Being from the older generation I am quite new to web series. I never watched web series despite them flooding the entertainment industry from 2018. I always liked the traditional movie format of storytelling. However, the web series is nothing new. It is old wine in a new bottle. Earlier there used to be television serials that converted from weekly to daily. While televising serials the audience used to wait for what will happen to the story next week or the next day. That is how in India serials began. But there is a difference between those serials and the current web series. The lack of censorship by local government and availability of the series 24 hours X 365 days on the Web make it an appealing pattern of storytelling with a wide reach. With merely Rs 199 a month and a high-speed internet web series give you a taste of the entertainment world.
Some day or the other The Government of India will impose restrictions and censorship on the OTT platform for sure. Before that let me summarise a few web series and how they have changed the storytelling and how they cater to the vast and diverse Indian audience.
Made in Heaven: This web series on Amazon by Zoya Akhtar’s group has made a fresh take on the Indian marriage system. It dealt with the cause of homosexuality with sensitivity and displayed the flaws in the arranged marriage system. The problems of dowry, inter-caste marriage, marriage at old age and lack of faith and loyalty in the upper class- everything was made with finesse. Arjun Mathur the homosexual man in this web series received an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in 2020. The tenderness between this gay man and Shobhita Dhulipala, the gorgeous central female character made me touched. I particularly liked when she brought all her jewellery to rescue their business and the tight hug she gave to Arjun, in the end, put my trust back in man-woman friendship without an iota of romantic love.
Delhi Crime: Based on the infamous Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 that shook the country, this web series already received an Emmy award in 2020 thus fetching India world-class fame. I am a big fan of Shefali Shah who spearheaded the team to nab the criminals. Her laughs and cries, her relationship with male subordinates, her angst, her relation with her own daughter in the aftermath of this ghastly crime against women were touching. The entire show belonged to her. This also showed despite violent crimes against women, a woman is only leading the police to catch the criminals which bring complete trust in the system we belong to. Rasika Dugal and Rajesh Tailang acted brilliantly.
4 more shots (1 &2): This is a female-centric series but as a man, I liked the spunk and candour of the 4 female characters. The city of Mumbai became a character in the series, pubs and restaurants of Mumbai in full glory were displayed. The characters frequently meet at the bar and vent out their anxiety to the sexiest bartender Prateik Babbar. This show is an answer to The Sex and The City. Mumbai is the correct choice of locale given the city is the safest in India for women. The series has a high liking among the younger generation I have been told. Casual sex, speed dating, lesbianism and the trials and tribulations of modern-day Indian liberated women have been shown with candidness.
Patal Lok: The exploration of the dark underbelly of our glitzy Capital city is complete in this series. The pomp and circumstances of the Rich and Powerful, the coexistence of crime and violence in the hapless lower class, the aspirations and lack thereof in the frustrated lower middle class – everything displayed with great details. Neeraj Kabi, Jaydeep Ahlawat (Hathi Singh) and Abhisek Banerjee ( hathora Tyagi) stole the show. Full of north Indian expletives and a sex scene with the female reciting a Tagore poem pours out the cultural depravity in the shadow of the partying high life of Delhi.
Mirzapur (1&2): Full of choicest Hindi expletives, the bloodbath and gore of crime and violence in small-town UP is a wake-up call for our Censor board. Thanks to the lack of censorship this show could go on in the big world wide web. Mistrust and disrespect in the crime world of Kaleen bhaiya and Munna , sexual promiscuity and incest in family reminded me of the Shakespearean drama of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. Pankaj Tripathi achieved stardom, memes are making rounds based on his dialogues and mannerisms. The nation wants to know who is the father of Beena bhavi’s son. Hope they give us the answer in Season 3.
Criminal Justice (1&2): This is another premise whose story has been untold. Criminal Justice 1 shows the deplorable condition of Indian prisons focusing on male inmates. Languishing in jail without a proper trial and its horrid living quarters infested with mafia and homosexuals is not something new. Madhur Bhandarkar explored this in Jail in 2009 but I was enthralled by Madhav Mishra ( Pankaj Tripathi was spectacular) and Vikrant Massey. Jackie Shroff’s comeback proved old is gold and Anupriya Goenka was a surprise find. Her acting skills along with the underdog Pankaj Tripathi is something to look for. Mita Vashist is in her best. I cringed at her on-screen villainy. Criminal Justice 2 documented marital rape maybe for the first time in Indian films. It’s a taboo; however marital rape does happen regularly behind closed doors in a male-dominated family. We simply turn our gaze from it or just try to ignore it as if it never happens. But Kirty Kulhary, as a victim of marital rape acted out the shame and guilt so perfectly that for a moment we thought it is a lost case. Then comes Madhav Mishra, her newlywed woke wife and Anupriya Goenka of course to her rescue. The female police officer played a marvellous role by becoming empowered in the end. The courtroom drama of the last episode pulled out the cinematic best of Kirty Kulhary and Mita Vashist, the otherwise villainous lawyer melted in the court. If Criminal Justice 1 was about Pankaj Tripathi and Vikrant Massey then Criminal Justice 2 belonged to Kirty Kulhary. Her stony silence, emotional attachment to her children and the moments of grief, guilt and victimhood played chiaroscuro on her face. Oh what brilliance!!
