Review: ‘Better Life Foundation’
A mockumentary about a struggling NGO makes smart observations about class and the patronizing attitude well-meaning privileged folks have towards the underprivileged
It’s hard not to think of the similarities to Ricky Gervais’ The Office during the first few minutes of Better Life Foundation, a web series by Bengaluru-based comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts (TBS) in association with Only Much Louder. The first season was released in June on TBS’ Youtube channel but reached a wider audience after All India Bakchod released it on their channel in late July.
The creators argue that the mockuemtary is a style that predates The Office by many years and is used in several movies and television shows. Nevertheless it’s hard not to think of David Brent when you meet Neil Menon, the founder of NGO Better Life Foundation, a bungling but enthusiastic boss who asks his employees to solve problems by entering the ‘circle of solutions’, which is, as his aggressive and efficient programme head Sumukhi Chawla points out, just a conference room.
Scenes such as the first one, when the camera pans away from Neil and Jerry Pinto, his friend and co-founder, arguing and shows intern Aditi Goel struggling to carry an overstuffed carton, will seem familiar to watchers of The Office or Parks and Recreation.
Ten minutes into the show, though, your focus shifts from the similarities Better Life Foundation may have to other hit shows to how it is different from the majority of Indian comedies. Indian comedians and shows tend to deal with the obvious. Jokes about how superficial big Indian weddings are or how bad the traffic in Mumbai is may gain a few laughs, but don’t make us think enough to be memorable. The Better Life Foundation, which follows Neil and his NGO’s struggles, is far more insightful, making observations about class, language barriers and attitudes towards the disabled, among other things, while also allowing its characters to grow and show vulnerability, so they are not mere stereotypes—all too common in Indian comedy.
Better Life Foundation is an NGO that Neil (played by Naveen Richard) starts with money he inherited from his uncle. The show pokes fun at how when the privileged, in their attempt to be progressive, try to help the underprivileged, they are often patronizing. In one scene, Neil, a Bangalorean, tries explaining in hilarious broken Hindi the concept of a health faucet to the head of the Dharavi Foundation, but the man, of course, knows the English term for it already. In another, Neil talks about how his NGO asks “normal” people to run a blindfolded marathon to raise funds for the visually impaired.
Shows in this style need a mix of relatable and bizarre characters. Jerry Pinto (Utsav Chakraborty) is the outrageous cook. He makes his first appearance with blood on his hands, makes scenes at award functions and robs the beacon from a government official’s car. But it is the everyday eccentricities that he displays around the office—almost falling off a bean bag, or awkwardly attempting a team huddle—that form his character. And it is his genuine passion for helping people and his loyalty to Neil that make him likable.
Armaan Garewal (Kanan Gill) is the outsider, a device used to reflect the audience’s reactions to the craziness of the show. He is only in the NGO’s office because he’s been ordered by a court to do community service. Aditi (Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy) is the office doormat, forced to run errands for no pay, but also grows into the one who is able to offer emotional support to the rest of the group when things go awry. Sumukhi (Sumukhi Suresh) is the only one who can get anything done in the office and is intent on letting everyone else know they are incompetent. And Anirban Sengupta (Kumar Varun) is the office accountant who is selling pirated DVDs on the side.
As the show progresses, the group draws closer together. Neil, who starts off confident and optimistic, is despondent by the fifth and final episode, after a gaffe that could land him in prison, and his colleagues rally around him. This narrative allows for an exploration of complex human emotions, such as Sumukhi’s superiority complex that is constantly battling her well-hidden affection for her coworkers and the insecurities and self-doubt that lie beneath Neil’s chirpy exterior. The mood never grows heavy, however, as all this is handled with comical exaggeration—Neil curls up in a corner and refuses to talk to anyone for hours when he is sad.
Good comedy throws up observations about problems that, until mentioned by the comedian, you thought only you faced. In Better Life Foundation, one running theme is Neil’s inability to replicate his own signature. It’s nice to know one’s not alone in feeling nervous every time a cheque or documents need to be signed. It is those kinds of observations that make Better Life Foundation one of the most interesting comedy shows to come out of India in the past few years.
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