When web creators The Viral Fever (TVF) came out with the first episode of their web-series Permanent Roommates a year and a half ago, they had no idea what they were on to. They were, at the time, best known for their sharply written sketches and parodies — not for episodic, long-form, and relatively more serious content.
“At that time, no one had really attempted anything like this, and we didn’t know if people would even be able to watch something like this,” says Biswapati Sarkar, 27, creator of the show. “We thought it would be a 10-day shoot. The episodes were supposed to be six to eight minutes long.”
They couldn’t have anticipated what their efforts would lead to: a widely loved web series with an almost cult-like following. Permanent Roommates is a sitcom about a Mumbai-based couple, Mikesh and Tanya (played by Sumeet Vyas and Nidhi Singh), that decides to live in together before getting married. Since October 2014, when the first episode was uploaded, it has garnered more than 12 million cumulative views, making it one of the most-viewed series on YouTube anywhere in the world. “We were shocked — I don’t think anyone expected we’d get more than half a million views,” says Sarkar.
A month after the final episode of the first season aired online, TVF became the first Indian YouTube channel to cross 1 million subscribers.
On Sunday, they debuted the second season of their flagship show. A few days prior to that, we had dinner with four members from the team behind the show — at the end of a long day of shooting — at a cosy café in suburban Mumbai. This included Sarkar, Singh, Vyas, and this season’s director Deepak Kumar Mishra, a TVF regular who also plays the couple’s hilariously clueless broker Purushottam-ji in the show. “In season 1, the shoot was very simplistic; we never shot on more than two cameras,” he says. “This time, we have used six cameras, which has been very challenging. We’re shooting on better formats — 4K, 2K — and using rawer cameras so that we have the ability to do colour correction.” Sarkar adds: “The show has grown by at least five times technically. Earlier, there used to be a crew of 15-20 people; now, we have close to 50 people on set at any given point.”
The multi-camera set-up used in this season of 'Permanent Roommates'
The first season was all about the comedy of errors that ensues when Mikesh, a likeably goofy data analyst, returns from the US to propose to his long-time girlfriend Tanya, who is more pragmatic and, therefore, unsure of whether she wants to take the plunge. Despite technical niggles and the occasional contrivance, it succeeded in being a fresh and unconventional take on modern relationships in urban India thanks to moments of sharp wit and some astute observations. The idea for the show came to Sarkar from his own long-distance relationship, which lasted from 2012 to 2014. “We had a brand on board and I had the first scene in my head — Mikesh proposing to Tanya,” said Sarkar. “Then Sameer [Saxena, who directed season 1] and I developed the idea further.”
The success of the show has convinced many that web-series are the way forward for clutter-breaking original content in India. TVF followed up a few months later with the wildly successful dramedy Pitchers, about a group of first-time entrepreneurs, a show with a similarly loyal following. Other players in the digital content space have followed suit. In May last year, ScoopWhoop came out with a web-series called Baked. Yash Raj Films, who put out Man’s World and Bang Baaja Baarat recently, plan to put out plenty of digital content this year; ditto for Eros Now, which has at least three new web-only shows in the pipeline. Hotstar got in the game with the news comedy show On Air With AIB a few months ago, while a brand new player like Dice Media is making its presence felt with the episodic mockumentary Not Fit. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
However, as pioneers of the web series format in India (they’re the first ones to pull it off successfully, at any rate), the team behind Permanent Roommates admits that the pressure to up the ante for the second season has been enormous. “Aside from the expectations of viewers, our aim was also to make this better than Pitchers in every department,” says Mishra. Sarkar adds: “This is also the first time anything we’ve done has had a second season, so the challenge was to keep the story fresh and engaging.” Writing the show, he admits, has been giving him sleepless nights for the past couple of months.
The team of 'Permanent Roommates' in the midst of a script-reading session
Vyas and Singh, who have been dubbed the “Indian Internet’s favourite couple” by fans of the show, also feel the weight of expectations. Both of them admit that the show has led to an onslaught of Facebook friend requests and fan mail that ranges from ‘complimentary’ to ‘nasty’, and sometimes ‘creepy’. “Sometimes, I get angry messages like ‘You don’t deserve a guy like him!’ — mostly from women,” says 29-year-old Singh, who has acted in a number of TVF’s sketches. “But yes, most of them are really sweet and flattering, although the direct messages on my Instagram can get quite creepy and I have to tell myself to stop checking them.”
Vyas, 32, who has appeared in movies such as English Vinglish (2012) and Kajarya (2015), tends to get friendlier fan mail. “I tend to get a lot of messages from people saying how much they love him and others asking why he is so dumb,” he says. “But to me, Mikesh is naïve and idealistic, yes, but definitely not dumb. He just doesn’t seem to have a filter.”
Viewers seem to be enamoured by the on-screen couple’s relationship, whose running theme involves Mikesh trying (and usually failing) to please an often-exasperated Tanya. “A friend of mine went ‘Yaar, tum please Mikesh ko mat chhodna [please don’t leave Mikesh]’ when I told her that we were doing a second season,” says Singh, with a laugh. Mishra adds: “I honestly don’t get that because, for us, Tanya is a strong-minded and independent girl who, at times, is easier to relate to [than Mikesh]. She might feel like a negative character in comparison, but the way Nidhi has pulled it off, I think, she feels quite real.”
(From left) Darshan Jariwala, Asrani, and Sheeba Chaddha in 'Permanent Roommates' S02E01
The new season will have eight episodes, each of 30-40 minutes length, that will be uploaded every fortnight on TVFPlay, their website and app. Aside from superior technical values, this season features several well-known film and stage actors. In the first episode, veterans Darshan Jariwala, Sheeba Chaddha, and Asrani were introduced as Mikesh’s father, mother, and grandfather respectively. There are more to come, promise the show’s makers. “I think this time around, we’ve been a lot braver with everything from characterisation to certain things we’ve tackled, script-wise,” says Sarkar. “And although there are many silly things happening, I’d say this season is a lot more mature because it’s less about them fighting with each other and more them fighting against the world.”
Ultimately, the appeal of Permanent Roommates seems to come down to its tendency to deviate from the more formulaic depictions of urban relationships in popular culture. As Vyas puts it: “Bisso’s [Sarkar’s] writing reminds me of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s movies, where the humour was in the small, everyday things. You know, relationship issues don’t always have to be about infidelity or hatred or violence… sometimes it’s the little things, jaise doodh phat gaya, or someone left the bathroom door open — these are the things that most couples actually fight about. And I think somewhere along the line, movies and TV shows have missed out on capturing that.”
You can watch Permanent Roommates S02E01 here.
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