Balaji Mohan's As I'm Suffering From Kadhal, a Tamil web series, is a hit among young people. The series is about love and relationships, and so far, 10 episodes have been put up on Hotstar.
While regional TV channels continue selling melodrama and hyperbolic, regressive content, web series like this one are attempting to capture a reality that the urban young identify with but is almost never represented in the mainstream - single parenting, flings, live-in relationships, the struggle to make it in unconventional professions and so on.
The director of the web series is Balaji Mohan, whose debut film Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi redefined the romcom genre in Tamil cinema. Balaji has also acted in the series, essaying the role of a man whose marriage is on the rocks.
Speaking to TNM, Balaji Mohan says, "I made Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi in 2012. After that, I made Vaayai Moodi Pesavum and Maari which were not about relationships per se. I see this (the web series) as a more mature and deeper version of Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi. In these four years, my understanding of relationships has changed, the way I see things has changed."
Balaji feels that Tamil cinema doesn't quite capture the reality of relationships.
"In our scenario, in Tamil films or south Indian films for that matter, a large side of reality is not shown. It's mostly about two people meeting and how they fall in love. I'm more interested in what happens after the relationship starts,” he says
“There's so much potential and content there which I feel we haven't explored. I thought it's high time we did it...and a platform like this offers me the space to say what I believe in and a lot of people are happy to see their life being shown on screen," Balaji explains.
The moral compass of the characters in As I'm Suffering From Kadhal is distinctly different from what we're used to seeing on screen - it's a world where premarital sex is the norm and a couple not doing "it" before marriage is an aberration. The women utter colourful cuss words in Tamil and English and get happy-drunk quite often. It's hard to imagine such characters, especially women, in Tamil cinema.
Bajali says, "The whole audience that watches a feature film won't watch this web series. The people watching this series are also people who watch films… but I'm not targeting this for the whole of Tamil Nadu or all age groups. This is for people who've seen all this happening around them, and they understand that this is what happens today.”
“A certain section of society might not have seen it in reality and they might feel that this is outlandish and unreal...but it actually happens. That's the difference between making a feature film and content like this which is for a specific platform. The series is for an 18-plus audience, for people who are happy to see something like this which doesn't hold back from showing their reality,” he adds.
The women characters in As I'm Suffering From Kadhal are not particularly "strong" - they have their own insecurities and make mistakes, but they come across as real and believable people. Even Tanvi, who is that irritating friend who can't stop gushing about her amazing boyfriend, isn't a stereotype.
Balaji says, "You see girls and women around you and you obviously know that they're not like how they've been restricted in feature films. I just want to portray women as they are in real life. I write female characters like how my mom would be, my friends around me...the girls I know. How they think, how they dress. It's not a conscious effort to portray them in a certain light. You write them as you see them in real life.”
“I don't put them down - what takes effort is to create weak female characters, purposely put them down," he asserts.
For the web series, Dhanya Balakrishna - who is also one of the lead actors and plays the role of Meera - helped Balaji with the script.
"I wanted to bounce ideas off a woman writer to see if I'd got the pitch right. Am I thinking in the right light and so on. She brought in a lot of ideas, even some of the plot points," Balaji says.
Though the series shows different kinds of relationships, all of them are heterosexual. Balaji says, "I have to confess that I don't know enough about gay relationships to write about them or to portray them in a correct way. I don't think it had space here. It would have been an inclusion just for the sake of being progressive. These are the relationships I know, and that's what I can portray in a realistic light."
The target audience for the series can perhaps be guessed by the choice of professions of its characters - an aspiring actor, an online reviewer, a standup comedian, an event planner...it appeals to a certain social class that can afford to experiment with these non-traditional professions.
Balaji acknowledges that these were deliberate choices and that the professions reflect the personalities of his characters. "I also wanted to put it out there that these professions exist too," he says.
Commenting on the technique used in the series where the characters speak to the camera, sometimes making confessions and sometimes lying, Balaji says that he finds it to be a useful tool, pointing out that he did the same in Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi.
The technique also brings out the very human need for people to project themselves and their relationships in better light to the outside world, especially in this day and age where social media is an integral part of our lives. It has been used in quite a few Western sitcoms and TV series, too.
"How would you portray yourself if someone was making a film about you? And what goes on when the camera is not there? I like exploring that with this tool," he smiles.
The team is yet to start on the next season. Balaji says that he did think about extending the series if all went well, but that right now, they haven't made any plans for Season 2. However, the response that the series has received has been encouraging and he's sure that he will do more with it.
Balaji points out that it's because the series could be made on a shoestring budget and hosted on an experimental platform that he could afford to take risks with his content, showing a reality that the general audience in theatres might find difficult to accept.
"It's been quite viable for me to produce it and give it off to Hotstar. For them, this is content acquisition. For me as a creator and producer, it helped me put my content out there which might not have been possible in a feature film scenario," he says.
Balaji believes that online platforms have the potential to become really big in future and is glad to have made an early move to see the response that content like this can garner.
If you've found yourself identifying more with characters from Friends or How I Met Your Mother than the belligerent and teary-eyed folks who light up the chinnathirai, you might enjoy As I'm Suffering From Kadhal and delight in listening to cuss words without the annoying beep of the censor. Each episode is less than 30 minutes long, and has enough drama to make you want to watch more.