Streaming has removed barriers, freed up writing: Zoya and Farhan Akhtar
Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Jim Sarbh on their Netflix series Eternally Confused and Eager for Love
I sat down with Eternally Confused and Eager for Love expecting to be put off. The show’s full of rich kids, manicured soccer turfs and certain restaurants and pubs you can only gape at from outside. Yet something sweet, and inquisitive, emerges from its heart. Streaming on Netflix, the 8-part series is about Ray (Vihaan Samat), a 24-year-old Mumbai boy who’s yet to pop his corn. Ray has a keychain, Wiz, that he picked up as a kid. In moments of deep stress, which is all the time, he talks to it, a childhood quirk that’s grown into a friendship. They share a charged, eristic bond. Their chatter is consistently entertaining. Naturally, Wiz gets the best lines, and puns—I was personally sold at “when Pushpa comes to shove.”
“I’m glad you noticed it,” smiles Jim Sarbh, who has voiced Wiz. The line, it turns out, was improvised, like many others. “These little jokes are sprinkled throughout the show. Because it’s all in Ray’s head, they can come and go without emphasis. No one in the scene has to react to them.”
The inner-voice conceit was also handy in a dramatic sense. Ray, a dweeb and an introvert, needs someone to constantly voice out his anxieties. When he gets nervous with a date in episode 2, Wiz spells it out for him. “She’s fat,” he announces bluntly. There is a correction soon after—the show is never cruel or overly insensitive—but the line works as an unfiltered peek into Ray’s psyche.
“Thoughts are free of all restrictions,” says Farhan Akhtar, who has co-produced the show with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s Tiger Baby. “You can think anything without having to act on it. There is no morality to a thought.”
Farhan’s first two films as director, Dil Chahta Hai and Lakshya, were also coming-of-age sagas about the urban young. Indeed, he describes Wiz as a combination of ‘Aamir and Akshaye’s voices in Saif’s head’ from Dil Chahta Hai. But that film is now 20 years old, made for a generation without Instagram or dating apps. Surely youngsters today navigate relationships differently? “With the changing world what’s happened is that one can get rejected more easily,” Farhan laughs. “The social scene is much more demanding now.”
A lot of the charm of Eternally Confused… stems from its lead actor. Vihaan had last appeared in Mismatched, another Netflix series about yearning millennials. For Ray, he was tested in early 2020 but got a callback only after the first lockdown (one can imagine Wiz-like voiceovers chewing him out). His audition tapes stood out to everyone.
“Ray had to be immensely likable and charming and at the same time carry off that wicked insecurity and anxiety,” Zoya says. “Vihaan had all of it.” "The moment I saw (his audition) I knew we’d found the guy,” Reema adds.
Eternally is the third collaboration between Tiger Baby and Excel Entertainment (co-owned separately by Farhan and Ritesh Sidhwani). Collectively, they have backed some of the defining titles on the Indian web. Considering that their theatrical game is equally strong—Farhan, Zoya and Reema have all directed mainstream hits–one wonders what the online space has further enabled them to do.
“OTT has allowed us to find a home for stories that aren’t conventional,” maintains Zoya. “For instance, I could never make my segment in Lust Stories as a feature film. And it’s possibly my favourite one.”
She is presently developing an ambitious Archie comics adaptation set in 1960s India. The musical, slated for Netflix, is unlikely to have happened before. “There are lesser barriers now of censorship, language, length. The audience, too, isn’t as box-office obsessed. They either like something or they don’t. They can separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Farhan agrees and adds another point. “Earlier, when we wrote, we had to appeal to a wide range of audiences. Streaming lifts that weight off you. You don’t think if something needs songs. You can be completely true to your world.”
“Also low-budget films don’t get shelved anymore,” Reema concludes.