Hasmukh Sudiya (Vir Das) is an upcoming stand-up comedian from Saharanpur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. After a video of him performing at a local function goes viral, he is invited to Mumbai to compete in a television show. Everything seems merry, except there’s one catch. If Hasmukh is to do well in this competition, he must commit a murder before going up on stage every time.
Directed by: Nikhil Gonsalves
Written by: Nikkhil Advani, Vir Das, Nikhil Gonsalves, Neeraj Pandey, Amogh Ranadive, Suparn Verma
Cast: Vir Das, Ranvir Shorey, Manoj Pahwa, Amrita Bagchi, Deeksha Sonalkar
Streaming on: Netflix
The comedian’s viagra
“Thoda muskuraiye na. Arey kya hua? Koi marr gaya kya?” (Smile a little. What happened? Did someone die?). Hasmukh opens every act with these chilling lines. Chilling because minutes before coming on stage, he has put someone to death. Murder is his “viagra”, the drug that provides him with the “feel” he needs to set the stage on fire.
It all begins one night in Saharanpur, when in a fit of rage Hasmukh murders Gulati (Manoj Pahwa), a famous stand-up comedian and his mentor, and then goes on to perform at a wedding function in his stead. He has been under Gulati’s tutelage for four years, but the latter refuses to give him opportunities to perform as promised. Hasmukh wows the audience with his performance. Jimmy The Maker (Ranvir Shorey), Gulati’s manager, recognises Hasmukh’s gift. He helps cover up the murder and gets Hasmukh a few gigs in neighbouring towns and villages.
It is only when Hasmukh bombs in his next performance that they realise they have a dilemma on their hands. The last time, he killed Gulati before going on stage. If he wants his stand-up career to flourish, he must kill every time. Hasmukh is willing to play ball, on the condition that he won’t harm innocents. He makes a decision to kill those he thinks don’t deserve to live, a move that recalls the American series Dexter.
Hasmukh kills bad guys and thrives as a performer. Soon enough, he and Jimmy find themselves on a plane to Mumbai, where Hasmukh has been chosen as a wildcard contestant on a prime time television show. Here they are exposed to the various evils that plague Mumbai’s entertainment industry: favouritism, rigged reality shows, sexual assault. Mumbai city clearly has a lot of people that deserve to die. It is here that Hasmukh becomes the mysterious “peti killer” (belt killer).
The premise is laid out in the compelling first three episodes. Flashbacks into Hasmukh’s childhood explain his adult behaviour. Having been orphaned early in life, he was forced to live with his abusive uncle. As a result, he grew up a timid man seething with pent-up rage. In one of the finest scenes of the show, a young Hasmukh gets back at a school bully using humour. Humour has always been his escape from misery, his solution to all problems. All he’s ever wanted is to be a comedian, which is why he’s willing to go to any length for his career, even if it means being stuck with a lifetime of demons.
Nobody’s a saint here
The show has a delightful melange of quirky characters, each twisted in a unique way. Ravi Kishan is a delight to watch as the lecherous TV channel honcho, who is sleeping with his secretary and terrified of his wife. Manoj Pahwa keeps making appearances in Hasmukh’s subconscious as the dead Gulati. Krushna Kumar or KK (Suhail Nayyar), a comedy veteran, is threatened by Hasmukh’s arrival on the show. Promila (Amrita Bagchi) and Ajinkya (Santanu Ghatak) are executive producers of the show and constantly at loggerheads. Promila, who has brought Hasmukh on the show, wants him to win the competition, while Ajinkya rallies behind KK. Veteran actor Raza Murad has tremendous screen presence in his cameo as gangster Jameel Indori. The ensemble is reminiscent of a Priyadarshan comedy. At one point you get the feeling that the plot is boiling towards the standard Priyadarshan climax, one in which everyone is thrown together in a comedy of errors. Thankfully, Hasmukh is better than that.
It’s the two main characters that really carry the show on their shoulders. In Hasmukh, Vir Das finally gets a vehicle to fully display his prowess as an actor. He shifts comfortably between small-town simpleton and serial killer, and displays raw emotion when confronted by the demons of his deeds. Ranvir Shorey is equally impressive as Jimmy, whose actions are driven entirely by money.
The comedy is the tragedy
While Hasmukh has plenty of great moments, it’s not an exemplar of thriller writing. There are few layers to the narrative. There’s no metaphor underlying Hasmukh’s murderous spree, which seems to be an arbitrary device. Certain elements in the story are unbelievable. Hasmukh and Jimmy aren’t seasoned criminals. Yet they pull off a string of murders, some of which are of pretty powerful people, and get away with it. They never seem to leave a trail or any conclusive proof for the cops. The makers also don’t bother to go into how some of the corpses are disposed. The biggest letdown, however, are the stand-up sequences. Evidently the idea is to portray mass, small-town humour in these scenes. But you expect more than washed-up marital jokes, especially since Das is one of the show’s writers.
Terrific performances by Vir Das, Ranvir Shorey and the rest of the cast make this noir comedy a compelling watch despite uneven writing.