Abhay (1 &2): Never before have I seen this kind of bloody and gory crime scenes in Indian films. This is a comeback for Kunal Khemu who dazzled as a bright and thinking police officer. The crime scenes are said to be stories coming out from UP Police files and sometimes it is sickening to digest those murders and murderers. Anupriya Goenka in a brief role just sizzled and Chunky Panday had a nice comeback. Ram Kapoor’s role though flawed was remarkable. I thought Ken Ghosh, the director of this series, was a cute music video maker but my idea of his directorial acument totally changed after I waited for the sequel. An absolutely brilliant whodunnit, never before been seen in Bollywood.
Test case: This web series breaks another taboo in India. It is about making India’s first female commando. Nimrat Kaur of The Lunchbox fame did a kickass role. This story is about grit and determination. Despite being raped by her male colleague she kept her chin up and finished the tough course and became a commando. This series is a testimony that women of this country are breaking glass ceilings now.
Code M: This started as an open and shut case of investigation of a soldier getting killed in an ambush but slowly the audience gets to know the hidden blemish of the Indian caste system – honour killing. A colonel orders the killing of a low caste soldier with whom his daughter decide to marry. Honour killing happens in India but people try to brush it aside. Also, the theme of homosexuality among soldiers was boldly dealt with here. Jennifer Winget, the military lawyer stole my heart by brilliant acting.
Out of Love: Set in a quaint town of Coonoor in South India, this is a tale of age-old extramarital affairs and ramifications thereof. Beginning in a drab environment the heat and passion come out later and the best part is the lady whose marriage is tormented by an unfaithful husband decides to file separation which sometimes is not the case in India. Rasika Dugal played brilliantly the sulking angry hurt wife and Purab Kohli added that fulfilled flamboyance in his rugged look.
She: From the famous filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, this is a surprise package. Of late Imtiaz Ali’s formula films are failing at the box office. However, this series is a fresh experimentation on sexuality and its power. An ordinary Marathi lady police officer who is separated is known to be a frigid woman. However, on a covert mission to nab a criminal the dolled-up version of her feels aroused for the first time. There begins a complicated relationship with the criminal who wants to finish the unfinished job started with him. In the end, the police officer breaches her call of duty and joins the gangster because her sexual needs find fulfilment on the other side of the law. An amazing acting by Aditi Pohankar whose transformation from the demure frigid woman to the raunchy sexy one is palpable. Indian movie scenes generally don’t handle such boldness regarding sex. Particularly female sexuality, women’s needs and control of their body is a taboo in the Indian film industry.
City of Dreams: This is the first web series I watched in 2019 and I was bowled over by Priya Bapat and Atul Kulkarni, in a powerplay of a political family set in Maharashtra. An absolutely dazzling storyline by famed Nagesh Kukunoor, this series acts out the internal conspiracies for the ascension of power. Also, it deals with the neglect women are shown when it comes to gaining the throne. Aptly named City of Dreams set in Mumbai, the actual city of dreams in India where thousands reach every year in search of hope and living.
Lust Stories: This is another gem from Netflix where 4 independent stories deal with female sexuality, sex for the aged and the power sex infiltrates in a landlord housemaid relation. I particularly liked the story on the housemaid and the bachelor landlord who have sex quite often yet when the news of the bachelor landlord getting married is disclosed the maid walks away coolly to her regular life of drudgery. This short film has signs of European film making and its subtle sensitivity in handling man-woman relationships.
I can go on and on. There are many more. But these are prominent examples of game-changing scenarios in the Indian entertainment industry. Critics and opponents object to filthy language, the depravity of Sanskar and the violent nature of crime shown. However in my opinion due to lack of censorship these web series at least could portray the scathing reality of contemporary Indian society. We have brushed the issues of homosexuality, rape and violence under the carpet for long. Corruption, crime against women, dowry, Khap Panchayat has always been there with rearing its ugly heads in the media from time to time. We don’t like talking about these, but today web series like Delhi Crime and Made in Heaven are showing us the mirror. That’s the biggest achievement of them. For the first time, Indian films are experimenting with reality and issues of female sexuality, marital rape, honour killing are getting openly shown.
These series are concentrated in India. And there are many actors and actresses who achieved fame from these series. For example Rajesh Tailang ( Delhi Crime, Mirzapur), Shobhita Dhulipala ( Made in Heaven), Arjun Mathur ( Made in Heaven), Pankaj Tripathi and Divyendu Sharma ( Mirzapur 1&2), Manvi Ghagroo (4 more shots), Kirty Kulhary (4 more shots, Criminal Justice2), Rasika Dugal ( Mirzapur 1&2, Delhi Crime, Out of Love) and Shweta Tripathi (Mirzapur 1&2). So much so they are recalled by their character’s name. We immediately identify Kaleen Bhaiya, Beena bhabi, Golu Gupta and Munna with Mirzapur. We recall Hathora Tyagi with horror from Patal Lok. So these are not so well known faces in Indian films who suddenly got awashed with overnight fame, that is a positive side of these web series. Moreover, Delhi Crime and Made in Heaven got selected by Emmy awards which bring our talent international recognition, we are not lagging in terms of world-class storytelling.
In the end, whatever the critics may say, I believe that web series is here to stay. Covid scare has changed the entertainment business totally making it dependent on online viewership. No longer will you queue up in the cinema and theatre. For years to come, it can be safely predicted all of us will prefer the safety and sanctity of our homes to enjoy films and movies. However you may wish away Amazon, Netflix, Disney Hotstar and their likes are here to stay and grow at an unmatchable speed. And web series will rule the roost.