Naveen Kasturia came to Mumbai with a stable job, a peeve necessitated by the brutal experience of surviving as India's middle class. He was a part of that thin layer of India's social pyramid, too afraid of the risks it must take to move up, and too fearful of the missteps that might pull it a level down. Stability, a vague but affirming image of the future, however underwhelming, is therefore bred into this species.
Kasturia wanted to be a filmmaker, and that is how he started, assisting well-known directors like Mahesh Bhatt and Dibakar Banerjee on films. A chance meeting with Amit V Masurkar on set changed the course of his life. Sulemaani Keeda (2013) set him on a path he had not seen for himself.
Almost eight years later, TVF Aspirants underlines the curious magnetism of an actor who has played so many aspirants on screen, he is now crying out to be stretched in directions we have not seen him chart before.
That said, the charm of this perennial on-screen struggler refuses to wear off.
It is no surprise that Kasturia echoes the humble instinctiveness of the many characters he has played on screen. "I wasn't worried about whether the Abhilash of the present would be liked in the show or not. It was the character, and how he had changed over time. But for the younger Abhilash, we were conscious about making him likeable, for people had to root for him. He, therefore, smiled a lot more," he says of his character in Aspirants.
The actor effortlessly mixes chaste Hindi with English, and rarely edits the tone or tenor of his voice to come across as forcibly modulated, a flaw most artists suffer from in the presence of interviewers. "The younger Abhilash's response to infatuation is more animated because it's his first relationship. We were conscious we didn't want to overdo either aspect," he says.
Kasturia's character in Aspirants is the only one who must embody a radical transformation across the two timelines, almost a toning down of the energy that symbolised the aspirant as compared to the diffident somberness of the IAS officer of the present. "I was particularly conscious of the scene with Guri in the penultimate episode. I was constantly evaluating if I was being too loud because you can't oversell his stubbornness to the point of annoyance," he adds.
Though Sulemaani Keeda happened before, it was with TVF Pitchers that Kasturia truly arrived on the Indian screen. In what can be regarded as India's first hit web series, the actor played a struggling entrepreneur. For that matter, Kasturia has played some version of the aspirant in several shows " writer in Sulemaani Keeda and Thinkistaan, entrepreneur in Pitchers, and now a UPSC aspirant.
"I was lucky enough to get the job of an AD with some big name directors. But these are short stints. Though I haven't struggled the cut-your-stomach kind of way, even after Sulemaani Keeda, struggle was a constant part of life. A lot changed only after Pitchers, but that grind and uncertainty is a part of this life, even today," the actor says about his own.
Kasturia is not a trained actor, something that comes across in his instinctive approach. Perhaps his own personality feeds the lightness of being that is common to most of his roles. A believable twitch, a relatable peeve, Kasturia, essays the commonest of lived idioms with the effortlessness of a paper boat slipping downstream. "I'm sure training helps because after a point, you need to devise your own tricks to tackle roles. I've learned on the job but I can't deny that people who are thoroughbreds in the craft, can radiate better range and poise," he adds.
The actor has had a curious career, his high points hitched to the The Viral Fever (TVF) bandwagon. But not necessarily his best roles. That would certainly be his portrayal of the Hindi-bred copywriter Amit in the criminally under-watched Thinkistaan. "I love that role. I think before Aspirants, I was closest to that particular role because it also had a little darkness to it. A sense of jealousy and envy. Aspirants has been most satisfying because, for the first time, I've felt entirely in control of my character, which allows you to also experiment. It's a sign that you've made progress," the actor says. Kasturia suggests he is attracted to darker roles that have not come to him yet. "I think I would fit perfectly well in the Jake Gyllenhaal role in Nightcrawler," he says, laughing.
The missing darkness that Naveen alludes to is also one of the leading criticisms of stories put out by TVF. Streaked with sunshine and do-good attitudes, these stories seem too pleased with the idea of yearning for the good rather than exhuming it in dark places. "I think 80 percent of India is actually just good and simple people. I'm aware of this criticism but to be honest, I don't think India is reflected only in the vices and crimes, the gaalis and the violence that we so enthusiastically watch and cherish," he says.
It is a fair point that we, as an audience, tend to appreciate the intensity of moral extremes as an artistic form far more than the molten relatability of the everyday. But then, TVF's popularity too cuts across most assumptions about gritty and gory content that has been a theme of most mainstream streaming platforms since inception. "I experienced such warmth on a shoot in Patna. It made me question every assumption I had of the place before arriving. Except a few, for people are like you and me.
Simplicity is the common trait in this country. And it's this simplicity that TVF constantly probes."
Kasturia's relative know-how of the online medium, of which he can almost be called a veteran, means he is considered both reliable yet too small for the big screen. "Perceptions follow you everywhere in the industry. I don't necessarily think in terms of cracking the big screen, or the big-banner film. I'm only looking at the next good story that I will get to work on. Because that is what all of them are, irrespective of the budget or scale " stories," he says.
As for what has been the actor's greatest lesson since moving to Mumbai, and carving a little niche for himself in an otherwise unforgiving landscape, he says, "I think it's basically what Sandeep bhaiya says in Aspirants. That success and happiness without loved ones is meaningless. I've stayed obsessively close to my parents, my family, over this period. Holding onto your loved ones is everything."
Has the industry changed someone who did not exactly plan to navigate the corridors it eventually sent him down? "I wanted to go to every party and event at first. That glamour sure gets to you," he says. "But if you are not that person, it'll eventually show. I learned that soon enough. It has its professional drawbacks but to be honest, the entire industry isn't just the people you constantly see posing in front of the camera."
TVF Aspirants is streaming on the YouTube channel of The Viral Fever.