A fortnight ago, a web series called Better Life Foundation debuted on YouTube. A mockumentary with an emphasis on deadpan humour (in the tradition of revered TV shows such as The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Modern Family), it revolves around the everyday workings of a fictional Mumbai NGO. Its first episode, 'Man From Dharavi', has garnered more than 1.2 lakh views since it hit the web.
Better Life Foundation is the creation of Them Boxer Shorts, a comedy collective and YouTube channel run by four Bangalore-based actors and comedians: Naveen Richard, Mani Prasad, Aravind Anil Kumar, and Rahul Hota. With fewer than 11,000 subscribers on YouTube, this is the first time they've attracted more than 1 lakh views for a single video after three years of making sketches and parodies.
The show features Richard as Neil Menon, the NGO's well-intentioned but hilariously clueless co-founder. "We came up with the concept eight months ago — it was one of five show ideas we had, actually," says the curly-haired 25-year-old, whose performance has gotten him much praise on social media. "The idea was to take a boring place and make it interesting."
I'm sitting with three of four of the crew — Richard, Hota, and Prasad — at a coffee-shop in suburban Mumbai. They talk about the praise they've received for the show, as well as the brickbats (they're slightly annoyed by the constant comparisons with The Office and Parks And Recreation — "We went out of our way to make sure the characters and situations are as far away from those as possible," they insist).
The four of them have been friends since their school-going days, when they studied together in Ooty's St George's Laidlaw Memorial School and Junior College. With keen interests in filmmaking and popular culture, the four would write plays for inter-house competitions and, later, sketches for annual school events. They occasionally parted ways for a few years to pursue academics — Richard studied to be a lawyer at Bangalore's Christ College, Hota went to the UK to study economics, and Prasad studied aerospace engineering in Ukraine — but frequently re-grouped to try and work on ideas. "We always knew at the back of our heads that we'd be doing this eventually," says Richard.
They only got around to making their first video, Do The Friendship, because, well, they were sober. "We used to sit on my terrace, get drunk, and make up funny songs," recalls Hota. But in October 2012, because it was Gandhi Jayanti and no liquor was available, they were able to actually finish writing the lyrics and motivate themselves to shoot it.
The idea behind the channel was to do what they thought was funny and sharpen their technical skills. "As far as possible, we never made anything with the idea of it getting lots of views or being big on YouTube," says Richard. "For us, all this is practice for making a film eventually."
The journey began officially with Shady Salesmen, a sketch they uploaded in mid-2013 about two annoying door-to-door salesmen (Richard and Hota) who refuse to leave a customer (Prasad) alone. "We didn't know a lot of things back then," says Richard, cringing visibly while referring to the technical glitches in the video. But then, as luck would have it, his uncle who owned a business dealing with photography equipment offered them access to it for free if they'd make corporate videos for him. By then, three of the four were back in Bangalore and itching to pursue their passion. "We just took it all and taught ourselves how to edit, use a green screen, and use stuff like After Effects [Adobe After Effects, a visual effects application] from online tutorials," says Prasad.
Suddenly, they had a production house, working on corporate videos and events, slogging for weeks to make "a quarter of the rent". This, however, would subsidise the content they'd make for their own channel, whose sketches would combine their love for movies and comic books with an inherently South Indian (especially Bangalorean) sense of humour. "We keep trying different phases: sometimes we go through a bit of a Wes Anderson phase, other times it's Quentin Tarantino," says Prasad. The idea behind the channel was to do what they thought was funny and sharpen their technical skills. "As far as possible, we never made anything with the idea of it getting lots of views or being big on YouTube," says Richard. "For us, all this is practice for making a film eventually."
The crew has made 25-odd videos for their channel, traversing different styles and genres of comedy. Some of their most uproarious sketches include:
Richard and Prasad parody the OTT-ness of hacky corporate emcees in this howlarious 'showreel' video.
Everybody Loves A Stereotype: The Sitcom
A sitcom-style parody, complete with canned laughter, of the inherent mistrust many Indians have of people from different communities.
Moral Police Force
Richard and Prasad play two overenthusiastic custodians of morality in this gut-busting sketch styled as a '70s-themed buddy copy movie (think Starsky And Hutch or the more recent The Nice Guys).
Godman: Dawn Of Godness
For this mock movie trailer, featuring at least one Scott Pilgrim reference, the crew spent 5-6 months learning After Effects to be able to pull off the DIY visual effects, after much trial and error.
Them Boxer Shorts has also done a handful of live performances of sketch comedy as well as music (their parody band is called The Monkey Biscuits, but they might now change it to Them Boxer Shorts to avoid confusion). As seen in Better Life Foundation, whose five-episode first season run is set to end this Friday, they work often with other actor-comedians from the Bangalore and Mumbai circuit. Frequent collaborators include Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kenny Sebastian, Abish Mathew, Utsav Chakraborty, and Kaneez Surka.
Over the past 18 months, the crew has been managed by Only Much Louder, which looks after the careers of a number of stand-up comedians and comedy crews. "They signed us on when we had only 4,000 subscribers, and I think all the other channels they handle have at least a lakh each," says Richard, adding that while working them helped improve their videos' production values and get them more visibility, they continue to do the occasional video by themselves just so they can improve their own technical skills.
Richard and Prasad also recently acted in the stoner sci-fi web-series Star Boyz along with Sebastian, which similarly blends Western pop cultural influences with homegrown Bangalorean humour and has attracted a small but devoted following online. Although the show isn't technically a Them Boxer Shorts production, Richard, who co-wrote the show along with Sebastian, terms it a very satisfying experience. "We worked on it around the same time we were doing Better Life Foundation," he says. "It wouldn't take us too long to come up with an episode. We'd just bounce these crazy ideas back and forth until something would make us laugh our asses off — only then would it make it into the script. It never felt like work."
It has now been six months since they stopped making corporate videos — for good, they hope — and have focussed on making more videos, web series, and working on a series of upcoming live performances. They're mostly happy about how things have panned out.
"Well, we may have to move to Bombay," says Prasad, somewhat gloomily.
"Yeah, we've already been here for a while and it's getting to us," says Hota, in agreement. "The only thing is that work happens much faster here than in Bangalore and all the meetings are here," adds Richard.
Suddenly, none of them look very happy.
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