Cast: Vir Das, Ranvir Shorey, Suhail Nayyar, Neeraj Pandey, Deeksha Sonalkar and Amrita Bagchi
Director: Nikhil Gonsalves
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of 5)
The idea is a killer: a small-town stand-up comic can’t get his act together unless he commits murder. A local policeman is an avowed fan. He also has a crafty confidant to dress up the crime scene and cover his tracks. What’s there to stop the fumbling funnyman from getting a stranglehold on his career? As the body count rises, the stocks of the stage performer soar while the simple Saharanpur man who has never had it easy in life is wracked by guilt, self-loathing and the fear of being found out. That construct constitutes a fabulously twisted psychological vantage point from which to explore a range of intertwined themes.
Not that Hasmukh, the latest Indian series on Netflix, doesn’t. How much of himself must a comedian skewer in order to reach the top of his game? And how many must die before it is time for him to conclude that enough is enough? In fact, is it worth putting anybody’s life on the line for the art of levity? The show poses these and other existential questions. A few of them have an unmistakable meta-narrative ring.
The 10-episode show has been co-written by lead actor Vir Das, director Nikhil Gonsalves, Suparn Verma, Amogh Ranadive and Neeraj Pandey (not to be confused with the maker of Special 26 and Baby). Two of the above-mentioned – Vir Das and Amogh Ranadive – are stand-up comedians and another (Neeraj Pandey) lends his name to a mistreated writer of gags inHasmukh. This terribly underrated guy gets a raw deal in life, at work, and in death. He dies unsung. Hardly anybody turns up at the condolence meet.
Hasmukh (played by Vir Das, who isn’t new to the Netflix universe) recognises the pitfalls of seeking inspiration in coldblooded murder. Too many lives are being sacrificed for our dreams, he says to his co-conspirator in a moment of introspection.
Alongside the shocking amorality of a man’s manic pursuit of success and popularity, Hasmukh delves into issues pertaining to creativity, originality, the role of the writer, and the ethics of reality television contests that reduce a performing artiste to a race horse.
The promising premise, however, dies a slow death because all that the off-kilter plot eventually yields is a disappointingly tepid crime drama that hovers somewhere between an undercooked genre-bender and a slack police procedural.
At the heart of the plot, besides Hasmukh Sudiya, is Jimmy (Ranvir Shorey), a street-smart, unscrupulous punter who bets on the protagonist’s potential to strike it rich. The two men suppress the call of their conscience and make a pact with the Devil that allows them to pick morally errant targets who they believe deserve to die. A selfish mentor, an abusive uncle, a corrupt politician’s right-hand man, a smarmy lawyer and a violence-prone television actor are all fair game for Hasmukh and Jimmy as they tread an unconventional, chillingly destructive path.
Among other key characters in Hasmukh are a petty-minded rival comedian (Suhail Nayyar), a ganglord (Raza Murad) whose writ runs untrammeled in the movie industry, a wisecracking UP cop (Inaamulhaq), a bunch of bickering television channel employees (Amrita Bagchi, Santanu Ghatak, Deeksha Sonalkar) and a pair of Mumbai Police inspectors (Rahul Pethe and Jaywant Wadkar) who ferret around fecklessly in a bid to nab a criminal who is getting away with murder.
The first murder – it is an involuntary act that leads to the serendipitous discovery that the adrenaline rush triggered by the act of drawing blood rids the eponymous protagonist of stage fright and other forms of diffidence – shocks and surprises with its suddenness. The victim is Gulati (Manoj Pahwa), Hasmukh’s self-absorbed, alcoholic mentor who has no intention of letting the younger comedian emerge from his shadow and open a stand-up act. The killer uses a handy weapon for the kill – a broken liquor bottle.
The killing of his guru transforms Hasmukh from a bumbling, stuttering wreck to a confident peddler of jokes and weaver of words. Although he does not instantly relate to the prospect of turning into a killer as a means to upping his game, he finds a willing accomplice in Jimmy, Gulati’s manager who assumes the responsibility of disposing of the bodies of the men that are killed in the course of Hasmukh’s climb to the top of the stand-up heap.
The dead and gone Gulati, on his part, keeps popping up in the form of a ghost every time Hasmukh takes the stage. The apparition mocks and needles the comedian about his questionable methods. His resolve strengthened, Hasmukh waves away the tormentor every single time and launches into his act with renewed vigour. The formula works wonders.
Unfortunately, Hasmukh does not deliver the quality of gags you would expect from a series that hinges on a stand-up comedian on the way up. Stray jabs at politicians (a few are mentioned by name, most are alluded to only as a deceitful tribe) apart, the writing confines itself to hackneyed, innocuous husband-wife witticisms. You expect a killer punch. It never comes.
A part of the unevenness of the show stems from the erratic nature of the face-off (on a TV contest called Comedy Baadshaho) between Hasmukh and the reigning champion Krushna Kumar (Nayyar). The rivalry exposes the war between two channel functionaries, Promila (Bagchi) and Ajinkya (Ghatak), with the philandering owner Pratap Sinha (Ravi Kishan), whose transgressions make him vulnerable to manipulation by the staff, struggling to hold the balance. The ugly innards of the television industry are exposed in a manner too generic to hit home.
On the acting front, there isn’t much wrong with Hasmukh. Vir Das makes a convincing low-on-confidence protagonist who transforms into a cool and composed purveyor of jokes. India’s leading English-language stand-up comedian makes the transition to Hindi with aplomb. He is a gawky bundle of nerves in one scene, a steely killer in the next, and a sure-footed performer in another.
Ranvir Shorey, a livewire as the eponymous comedian’s garrulous, manipulative manager who helps the man graduate from being a mofussil star to a popular wild card entry on a Mumbai television show, lends solid support. Manoj Pahwa revels in his part as the meddlesome ghost bent upon having the last word well after his time is over.
Hasmukh provides musician-actor Santanu Ghatak, Amrita Bagchi and Deeksha Sonalkar an opportunity to demonstrate their acting chops. They do not blow their lines. Rahul Pethe and Jaywant Wadkar, saddled with half-baked roles, try their best to rise above the limitations.
Laughter and murder go hand in hand in Hasmukh, but neither springs out of the frame strongly enough to leave a lasting impression. Binge-worthy only if your expectations are modest.