The comfort of comedy: shows that are revisiting the slice-of-life genre

Reacting to crime drama fatigue, makers of shows like 'Gullak', 'Panchayat' and 'Kota Factory' continue to revisit the slice-of-life genre

April 02, 2021 03:22 pm | Updated April 03, 2021 02:29 pm IST

Most OTT successes last year stuck to the script and doled out the standard concoction of crime, drama and suspense. But some surprised viewers by taking a route less travelled — slice-of-life comedy. Take the recent hit Gullak for example — a web series (the second season released earlier this year) that revolves around a caricature of the middle-class Indian family that you very well might bump into on the streets. Simple in treatment and layered in commentary, not only are these shows resurrecting a genre of comedy favoured in the eras gone by, but they are tweaking it to suit modern-day sensibilities. So what is the winning formula? Most shows draw from reruns of old Bollywood and regional cinema hits and place the spotlight on India’s rural heartland. Also, these shows dabble in commentary on topics like masculinity, aspiration and loneliness as well (writer Chandan Kumar sought inspiration from phases of his own stay in Mumbai, for Panchayat ). “If you’re exploring a segment of life, it will be affected by social and political factors; it's very hard to see it in a vacuum,” explains Ankur Pathak, former entertainment editor at HuffPost India , who sees such comedies on OTT as a welcome trend. “ Panchayat is like going to rehab after watching Paatal Lok !”

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Makers have banked on the crime drama fatigue that has now set in after a year in lockdown. In a 2020 piece for Financial Express , Prathyusha Agarwal, chief consumer officer, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, highlighted how the return of comedy was the biggest trend as opposed to predominantly action genre-led performances over the past few years. Rather promising for makers heading towards the same path.

A still from Gullak

A still from Gullak

Making it relatable

While Panchayat follows an engineering graduate who ends up working for the panchayat of a remote village, Kota Factory (season 2 will make its way to Netflix soon) takes viewers behind the scenes of the making of a successful IIT applicant. This is wholesome family viewing without the pressure of sitting through expletive-laden scenes. “People are falling back on things they love. For an average family who is stuck in the same house, they want to watch something together,” says film critic Raja Sen. None of these shows subscribe to elements that are staple to other OTT offerings — gun wielding gangsters, flashy cabarets or gruesome midnight murders. “We can’t change our past, our childhood. And it’s this sense of nostalgia that makes us love talking about it,” says Durgesh Singh, writer of Gullak , about his inspiration while scripting.

Vernacular works
  • As for the regional content.vs. comedy with a purpose debate, Singh says the former works better given hits like Kumbalangi Nights (Malayalam) and Bhooter Bhabishyat in Bengali. “Hindi comedy tends to be a bit more slapstick and in-your-face,” he says. Also getting on the vernacular content bandwagon is streaming platform MX Player where the makers are now looking at putting together a comedy aimed at Haryana’s younger audience.
  • Chief content officer Gautam Talwar feels this is quite different from what’s considered funny in other parts of the country. “Metro humour is very different from heartland humour. We might have a Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro , but what we really laugh at in this country is a Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah ,” he says.

Smaller towns account for a majority of OTT viewership and people increasingly prefer shows in regional languages with a rural backdrop. By setting these shows in small towns the makers aren’t alienating your audience, points out film critic Sucharita Tyagi. “A majority of the viewers don’t live in Mumbai and New Delhi and neither do they go to clubs.”

Drawing from the 80s

Being insightful in content, and modest in treatment isn’t a 2021 phenomenon. A number of these shows today are reminiscent of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Sai Paranjpye and Kundan Shah fair. “Though nothing here has come close to what those filmmakers were doing at the height of their career, it’s a good parallel to draw. They’re taking steps in that direction,” says Sen. Singh, for example, was confident of his humour in Gullak being responsible and meaningful as he had been seeking to replicate comedy of the 1970s-80s, but wasn’t sure whether it would work for the millennials. Incidentally, he has been roped in for the second season of Panchayat as well.

A still from Panchayat

A still from Panchayat

Room for a message

Another facet most writers seem to agree on is the need to serve a purpose through comedy. “India has the same problems that it had even 30 years ago and I wanted to show that,” says Singh. For example, in spite of being set in contemporary times, the household in Gullak doesn’t have a mixer grinder. For him, this was to show how a patriarchal household prefers its women in the house to use a grinder stone for their cooking. Singh hopes this kind of storytelling makes the audience pause and think, like you would if you were to read classic Indian literature. “We haven’t created good listeners, just good orators. This has made us very reactive, and quick to take offence.”

Personal touches
  • Kumar of Panchayat adds that as “there are no murders and bomb blasts in the story”, it needs to be tight on paper. Which is why since they feature middle class characters in small Hindi-speaking towns, writers and makers are increasingly tapping into their own real life experiences.

Future of the funnies

For Singh, the recent spike in realistic comedies has a flip side. “Post Gullak , I’ve got around 10 calls to write a story based out of rural India,” he says. Trend or not, they are aware of the dangers of excess that have eaten into the Hindi heartland crime drama-genre. Referring to Canadian hit Schitt’s Creek , Kumar feels slice-of-life is more of a treatment, rather than a subject in itself. “As long as this kind of content has insights, the trend will remain,” he says.

Kota Factory’s poster

Kota Factory’s poster

For example, Doordarshan-era comedy series Wagle Ki Duniya staged a rerun this year on TV as well as on SonyLIV, albeit with a new cast and in a pandemic setting. Streaming platform ZEE5 is also experimenting. “We have often mixed comedy with other genres to enhance the characters and the narrative, like how we added comedy to romance in Comedy Couple ,” says Manish Kalra, chief business officer. One of the more popular offerings on the platform is the 2020 series Amrutham Dhvitheeyam , the sequel to a cult Telugu comedy series on TV, staging a return after nearly 13 years.

Blast from the past: Raja Sen’s picks
  • Midnight Diner (Netflix)
  • Fresh Off The Boat (Disney+Hotstar)
  • Malgudi Days (Amazon Prime Video)

Commenting on the genre, Saugata Mukherjee, head, original content, SonyLIV, says, “We feel there is a bit of a lacunae there that needs to be filled up.” The platform is looking to experiment with newer formats in the segment, with a focus on fictional shows — their upcoming fictional comedy slated for a May release this year, is helmed by comedians Gursimran Khamba and Amit Tandon. “It’s an ensemble cast including two people who are coming together after many years,” adds Mukherjee.

Blast from the past: Ankur Pathak’s picks
  • Tu Hai Mera Sunday
  • Do Dooni Chaar
  • Choti Si Baat
  • Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

So while these kinds of shows do stand the risk of getting repetitive, experimenting is key. “This year, I hope we see comedies that really take on conventional thinking and say things that are counter-cultural,” says Sen, affirming that the stage seems to be set for makers to further develop this kind of storytelling.

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