management of well established companies, to chase their collective dream and start their own venture. The beauty of the concept is that it is something that a lot of young Indians living in metros will relate to, having seen many of their own college mates make it big in the start-up world. After all, as one of the characters in Pitchers says, every frustrated engineer at some point in their initial career thinks of pursuing one of the three options – MBA, IAS or start-up. It is a field that has produced a number of head line worthy news in the recent past – whether it be the antics of Rahul Yadav or the sky high valuations of Flipkart or Snapdeal. At the same time, it is a concept extremely familiar to the TVF team, having gone through the pangs of giving birth to a start up themselves.
TVF uses their knowledge of the start-up process and mixes it with their characteristic understated humour, interesting characters, irreverent dialogues and a strong plot line to form a hugely entertaining product. As is their wont, they make the characters, especially secondary characters like Bhujiawala and Rastogi, their strong suit. Free from the censoring of television and movies, the dialogues are fresh and funny and strikingly realistic. The script also manages to find underlying humour in the somewhat exaggerated depiction of commonplace experiences like working in a 4′ by 4′ cubicle in an office, getting on the wrong side of a super-ambitious and ruthless boss, living in a flat with an irritating MBA roommate, giving meaningless orientation lecture to a room full of freshmen, facing up to a domineering father, etc.
Like any show written about a bunch of youngsters, the story heavily revolves around the interactions and chemistry among the characters. Although almost all of these are handled with finesse and crisp writing, one relationship stands out in particular. It is the extremely witty and extra-ordinarily mature interactions between Naveen, the leader of the group and Shreya, his girlfriend. The portrayal of their relationship is a far cry from the cliché-ridden melodramatic way relationships between men and women are handled in Bollywood. Naveen and Shreya are more like best friends in love. Their conversations are funny in a self-deprecating way and are rooted in practicality, not floating in the snow clad Alpine mountains like standard Bollywood romance. It is a relationship that grows on you and you feel genuinely sorry for them when they have to make a choice between career and staying together.
In the midst of all the situational comedies, ‘TVF Pitcher’ is also about the enormous sacrifices that founders of start-ups have to make to get their projects even off the ground. As a society that was desperately poor even one generation back and has very recently started showing signs of upward movement, we are more likely to encourage low risk, steady return behaviour. The formula of success as defined for our generation is simple – complete engineering from a top college, if possible top it up with an MBA, and slog day and night in a reputed multi-national company with the occasional foreign postings. And our society has numerous built-in incentives that reward such behaviour in all stages of life, from the wedding market to the home loan market. Anyone who tries to break this mould and tread the path less traveled not only has to give up personal comforts and face tremendous self-doubts but also fight resistance from the society, including disapproval from parents, emotional blackmail from spouses and sneers of derision from peers. The dice is loaded heavily against them and only the best can even think of making a mark.
These are, of course, familiar and even personal themes to TVF, most members of which would have given up predictable comforts of an upper middle class lives for investing their careers in a field which did not even exist a few years back in India. But much like their heroes in the fictional ‘TVF Pitcher’, their product is excellent. Speaking in an entrepreneurial way, TVF has managed to pitch to a customer segment that was till now not being catered to by their close minded, conservative, risk-averse, mainstream competitors. They have managed to lay bare the incompetence of television channels and the bankruptcy of their outdated ideas. Here is hoping that the disruptive challenge and superior content delivered by TVF and other such groups manages to shake up the entertainment market in India and leads to more options for the chronically starved Indian customers.