The fifth episode of The Viral Fever’s new web series, Pitchers, hit the web late on Sunday evening, putting an end to the misery experienced by fans of the show as they waited eagerly to see how the first season would end.
The second such web-series by TVF, who also made Permanent Roommates last year, it would be safe to say that Pitchers has made some sort of an impact — I’ve heard people use the phrase ‘Tu beer hai’ (from a memorable monologue in the pilot episode) too many times in the past two months for it to be a coincidence.
Perhaps a show like this could only have been made by a company run by a bunch of ex-IITians. In TVF, this includes founder Arunabh Kumar — who conceptualised and developed the show aside from acting as the hot-headed, douchey Yogendra Kumar Pandey — as well as series director Amit Golani and writer Biswapati Sarkar. This team has proven its mettle over the past five years with sharply written and often-brilliantly-acted satirical YouTube videos (such as this one and this one).
Their talents come together admirably in Pitchers, a show that looks at the lives and fortunes of four budding entrepreneurs — CEO Naveen (Naveen Kasturia), coder Jitu (Jitendra Kumar), marketing man Saurabh Mandal (Abhay Mahajan), and Yogendra Pandey aka Yogi. Over the course of five episodes, each approximately 40 minutes long (barring the finale, which clocks in at 56 minutes), we are thrust into an engaging story of four twenty-somethings in Mumbai who are navigating the start-up world for the first time ever.
(From left) Jitendra Kumar, Arunabh Kumar, Abhay Mahajan, Maanvi Gagroo, and Naveen Kasturia in a still from 'Pitchers'
Comparisons with HBO’s hit sitcom Silicon Valley — a hugely popular show that isn’t actually aired in India — are obvious and inevitable, but are they warranted? During an interview with HuffPost India in June, Kumar had claimed that the show was conceptualised much before Silicon Valley even began airing and that many of them hadn’t even watched it until Pitchers had been more or less written. Yet, those who have watched the HBO series co-created by Mike Judge will spot a few similarities: a sub-plot about plagiarism, a chronic entrepreneur who is now heading his eighth start-up (played hilariously well by Gopal Datt), a loaded choice between going for a buy-out and finding a legitimate investor.
The similarities, however, come across as organic elements that are likely to come by on any such journey rather than blatantly copy-pasted situations that seem forced. Meanwhile, Pitchers has enough that’s entirely different going for it. For instance, it subverts Silicon Valley’s ‘nerds don’t get laid’ cliché by showing two of its characters, Naveen and Jitu, in a relationship and an arranged marriage respectively. The settings, the characters, the situations coalesce satisfyingly into a believable portrayal of urban Indian lives.
The first five episodes take us through different aspects of these characters' lives. We’re shown how Naveen’s plucky idealism leads to not only the creation of his start-up, but also the degradation of his personal life. We see how Yogi, an immature bully (not entirely dissimilar to Erlich Bachman from Silicon Valley) who routinely terrorises the naïve-but-likeable Mandal, comes quite close to introspection. And we see how the reticent, brilliant Jitu comes to terms with being in an arranged marriage as well as the pressures of being the ideal son.
Jitendra Kumar in a still from 'Pitchers'
Sarkar’s writing and Golani’s direction are at their sharpest when it comes to the little, understated details: the way Jitu marks his cigarettes with the days of the week, the knowing glances exchanged between Naveen and his girlfriend Shreya (Maanvi Gagroo), the way a would-be investor named Gary (the brilliant Rajesh Sharma) spins his car keys around his index finger while giving the boys a Mahabharata analogy.
On other occasions, Pitchers falters when it attempts to blend realism with zany, almost surrealistic elements that feel completely out of sync with the world they’re attempting to create. Exhibit A: two comic-dystopian sequences set at an IIT-Bombay hostel that attempt to portray a young coding genius as a skinny, geeky kingpin, an interesting idea that feels more like a stand-alone YouTube sketch than a part of this show. Exhibit B: a mysterious associate of Yogi’s named ‘Chacha’, an old man who insists on wearing sunglasses all the time, whose minor inclusions (ostensibly for the purpose of humour) don’t work at all and actually detract from the show’s credibility. Exhibit C: two women entrepreneurs discussing gender discrimination at a conference, which comes across as a pointlessly crude depiction of ‘feminazi’ paranoia more than an actual comment on sexism in the start-up world.
(From left) Naveen Kasturia and Arunabh Kumar in a still from 'Pitchers'
There are also some larger things that are also problematic. Their decision to not reveal Naveen’s supposedly brilliant start-up idea even at the end of the season is one thing, but how is it that we’ve seen the guys attend a make-or-break start-up conference and not even heard their firm’s name? Also, for a show about the tech sector developed by a bunch of engineers, the near-complete lack of technical jargon is jarring and, frankly, inexplicable — the most 'techie' term I could remember from the show at the time of writing this was ‘compilation error’. This makes it harder to buy the fact that these guys are tech experts.
Meanwhile, despite its supposed Rs 50-lakh-per-episode budget, there are niggles of the kind you’d expect from a YouTube video. The sound design is occasionally patchy, the original score (composed by Vaibhav Bundhoo, also the show’s cinematographer) is appropriate but somewhat under-produced, the product placements are unsubtle, and the show just doesn’t look as polished as it should.
However, despite all these shortcomings, it is impossible to deny that Pitchers is highly addictive viewing, with its fantastic ensemble doing a job that would put quite a few so-called industry veterans to shame. Kasturia and Gagroo, both complete naturals, display the kind of chemistry real-life couples would be envious of (props to Sarkar for some great characterisation here). It’s the kind of romantic track that comes across as more honest and believable than any from the urban rom-coms (read: Imran Khan starrers) Bollywood has produced in recent years.
Arunabh plays the foul-mouthed Yogi with appropriate bluster even as he sportingly fends off the hair-loss jokes. Mahajan, a Marathi stage actor, is note-perfect as the man-child Mandal, elevating a character that might have stayed a caricature in the hands of someone less capable.
The show’s best performance comes from Jitendra. A regular in TVF’s videos, he has this tendency to rope you back into the show by simply staying anchored to his character, even if the moment seems false or silly.
Pitchers is an important step forward for web-based content in India. Even if it’s imperfect, it succeeds in getting enough things right to be able to set some sort of a benchmark. Go get yourselves a few beers, guys. You've earned it.