TVF Aspirants review: Naveen Kasturia show seamlessly ties India's pathos to the make-or-break drill of UPSC

TVF Aspirants underlines the UPSC as the die-hard leap at escaping the brittleness of a country by hanging onto that rare twig of solidity it offers.

Manik Sharma May 08, 2021 17:29:45 IST
TVF Aspirants review: Naveen Kasturia show seamlessly ties India's pathos to the make-or-break drill of UPSC

Naveen Kasturia in TVF Aspirants. YouTube screengrab

Language: Hindi

In TVF Aspirants’ third episode titled ‘Positive Approach Rakh Yaar’ Abhilash played with affable naivety by Naveen Kasturia rants about the hopelessness of living in India. “Actually koi khush hai iss desh mein, aap batao mujhe?” he rhetorically asks his landlord who tries to jovially counter him by reiterating India’s spiritual (think hippie) contribution to the world order.

It is one of the many telling scenes in the five-episode series that dissects India along its spine, the one that bends to its overwhelming odds and the one that attempts to defy every statistic that makes happiness more of anomaly than the norm. As far as normative interpretations go, TVF’s Aspirants is about three UPSC aspirants whose personal lives become intertwined through their struggles and failures. But underneath the thickness of these broad strokes, the show unearths an intimate image of aspiration in India, where the cynicism of a cloud yearns to meet the hopefulness of a streak of light, over and above people who rarely look up.

Aspirants, you could say, is a sort of encore to TVF’s previous classic Kota Factory, a more mature and therefore urgent update on the amateurish charm of the former. Certain tropes remain the same. Three friends, each with a common goal but crucially, each with a vastly different personality from the other form the core. It balances the scales of both ambition and realism. To TVF’s credit, it also keeps diversity upfront, a bedrock of India’s examination cycles.

Unlike Kota Factory, Aspirants is more poignant, layered with the frustrations of adulthood and the idea that age alone stretches the pain of failure, making it that much more contemptible as a public good.

The young can still be shielded, but the grown-ups must face the consequences of their choices. Aspirants is set in Rajendra Nagar, the Delhi area popular for providing the best in UPSC training. Abhilash is joined by Guri (Shivankit Singh Parihar) and SK (Abhilash Thapliyal) as the three try to crack the country’s most coveted exam. Guri is the slick outspoken jaat, amiably countered by SK, the grounded, Hindi-bred romantic eerily similar to Meena from Kota Factory. But that is where the resemblance ends.

The show runs along two different timelines six years apart, successfully threading ambiguity and suspense through the season. Through the strain of the present, we piece together the rifts of history, the three friends, and why they drifted apart. The writing is smooth enough to never let the theme of friendship estrange the objectivity of the larger journey that brought the three together – UPSC.

The bleakness of Aspirants is a first in TVF’s journey so far, and all the more admirable considering a coaching institution (Unacademy) is the chief sponsor for the series. The fact that the writers embrace the grimness of the UPSC lifecycle, and the toll it takes on lives, contrasts well with Kota Factory’s relative sleight of hand. Failure at qualifying for IIT, after all, can still be redeemed by youth. UPSC, on the other hand, is last chance salon for most, a die-hard leap at escaping the brittleness of a country by hanging on to that rare twig of solidity it offers. To a country that has not learned the concept of etiquette and respect, it is natural to obsess over a construct that offers the shortest possible route to some. That is what UPSC is to most people in this country, a socio-political get-out-of-jail card that, at least on paper, frees them of India’s oppressive DNA.

Perhaps every child born to middle-class or lower families in India is, at some point, urged to take the UPSC examination. It is more than just a job, it is a shot at dignity to most people who desire not just the stimulus of money but also the upshot of social ascension. The hierarchies of caste and class have elevated the exam into more than just a hurdle to get to a government job. In Aspirants, this notion is perfectly embodied by the character of Sandeep, played charmingly by Sunny Hinduja. Sandeep reflects an entire nation’s anxiety to better its future, unclip on an individual level, from the rest of the sinking mass. UPSC, the show tells us, is just one of the many ways that people set out to achieve this goal, only some do it by staying put. 

The performances in TVF’s Aspirants are all top-notch, with Kasturia, the criminally underrated actor, taking the cake. His slanting face, poise, and nervous energy lend Abhilash a vulnerability that makes us root for him despite his present bitter self. His relationship with his noisy landlord is a reassuringly human touch, and manifests in the show’s most emotional scenes.

In terms of premise and structure, Aspirants resembles the three-legged centre of Kota Factory and the world-weary bleakness of Amazon Prime Video India Original show Lakhon Mein Ek. Where it sets itself apart is in its ability to seamlessly tie a country’s pathos to the aspirational journey of a handful of friends. 

TVF Aspirants is streaming on the YouTube channel of The Viral Fever.

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