Ajay Gahlaut
Guest Article

From Binge Living to Binge Watching, and back

"In the '80s, we didn’t have web series and had no concept of binge watching. But we had something far more interesting. Binge Living," writes Ajay Gahlaut.

Of late I find myself watching more and more web series instead of movies. There is a certain voyeuristic satisfaction in watching the journey of characters over a longer time span. Characters reveal themselves fully and in greater detail over time, character arcs are more discernible and believable and, most of all, the serialised form of the web series mimics real life more closely than the telegraphic and condensed feature film format. When we follow the travails of Walter White, Bryan Cranston’s character in the famous show ‘Breaking Bad’ we see him go from a simple chemistry teacher to a criminal mastermind. But the transformation is authentic because we are privy to every little incident that goes into making the character change so drastically.

But serialised story telling has been around for the longest time in television as well. So why are web series so popular? My conjecture is that, apart from sheer quality of content, it is the ‘binge watching’ feature of web series that has made it such a hit with viewers. When one binge watches an interesting web series one completely immerses oneself in that world and ‘lives’ the story with the characters. The experience of watching an interesting web series is like living in an interesting place surrounded by interesting people and having interesting things happen to you.

Which, come to think of it, reminds me, of my own life for a brief period in the eighties and early nineties.

Nearly three and a half decades back I lived with my parents in Bangalore in an apartment building called Palm Tree Place on a leafy street called Palmgrove Road. Swimming pools, gyms and tennis courts were unheard of luxuries in residential complexes those days and Palm Tree Place, or PTP as we affectionately called it was a neat little low-rise building with just a few flats. The guard would open an iron gate and you could drive straight into the parking basement or, if on foot, you could walk straight up a short flight of steps into the foyer. PTP was a well kept and well run little society but it had nothing in the way of ‘amenities’ as we know them now. Unless you count the ramshackle table tennis table in the parking basement.

But as one learns over time the ultimate ‘amenities’ are youth and good company. And at that time I was blessed with a surfeit of both. For Palm Tree Place had some of the nicest and most interesting people I have met in my life. And they became the cast of a real life version of a ‘Wonder Years meets Friends’ like show that I had the privilege to live through for a couple of ‘seasons’.

Consider the cast. Sandeep ‘Sandy’ and Supriya ‘Pums’ Padmanabhan. Good looking siblings who were bright as buttons and always up for a good time. They lived in a tastefully done up apartment with the their parents. Their dad, Paddy Uncle was short, balding and cherubic looking. Like his kids he liked the good life and an occasional tipple of fine whiskey. Mrs Padmanabhan was an elegant and graceful lady always impeccably dressed in a saree, with a motherly air about her. The Padmanabhans had come back from the Middle East to settle in Bangalore. They had brought along a spanking new ‘imported’ Honda Accord which was the pride of the PTP parking basement mostly populated, as it was, with run down Fiats, Ambassadors and an occasional Maruti 800.

Then there was the ‘struggling young couple’ Koshy and Nina Varghese. The striking good looks of this Malyali couple were exceeded only by the largeness of their hearts. Ever willing to host our rag tag gang of youngsters for a beer or a snack, their tiny one bedroom flat was our default ‘adda’ when our pocket money ran out. Koshy used to work for a real estate developing firm and was a cricket fanatic. So much so that when Javed Miandad hit Chetan Sharma for that infamous six in Sharjah, an amused Nina told us, Koshy switched off all the lights in their house and moped for hours. When I met the couple for the first time their daughter Naomi was a rambunctious, inquisitive and extremely cute tiny tot.

In the flat opposite the Varghese’s resided Shalini Pillai, our very own ‘Bohemian Girl’. Shalini could out drink and out cuss any sailor. A truly unobstructed personality, Shalini didn’t much care for inhibitions in social interactions. An outing with her was fraught with possibilities. On one occasion we were at a pub when suddenly Shalini turned to a guy at the next table and said, extremely loudly, ‘Stop staring at my tits bastard!’ On another occasion she called a couple of strangers on a bike ‘small dick gutter snipes’ because they cut in dangerously in front of her moped. That led to fisticuffs when the outraged bikers came after us swinging punches. Shalini mixed it up with them fearlessly, swinging a mean helmet and cracking one of them across the skull.

On the ground floor in the next block stayed the resident alcoholic Vinoo Manuel. A short, squat burly man Vinoo worked for a travel agency. Vinoo was a generous man with an acute sense of humour. But liquor had got the better of him. Come evening and we would find him red-eyed and swaying in the corridor looking for some mischief to perpetrate. ‘Where’s that fucking watchman?’, he would slur. ‘I want his belt to wear around my lungi’. He would then stumble around the building looking for the terrified watchman who would be hiding from him. On one occasion he found the watchman cowering behind a car in the basement. The watchman’s refusal to hand over his belt enraged Vinoo so much that he decided to kick him on the butt. In his enthusiasm he forgot that to kick someone on their butt you need one foot on the ground. He leapt up and swung hard with both feet and landed on his back on the floor, allowing the watchman to make a clean getaway. The watchmen didn’t mind Vinoo because they knew the next day the contrite man would ply them with food and drink and shove currency notes into their pockets by way of apology.

Then there was Narayan, the devout young Tamilian Brahmin who wore caste-marks on his forehead and recited. Sanskrit shlokas with the facility of a high priest. The apple of his parents’ eye he was the quintessential Tam Brahm lad who would wake up at 4 am, say his prayers, bathe and study for three hours straight before proceeding to school. However, when the parental eye was not on him, Narayan was a party animal. Unconcerned by the prospect of Tam Brahm hell he would devour beef rolls by the dozen. He was also the PTP champion at guzzling beer straight from the bottle, finishing one in 23 seconds if memory serves me right. Possessed of a legendary libido that was exceptionally high even for a teenager, Narayan was constantly on the look out for girlfriends. He was not very successful in his searches partly, no doubt, because he was always wearing a T-shirt that said ‘In-Out, In-Out, In-Out, Oh, Oh, Oh, AHHHH!’ Not quite the message a girl looking for a tender romance wants to see.

The cast of characters was endless. The gorgeous Thimaiah sisters, Duhita and Sahana and their kid brother Rajiv. Nikhil Sunita, the burly affable son of a single mom. Veena Sajnani the ageing actress and model and sister of the famous theatre director Arjun Sajnani. No web series I have seen had such an interesting bunch of characters.

Every day brought excitement and a sense of ‘what will happen next’. In the interests of privacy I cannot reveal all the most juicy details, but suffice it to say that the Palm Tree Place story contained all the shades of life. Intrigue, sex, violence, extra marital affairs, humour, tragedies, divorces, deaths, huge business and career successes, a few failures, friendships and falling outs.

Just like Breaking Bad had its spin off ‘Better Call Saul’, most of this cast of characters is scattered all over the country, and indeed the globe, living out their own ‘spin off’ shows. It is my greatest wish to try and organise a reunion of this cast some day so we can catch up on new episodes of our lives and even more interesting stories.

In the eighties we didn’t have web series and had no concept of binge watching.

But we had something far more interesting.

Binge Living.

(The author is ex-CCO and MD, Publicis Worldwide. This article was published by him on medium.com. Reproduced with permission.)