Hasmukh web series Review: Vir Das shoulders a killer premise that doesn't quite go for the kill
Deliciously wacky at times, unimaginative at others, Hasmukh is kept afloat by the inspired performances
Last year, in Joaquin Phoenix-Todd Phillips' Joker, we saw what lack of laughs from the audience, derision from peers, and general apathy from society can do to a stand-up comedian. This year, we have Hasmukh Suvadi (Vir Das is a revelation here), the long-lost Indian cousin of Arthur Fleck, fighting betrayals, injustice, and social ills as he tries his best to put a smile on everyone's faces — without a knife... for the most part.
Cast: Vir Das, Ranvir Shorey, Amrita Bagchi, Ravi Kishan
Director: Nikhil Gonzalves
Set in small-town Saharanpur, Hasmukh is about a stand-up comic with performance anxiety. Just like Sachin Tendulkar wearing his left pad first, and how Gulati, Hasmukh's mentor, has to eat fresh and hot pakoras, Hasmukh too needs a "feel" before his performance. He needs adrenaline. He needs that fear of putting everything at stake. He needs that trepidation of not knowing when the curtains would fall on his performance. And that feel-inducer is — murdering people. Thus is born a smiling assassin from a non-descript town in Uttar Pradesh. Bob Biswas would be proud.
Every stand-up performance of Hasmukh's is preceded by a literally killer opening act. He is aided and abetted in this spree by his manager, Jimmy The Maker (Ranvir Shorey) who does the job of dealing with the dead bodies. While Hasmukh finding his “feel-inducer” victim with alarming convenience can be sidestepped, the not-so-inspired writing choice of portraying him as less of a serial killer and more of a vigilante cannot. One might argue that finding logic in such an inspired one-liner is detrimental, but just like every liberty, creative liberty too comes with certain baggage. And this baggage becomes heavier when the setting of Hasmukh shifts from Saharanpur to Mumbai.
As long as the episodes are centred in the incestuous town where everyone knows everyone, Hasmukh is only one slight misstep away from being caught. The victims are known to Hasmukh. The investigating officer (a hilarious Inaamulhaq) is close to Hasmukh. More importantly, Hasmukh is genuinely cornered and the fear gives rise to some edge-of-the-seat thrills. The writing in Hasmukh is strongest when rooted. However, this tension fizzles away when one of Hasmukh’s stand-up routines goes viral and he reaches Mumbai to participate in the comedy reality show, Comedy Baadshaaho (a hat-tip to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy?).
Unlike the seemingly one-note characters in Mumbai, the ones in Saharanpur, even if they are there just for a couple of episodes, feel more rounded. The city characters like the perverted owner of the TV channel (Ravi Kishan), the ambitious showrunner Promila (Amrita Bagchi), the sly Ajinkya (Shantanu Ghatak), and one of the red herrings, Jameel Indori (Raza Murad) seem like cardboard characters. The writers have added subtle touches to these roles to make them interesting. However, not all the conflicts milked out of them work in favour of the show. What they do is give space for Vir Das to showcase his histrionic abilities and he comes up trumps mostly.
One of the pioneers of stand-up comedy in India, Vir Das has a ball playing the conflicted Hasmukh. While it is no surprise seeing him ace the stand-up routines, it is the weird sense of detachment he brings to the table that is very exciting. These routines are an eclectic mix of misogyny (intentional satire), preachy, and of course, against you-know-who. Most of the punches land and a crescendo of sorts is reached in the season finale where Hasmukh and his archrival on the show, KK (an impressive Suhail Nayyar), lock it out in a roast battle of sorts with a satisfying cliffhanger.
Towards the end of Joker, when we saw Arthur Fleck turning into the Clown Prince of Crime, there was a sense of empathy. We believed that if life had dealt Fleck a better card, he wouldn’t have picked the Joker. However, when Hasmukh mopes around half the time and has a remorseful outburst about his serial-killing acts, it elicits a dramatic eye-roll and no empathy.
The performances, fortunately, ensure that even when there is no empathy, there is always curiosity. That is why, when we see Hasmukh, cornered once-again, sporting a wry smile towards the end, it feels like he deserves a second season. Some of the jokes and secondary plot points might be as dead as his victims, but Vir Das' Hasmukh has done the crowd work to keep us thoroughly invested.