Sometime in the mid-2010s, Indian comedians started getting offers to create their own full-fledged scripted TV shows, often but not exclusively for OTT platforms. Amazon Prime Video led the way, offering multi-release deals to a slew of up-and-coming comics. Regardless of the overall quality of these shows, one could instantly tell whether the comedian in question was going to be a natural-born star. Zakir Khan in Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare or Sumukhi Suresh in Pushpavalli? Gifted actors from the get-go. Varun Thakur in Shaitan Haveli? Okay, he still needs to work on it some more.
It’s safe to say that Bhuvan Bam, of BB Ki Vines fame, numbers among the bonafide naturals. After creating and starring in 2021 YouTube series Dhindora, the 28-year-old takes his talents to Disney+ Hotstar with new series Taaza Khabar. Bam has created, produced and starred in the comedy-drama about Vasant (aka Vasu aka Vasya), a Mumbai-based slacker-loser managing a pay-and-pee toilet by day and dreaming of untold riches by night.
One day, Vasu discovers that he has been given a vardaan (boon)—his phone keeps sending him the news headlines hours, often days in advance. After an initial period of hemming and hawing about how to best exploit this ‘insider information’, Vasya and his friends start using this inexplicable gift to get rich, and get rich quickly. It’s a fantastic premise, and the show kicks off on a good footing. Sadly, that promising start is eventually squandered, but Bam does enough here to prove that he’s got real range—all those years playing multiple characters in his videos clearly paid off.
Taaza Khabar desperately wants to be a heavy-hitting morality story, but one with a light touch. It aims to be a cautionary tale about power’s inevitable corruption. What happens when a ‘good’ man gets access to seemingly limitless power and wealth? But after an interesting first two episodes which set up the premise (there are six 30-minute episodes in all), the show’s quality falls off a cliff.
The writing—by Abbas and Hussain Dalal, who also co-wrote Dhindora—is utterly unable to deliver satisfactory character arcs for Vasya or his partners-in-crime, most notably his lover Madhu (Shriya Pilgaonkar), a sex worker who’s the mistress to local blowhard politician Shetty (the excellent JD Chakravarthy, who played the titular role in the classic gangster movie Satya all those years ago). The supporting acts—like veteran TV actor Deven Bhojani who plays kindly neighbourhood uncle Billimoria—are good but they cannot quite tide over the confused writing in the final three episodes. There’s too-convenient plot progression, recycled old tropes, exaggerated suspension of disbelief—a lot of screenwriting cul-de-sacs all at once.
Taaza Khabar desperately wants to be a heavy-hitting morality story, but one with a light touch.
But the biggest problem with Taaza Khabar and its misfiring second half is simply tonal dissonance. The show starts off very much in the ‘contemporary fairy tale’ mode, like, say, the film Shaandar. This is telegraphed, above all, by the way Vasya gets his vardaan in the first place—it’s courtesy a ‘crone’, a stock old-woman character in fairy tales, generally responsible for boons or curses. Vasya helps this cranky old woman who has passed out in the public toilet he manages, and she responds with the vardaan: “Tujhe sab kuch waqt se pehle mile (may you get everything ahead of time)”, which is a cleverly-written boon, in the same way that “may you live in interesting times” is a cleverly-written curse.
But once the vardaan well and truly kicks in—Vasya and his friends take criminally long to realise that betting on cricket is the most prudent way to exploit the gift—the story becomes obsessed with becoming Wolf of Wall Street (or Wadala) for some reason. The fairy tale ethos vanishes and it’s replaced by ostentatiously flashy filmmaking, like showing us stylised ‘makeover’ montages featuring Vasya in increasingly dapper three-piece suits. Now, this might suit the show’s star from a ‘highlights reel’ point of view, but it does not suit the story at all, despite some fun use of retro-Bollywood-styled music. The evolution feels unearned in a way that has nothing to do with the plot-crutch of a magical phone.
I would have loved to see smaller, more character-driven episodes that show us how Madhu, Billimoria et al are affected by greed, avarice and one-upmanship—all of the things we see Vasya suddenly afflicted with, now that he has money. I would also have loved to see how Vasya looks at his former neighbours, his chawl and so on. The final moments of the last episode do see him returning to his old workplace, though all-too-briefly. But we get none of these character studies and far too much of Vasya’s newfound ruthlessness showcased in super-slick montages set to ‘heist music’.
Bam will almost certainly receive vastly superior scripts, and soon. His previous web series Dhindora felt like a natural extension of the BB Ki Vines videos. Here, he pushes himself into genuine dramatic territory and comes through with flying colours—it’s just sad that the writing and Himank Gaur’s direction can’t keep up with its high-flying star.