The latest OTT hit is the The Viral Fever (TVF) show Aspirants, in spite of it being an extended Unacademy advertisement. Sunny Hinduja’s breakout role as Sandeep Bhaiya has particularly captivated viewers. Aspirants follows on the heels of other recent TVF successes, Panchayat and Kota Factory.
One of the reasons for TVF’s appeal is that it is one of the few platforms which consistently produces content which is authentic as well as family-friendly. Apart from a few swear words and occasional allusions to sex, there is not much in TVF shows that would make family audiences uncomfortable. This is especially important given that many viewers have found themselves for an extended period at home during the pandemic. Moreover, the protagonists are ‘ordinary people’ played by indie actors and are more relatable than glamorised Bollywood nepo-kid leads.
However, if you dig deeper, you can see that the ‘ordinary’ protagonists, and consequently the audience(s) sought to be targeted, are mostly privileged savarna engineers. This is unsurprising given that the founder of TVF, Arunabh Kumar, is an IIT graduate.
Most popular TVF shows represent some stage of the average savarna engineer’s life trajectory. In Yeh Meri Family, the parents groom their elder son for a future in engineering; Kota Factory is about the pre-JEE stage, Pitchers is about start-up culture, Panchayat is about using rural service as a stepping-board for IIM preparation. When neither of these career options work, the shows go straight for the pinnacle of Indian middle-class ambitions – the IAS!
In fact, Aspirants is a symbolic reiteration of Kota Factory: Brahmin middle-class man leaves home to prepare for entrance exam, befriends two men with diametrically opposite personalities, falls in love with a girl, and ultimately leaves them behind in pursuit of his ambition. To complete the package, you have a Sandeep Bhaiya filling in the shoes of Jeetu Bhaiya’s Wise Mentor™ role.
However, though TVF scripts are evidently formulaic, they are carefully sanitised of any references to socio-political events and uncritically depict societal status quo as it exists. This makes for perfect escapist viewing, particularly for politically centrist viewers. It also explains why unlike rival Indian OTT content, TVF shows have not been subject to much controversy or calls for censorship/boycott.
This linkage to savarna IIT-ians’ sensibilities is particularly reflected in TVF’s approach towards caste and reservation. The lead character in almost every TVF show for the past five years has been a Brahmin man (Sharma in Aspirants, Tripathi in Panchayat, Pandey in Kota Factory and Sharma in Tripling). The exceptions to the rule have also been savarna (e.g. Guptas in Yeh Meri Family). However, in spite of consistently featuring savarna protagonists, and having created two shows specifically dedicated to India’s most competitive entrance exams, TVF writers have never addressed reservation, save in one scene of Aspirants.
In the Aspirants season finale, our Sharma hero outs his friend Guri as a PWD-quota candidate in public and screams that quota students do not deserve more attempts at clearing UPSC. Ironically, this same Sharma man feels no compunction in attempting UPSC another time himself when the government relaxes limits in 2014. The fact that a Sharma was unable to clear the exam until multiple attempts is not seen as a reflection on his ‘merit’. Nor is his insensitivity and fragile ego perceived as a barrier to becoming an IAS officer. Though he predictably patches up with Guri later, there is no explicit apology or clarification for viewers to the effect that questioning a disabled candidate’s right to attempt the exam is morally incorrect.
This is not the first time a savarna TVF lead has made a tone-deaf comment. In Panchayat, Neena Gupta’s character tells her husband that their sachiv-ji is a suitable groom for their daughter as he belongs to the same caste (Brahmin). This dialogue is never critiqued later. It can be argued that ‘portraying reality’ does not mean supporting it. Further, that scriptwriters should have the creative freedom to choose their characters’ caste (even if it means making a Brahmin man the lead four times in a row).
However, it is these little slip-ups in TVF’s otherwise apolitical veneer that betray a mentality that harks back centuries. We all know that Kota Factory is highly unlikely to take a break from Vaibhav Pandey’s struggles to focus on the casteism and high rate of Dalit student suicides in IIT’s.
TVF’s attitude towards gender diversity is also reflective of the segregation in engineering spaces. The balancing act of having ‘Girliyapa’ as a separate channel for women-centric content carefully masks the fact that mainstream TVF shows rarely feature women in roles beyond the mother, sister or love interest. In the finale episode of Aspirants, the female lead doesn’t even speak. The message conveyed is that women can be strong and smart, but ultimately, they are better off being in their own sphere of things.
But then, how much gender sensitivity can you expect from an organisation which covers up workplace harassment allegations? Kumar, the head of TVF, was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women in 2017. He stepped down as CEO, only to make his way back as a ‘mentor’. TVF has not released any statement on why it has allowed an alleged sexual harasser to remain with the company, whether he was exonerated. I guess Kumar and his team know that the demographic they are appealing to won’t care much for these allegations. After all, none of the Twitteratis praising Aspirants (for which Kumar is officially credited as creator) have brought up the subject of his continued association with TVF.
I was going to conclude by suggesting that it’s high time that TVF stops perpetuating status-quoist stereotypes for the sake of promoting (equally exclusionary) ed-tech platforms – even Dharma Productions is addressing intersectionality now (Geeli Pucchi). But then I realised – if an organisation can’t enforce accountability from its CEO, what hope do audiences have?
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty