Biswapati Sarkar looks like your average accountant or software engineer. A round, boyish face, wire-rimmed glasses, shirt tucked into pants over a muffin top… You can very easily see him picking up his Tupperware lunchbox and heading off to a tech-park, coming back and watching an IPL match or the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
It would have been the most natural thing in the world if he had slipped into this mould. An engineering graduate from IIT Kharagpur, his fate was practically sealed from the moment he cleared the JEE. But actually, Sarkar is a writer with digital entertainment company The Viral Fever (TVF) and is creating some of the most exciting and fresh content in the Indian entertainment space. You may remember him as “Arnub” from the ‘Barely Speaking With Arnub’ series of interviews mocking the nation’s most famous TV host, but acting is just one of his talents.
As the creative force behind the TVF show Permanent Roommates (in its second season now) — he has also co-written its other webseries ‘Pitchers’ with founder Arunabh Kumar — Sarkar is easily one of the most talented writers around. And the amazing thing is, he taught himself how to do it by “basically watching around 3000 films during five years at IIT.”
Why are we talking about all this now? Because Permanent Roommates is an important show. And that’s not only because it is a huge online hit, with over 2 million views of each episode and a total of 17 million views on YouTube, making it the second most watched long-form web-series in the world on the video-hosting site (after American geeky teen show ‘Video Game High School’). It is important because of its content. The writing and performances are as good as what you may see in many Netflix originals (and I don’t say this lightly), and the show, while set in an ordinary, middle-class Indian milieu, is as subversive as it can get about Indian society.
The show is about two young people, Mikesh (Sumeet Vyas) and Tanya (Nidhi Singh). At the beginning of season 1, they are in a desultory long-distance relationship when Mikesh suddenly lands up in Mumbai from his foreign job posting, and the two end up sharing the same house. The great thing about this? It’s not an in-your-face, Captain Obvious show about “Living In” (think the recent Bollywood offering Ki Aur Ka, which is about Gender Dynamics in big, bold letters). It’s a funny, often absurd and sometimes quite edgy exploration of a relationship between two ordinary young people.
This, in itself, is rare in a country where the top-rated entertainment shows are all about housewives (who sometimes come with supernatural powers), and where something as commonplace as the female protagonist wanting to get a job becomes the subject of much dramatic eyebrow raising and the main plot point for three whole months.
That Indian television has nothing to offer India’s young audience is well known. Creating fiction shows on general entertainment channels (GECs) is practically an industrial process, says Sarkar, an Aaron Sorkin fan. “It’s a factory, a completely mechanical process. Each episode is written in 2-3 hours. There’s just no way you can write a good script in that much time — it takes me almost a month to write one episode.” According to him, the Ratna Pathak Shah starrer Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai was the last TV show that had any kind of ‘youth appeal’.
“On the other hand, on MTV, Channel V etc, ‘youth shows’ are always about three guys in an open jeep going to India Gate and drinking. But we felt there are lots of stories to be told about young people who lead ordinary lives — they go to work, fight with each other, pay EMIs,” says Sarkar. This is one of the main reasons the show clicks with the crowd that has grown up watching Friends and How I Met Your Mother, and now binges on The Mindy Project and Silicon Valley.
While the first season of the show ends with Mikesh and Tanya settled into a comfortable, mutually supportive relationship (still Living In, though) and only just beginning to talk about marriage, the second season brings in quite a plot-twist: they learn that they are expecting a baby.
Now that is REALLY grown-up stuff, and to handle it without becoming mawkish and melodramatic — especially given our pop-culture heritage of looking at unwed parenthood with ‘Yeh paap hai, paap’ lenses — takes some sharp writing. The trick is also to not become preachy while dealing with topics that are “socially progressive” — from extramarital affairs and special needs children to middle-aged dating and needlessly over-the-top Indian weddings.
“It’s basically about breaking out of stereotypes,” says Nidhi Singh, who plays Tanya. In the first season, we have Tanya being unsure of this guy; she has doubts about committing to a serious relationship with him. That is pretty pathbreaking in itself, because Indian society tells us that if a girl finds a good guy, she must marry him immediately.” Also, though the families of the protagonists are very much around and are an important part of the show, it is always clear that the only ones who call the shots are the young people themselves.
Will Permanent Roommates and a handful of other web-series with a somewhat similar sensibility (YRF’s ‘Bang Baaja Baaraat’ comes to mind, though it’s a more glamorised show) be cultural game-changers? We can hope. Looking at absolute numbers, the ~3 million views per episode may not seem like much — after all, Honey Singh music videos get 8-10 million views on average — but the numbers are big for long-form fiction shows that are a very new genre.
Subrat Kar, co-founder of Vidooly, which provides video marketing and analytics for YouTube and other video platforms, says shows like Permanent Roommates have shown a healthy growth in terms of views year-on-year — while a year ago, each episode got around 1 million views, the number is more than twice that now. “Also, it must be kept in mind that a show with an English title and a metro-audience positioning is by default only going to appeal to the millenial, ’Netflix audience’ — which is around 10-15 million strong. The total pool is only that much. So the numbers as they stand are pretty healthy,” says Kar.
“The culture of setting time aside to watch TV is changing, even in India. When you have all the options open to you at a time of your choosing, why would you watch substandard TV shows?” asks Sarkar. It is a revolutionary cultural shift, and guys like TVF are busy helping you cut the cord.
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