The flourishing Indian digital space has burgeoned into a prodigious actuality in recent times. 2018 was a particularly great year for OTT content. It witnessed the release of an impressive assortment of shows that straddled diverse genres and remarkable storylines. Digital audiences were treated to crime chronicles, comic capers, mafia memoirs, erotic escapades, and even a dystopian horror drama thrown in for good measure.
Amidst the triumphant cacophony, however, if there is one genre that is woefully unrepresented in the Indian storytelling space, it is a worth-their-while show for the pubescent Indian adolescent.
Where are the home-grown 13 Reasons Whys, Stranger Things and Sex Educations that the Indian young adult can watch and revel in, with a sense of belonging and relating?
The answer lies with the maverick mastermind content creator who goes by the name of Vikas Gupta. With his many super-successful shows on TV and digital, perfectly geared to arrest the fickle attention of hormonal teens and impulsive adolescents, Vikas can safely be called the doyen of young adult entertainment in India. Vikas has his finger firmly on the pulse of India’s youth, dishing up fare that appeals to their young, developing sensibilities. In that, he’s quite the younger version of Karan Johar, that other individualistic film-maker who knows exactly what content will push the right buttons in the minds of India’s youth. Bitch code, bro code, youth code, whatever code it is, Vikas Gupta has it down to a fine art, and made it his calling card to fame.
Giving Vikas ample support in his endeavours is ALTBalaji, the OTT channel that has very quickly catapulted to the very top of the Indian digital space with its spate of hit, and delightfully diverse, shows. The result of the coming together of the two notables is Puncch Beat, a show designed specifically to cater to the young, hip, high-school crowd of the country.
Puncch Beat, the latest collaboration between Vikas Gupta’s Lost Boy Productions and ALT Balaji, is a 13-episode web series, streaming on ALTBalaji. It is a show that encapsulates everything that being a teenager stands for. It showcases teenaged angst, juvenile insecurities and adolescent rivalries, in gloriously intense technicolour. And as if being a growing teenager in unsympathetic environs isn’t difficult enough, the narrative is interspersed with an over-the-top emotional drama, rife with stress, sorrow and serendipity.
The show is set in a grandiose Dehradun boarding school called Rosewood High. Parents are willing to give an arm and a leg for admission to the élite high school. And as goes with the territory, the school is populated by rich, snooty, spoilt kids, most, if not all, the offspring of snootier parents.
Leader of the pack is Ranbir Chaudhary (Siddharth Sharma) – school Head Boy, reigning school boxing champ and son of Rosewood High principal, Maya Chaudhary (Niki Walia) and ex-Rosewoodian and erstwhile Olympian boxer, Rajbir Chaudhary (Samir Soni).
While Ranbir is the typical spoilt rich kid, he also has a heart of gold – he, along with his band of followers, sponsors the education of three poor orphans, an initiative they’ve imaginatively named the Sunny Leone project- coz the three orphans are called Sunny, Leo and One. Ranbir is dating Padmini (Khushi Joshi), the resident school beauty.
Into this motley mix arrives Rahat Sharma (Priyank Sharma), Maya’s dead bff’s son. Rahat is an angsty youngster, deeply disturbed by the death of his single, unmarried mother and the b*astard label attached to him. He was thrown out of his previous school for bashing up a student, but gets admission in Rosewood High in mid-year, courtesy his association with the principal. Also in mid-year, and on the same day, arrive siblings, Divyanka (Harshita Gaur) and Aditi Tripathi (Sindhuja Turlapati). These two are orphans too, and have gotten into the élite school, courtesy their maasi, Ms Bose (Kasturi Banerjee), who is a teacher in Rosewood High, and their guardian. Ms Bose is a dictatorial, condescending woman, whom the girls love to call Bose di ki.
The first episode establishes that, in addition to its high school drama ethos, the show is about boxing and dancing, hence the name Puncch Beat, get it? Puncch for boxing, and beat for the dancing! Divyanka loves dancing, but Ms Bose is dead against it, for reasons best known to her; the writers haven’t made the reason for her hatred for dance quite clear in the first season. So Divyanka dances clandestinely, much to her maasi’s chagrin.
Rahat is passionate about boxing, and holds Rajbir Chaudhary in high esteem. That is until he discovers that Rajbir is his father and he is his illegitimate son – yes, the series explores every TV trope there is to be explored. The discovery also nixes the nascent friendship between Ranbir and Rahat, and turns them into die-hard foes; or more precisely, turns Ranbir into a raging inferno, hell-bent on destroying Rahat’s fledgling boxing aspirations.
