Although I haven’t travelled via train for seven years now, some memories of Indian trains are hardwired. Like the adventure sports of waking up in time for your 5 am arrival, which was the case whenever I went back to my hometown during college holidays. That ‘ta-DAA’ sound separating consecutive announcements was my personal Pavlovian hell: it wrenched my brain from REM cycle to half-slumber to extreme panic in about two and a half seconds.
Last night, I laughed at that ‘ta-DAA’ for the first time, courtesy of episode 5 of the new SonyLiv sketch comedy show Chalo Koi Baat Nahi, developed by comedians Gursimran Khamba and Amit Tandon, and hosted by actors Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey. Episode 5, Trains features an elaborate, 7-minute sketch performed by Kavita Kaushik (the magnificent comedic actress best known for her lead role in the long-running show FIR) wherein she lays down the idiosyncrasies of Indian Railways—while in character as a persnickety announcer.
It really is bloody good fun watching Kaushik skewering passengers who, say, aren’t above nicking the odd blanket or pillow. “Yeh daag wahi hain, wahin hain jo aap soch rahe hain” (these stains are exactly what you think they are) she warns. Or the seemingly inevitable phenomenon of middle-berth youngsters trampling senior citizens fast asleep on the lower berth while in the process of getting down to pee (“Inhein Mumbai jaana hai, Haridwar nahi”).
Cards on the table: writing-wise, Chalo Koi Baat Nahi isn’t sensational, to be honest. ‘Competent with occasional dashes of novelty’ would be a more accurate assessment. However, the show is elevated by its stellar lineup of ‘character actors’, as the oxymoronic nomenclature goes. Kaushik is hardly alone in that context. The criminally underrated Vibha Chibber (best known for her sparkling cameo as a Meerut judge in Jolly LLB, as well as Assistant Coach Krishnaji in Chak De! India) lights up Episode 1, for instance, playing India’s Environment Minister.
From their VJ double acts in the 90s to movies like Jism, Bheja Fry and Khosla Ka Ghosla, there’s no doubt that Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak have more chemistry than a lot of real-life married couples.
This opening episode, Environment, has quite a few bright spots, actually, including a punchy, surrealist ‘weather woman’ skit performed by Ismeet Kohli, who’s definitely one for the future. Later in the episode, there’s a skit about climate change that presents a daring central conceit—in the world of cricket, Test matches have vanished and fast bowling is extinct because nobody is physically capable of running in and bowling fast for five days in the Indian summer. It’s the kind of seemingly bone-headed comedy that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Moreover, it parodies the ‘BBC Indian documentary’ style quite well, right down to the interview style, the not-so-subtle Orientalism and the inevitable (and cringe-inducing) sitar music right at the beginning. It’s that kind of attention to visual and auditory detail that once again raises the levels of comedy from ‘competent’ to ‘fun’.
Not every episode gets it right, though. The Hospitals episode starts off promisingly, with a prologue skit absolutely aced by Abish Mathew (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him so natural in a non-clownish role) and Kriti Vij (once again, excellent). But it soon devolves into a series of predictable, tired jokes, including one about a doctor performing fellatio that’s… well, let’s just say neither doctors nor patients will be laughing at that one. The Education episode, too, falls flat despite being well-intentioned—the jokes simply don’t land too well there, I’m afraid.
Every time that happens, though, there’s a familiar rescue act to bail out Chalo Koi Baat Nahi. We are, of course, talking about the considerable charm of Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak reunited; surely the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Indian funnies. From their VJ double acts in the 90s to movies like Jism, Bheja Fry and Khosla Ka Ghosla, there’s no doubt that these two have more chemistry than a lot of real-life married couples. And although they’re hilarious as ever, it’s not just satire they’re good at: they are perfectly capable of slipping in the quietly devastating, scene-ending zinger, too.
They can do straight pathos, they can do slapstick, they can do old-fashioned theatre as well. At the end of the first episode, there’s an old-school theatre moment where Pathak and Shorey team up with Suresh Menon to perform what’s basically a ‘nukkad-naatak’ (street play) style poem parodying Amitabh Bachchan’s gooey UP Tourism ads; only the poem is an indictment of Delhi’s air pollution levels. “Aankhon mein aisi jalan jaise dhoyaa ho unhe red chilli mein, kuch din toh guzaariye Dilli mein” (Your eyes burn as though doused in red chili / come on up and spend some time in Dilli).
On the whole, I’d rate Chalo Koi Baat Nahi at a solid, respectable 3 stars out of 5. Perhaps with time, as the writing matures over the next couple of seasons, this could become something special indeed.