By Poulomi Das Feb. 08, 2020
It’s rare to make a comedy that is informed by its wickedness. Even rare to set it in a homegrown universe that pokes fun at the double standards of middle-class anxieties – death, religion, millennial indecisiveness, and existentialism – in a way which is immediately recognisable. Afsos manages to do both.
Can Indian comedians create inventive comedy series? In the last two years, Amazon Prime has single-handedly taken this as a challenge – a significant chunk of its Indian streaming roster comprise comedian-led shows. Yet, with the exception of Sumukhi Suresh’s Pushpavalli (whose appeal tipped more toward social commentary than laugh-out loud comedy), Prime Video’s bets on comedians expanding their cachet as show creators hasn’t quite paid off. All their previous efforts (Going Viral Pvt Ltd, Chacha Vidhayak Hai Hamare, Shaitan Haveli, Die Trying) have struggled to isolate their premises from the comedians helming them, coming across as extended sketch ideas whose novelty dimmed as fully-fledged universes. But the streaming platform finally might have gotten the recipe right with Afsos, a nihilistic tragicomedy about a man who is so desperate to die that he outsources the job to a startup that assists people in killing themselves.
“My life story is so poor that it feels like I’ve written it myself,” admits Nakul (Gulshan Devaiah) in the crackling first episode of Afsos, created by comedians Anirban Dasgupta and Dibya Chatterjee. Nakul is an average 20-something Mumbai underachiever – the kind who mentally signs off conversations with “Regards, Nakul”. Failure isn’t just a part of Nakul’s life; it is his life. He’s a son who’s fluent in disappointing his parents, an incompetent writer counting out his days in unemployment, a rejected lover, and an outcast who claims to not have had one single good day in his life.
“My life story is so poor that it feels like I’ve written it myself,”
When Afsos, directed by Anubhuti Kashyap, begins, Nakul is convinced that he has nothing to live for. He is on his 11th suicide attempt – resting his head on the railway tracks, diligently waiting for an approaching train to end it all. Just when it seems like afterlife might be within his reach, he is rescued in the most unlikely circumstances. That’s the other thing: Nakul also sucks at dying, somehow coming out alive after every suicide attempt, that includes crossing a busy road blindfolded. There’s a clever scene in which his attempt at drowning results in the accidental death of a fisherman who jumps in to save his life, that is a rewarding punchline on its own. But it becomes especially satisfying when the writers (the show is co-written by Dasgupta, Chatterjee, and Sourav Ghosh) also mine it to reveal how easily death can become a joke when class hierarchies are thrown into the mix.
Then there’s the inherent hilarity of a startup called Emergency Exit – operated out of a minivan – offering a range of packages to anyone looking to end their life: You could be pushed off a cliff or be shot at a preferred body part. It’s run by Maria (Ratnabali Chatterjee), a sincere entrepreneur who assures prospective clients about the credibility and success rate of her “service” while balking at the implication that they are essentially murderers. Nakul, irritated by his own incompetence, finds his way to Maria by the end of the first episode. He’s assigned Upadhyay (an excellent Heeba Shah), a highly skilled assassin, who emanates a Bob Biswas nonchalance and cold-bloodedness to the act of killing. Yet, trouble starts when Nakul falls in love with his therapist (Anjali Patil in an inspired casting decision) and decides that he doesn’t want to die anymore. What ensues is a breathless cat-and-mouse chase between a hitman who will go to any lengths for a kill and a man who has found a will to live a few years too late.
It’s the most fun an Indian comedy has had in a while.
This in itself is a joyful premise for an eight-episode series, elevated by sharp writing that doesn’t skimp on either ambition or fun and is gift-wrapped with a glorious lead turn by the in-form Devaiah. The actor plays Nakul – a man who disappoints himself more than the world can disappoint him – with a passivity that makes him endlessly watchable. But what makes Afsos, a supremely original endeavour is how its narrative thrives on a constant element of surprise. It remains a thrilling overreach, even when the newer directions the latter episodes take don’t add up as seamlessly as the initial ones.
There’s also so much more to Afsos than just Nakul and Upadhyay. Soon, they make up just a fraction of the show’s proceedings. In a matter of episodes, Afsos diverts into an immortality angle that rides on the country’s devotion toward godmen and a Russian tourist and scientist scam that borders on the ludicrous. They’re accompanied by a troupe of well-meaning cops who make for easy supporting acts and nosy journalists allergic to fact-checks who boast of the worst depiction of the profession since Sonakshi Sinha’s outing in Noor. (In a show that otherwise boasts of a terrific ensemble, Dhruv Sehgal’s cameo as the magazine editor is a test of patience).
There are times when Afsos feels needlessly stuffed and over-the-top and yet there’s rarely a moment when it isn’t deliciously entertaining. A plot-twist in the penultimate episode for instance, had me marvelling at the narrative pluck. Then there’s the deftness with which the writers employ dry humour to bridge the gap between the show as a social satire and an existential comedy, that has an almost irresistible appeal. A sub-plot about daily wage labourers literally hanging between life and death intersects seamlessly with the lives of people still figuring out whether death could rescue them from the lives they lead. But most of all, the show’s rumination on the business and the privilege of death, that flits between bleakness and irreverence, equips Afsos with a novelty that’s hard to imitate.
In the current eco-system of Indian streaming shows that are distinguishable by how easily they play by safe beats and worn-out tropes, it’s rare to witness creators make a comedy that is informed by its wickedness. It’s even rarer to set that comedy in a homegrown universe that pokes fun at the double standards of middle-class anxieties – death, religion, millennial indecisiveness and existentialism – in a way that is immediately recognisable. Afsos manages to do both. It’s the most fun an Indian comedy series has had in a while. It’s certainly the most fun I’ve had watching an Indian comedy series that understands what it takes to create one.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.