The initial episodes, which showed the bonding of Rahat and Ranbir after an adrenaline-charged Spirit of Brotherhood initiation ritual, are tender, interesting and fun to watch. The jokes and gags are funny, while the heady milieu of hormone-drenched adolescence, coupled with Enid Blyton-esque boarding school environs, is enthralling to watch.
But as the initial light-hearted character of the series gives way to more serious stuff about paternity angsts, sibling loyalties and broken hearts, the peppy high-school-drama feel of the series dissipates into thin air and the story meanders into tedious territory. That however is transitory, and towards the finale, the series picks up tempo again, to culminate into a rousing, though disturbing climax.
The season finale leaves the story hanging at a precarious cliffhanger, and we, like every other viewer out there, hanker for closure. But for that to happen, we’ll have to wait for Season 2 to start airing.
Puncch Beat packs in quite a punch, vis-à-vis the story, dialogues and treatment. The dialogues especially are incandescent and take the series beyond the realm of ordinary. One particular set, when Rajbir tells Rahat in the hospital that his one mistake in life is him, and that he should have flushed his sperm down the toilet instead of siring Rahat, singes your insides with its acrid authenticity and undue harshness. It is an efficacious piece of writing that conveys Rajbir’s inherent meanness in no uncertain terms. All the characters have been etched out superbly, with each possessing a particular charm of its own.
The mounting of the series takes your breath away. It is lavish, larger-than-life and unlike any other home-grown series until now. Rosewood High is magnificent, and the stuff student dreams are made of. The school is imbued with a Harry Potter feel, with the two opposing boxing camps known as Slayers and Oath-takers. There’s even mention of Quidditch somewhere in the proceedings, while the annual inter-school competition is known as Phoenix. Yes, there’s a distinct Potter-esque feel to the series, more in the beginning than towards the end.
Another standout feature of the series is the mesmerizing aerial shots that take the camera work to another level altogether. Director of Photography, Anubhav Bansal, deserves accolades for the terrific work he’s done. The crisp visuals and arresting camera work are nothing short of the level of a Dharma Productions or YRF flick. Take a bow, Anubhav!
Priyank Sharma is stunningly handsome in his brooding, angry-young-man avatar. He’s meagre with words, and lets his expressive eyes do most of the talking. Yet, it’s in the action scenes that he really comes into his own, especially in his fight to the finish with Ranbir’s sidekick, Roy. The senior actors in the show are a dream cast. Niki Walia is superbly understated, and delivers a refined performance, studded with poise and panache. Samir Soni is menacing and mean in his role as the arrogant Rajbir, achieved in part due to Soni’s precise rendition of what is required of him. We hate his guts, albeit, the writer does try to redeem him in the final episode, revealing the driving factor behind his gut-wrenching callousness.
The real revelation, however, is Siddharth Sharma as Ranbir. His is a character that has far more nuances and layers than Rahat’s, and Siddharth makes the most of it. His dream boat persona, the swagger of a boxing champ, and finally, the lost-boy look on discovering that he has to share his family with a step-brother, lend his role an explosive and multi-nuanced appeal, one that he exploits to the hilt. Priyank Sharma fans may hate us for this, but we have to tell it like it is – Siddharth Sharma outshines Priyank in most of the episodes in the series. It is only towards the end, when Ranbir acquires a meaner touch to his character, that Priyank covers lost ground and gains the upper hand.
Harshita Gaur looks fresh-faced and beatific in her role as the naive, dance-loving Divyanka. She’s the epitome of grace, as she dances and emotes her way into our hearts. Khushi Joshi looks divinely beautiful and has put in a great performance that captivates. Kajol Tyagi, who plays Lara, gets her moment in sporadic episodes, but we wanted to see more of her.
The rest of the cast is superb too. Rushad Rana, as coach Rana of the Rosewood High boxing team, is in fine fettle. Sindhuja Turlapati, as Aditi, and Nikhil Bhambri, as Adhish, have given spunky and spirited performances. Suyash Vadhavkar helms directorial duties with a deft hand, while Gibran Noorani and Vikas Gupta have done a terrific job as writers.
Ekta Kapoor needs to be complimented for yet another hit with Puncch Beat. And this is a biggie as it comes from a genre that ALTBalaji has touched upon for the first time.
Puncch Beat is a series with its heart in the right place. It’s great binge-watch material and a worthy contender to stake its claim as a show that hits the sweet spot with youngsters.
IWMBuzz will go with a rating of 3/5 for Puncch Beat.
(Written By Rashmi Paharia)