Cast: Priyanshu Painyuli, Chandrachoor Rai, Shadab Kamal, Rajeev Siddhartha, Sheetal Thakur, Swati Semwal, Eijaz Khan
Director: Udai Singh Pawar
Netflix India Original film Upstarts is a thoroughly researched, unabashed ode to India's startup ecosystem in the post-dot-com era that hit the market in the latter part of 2007, and witnessed the sudden mushrooming of tech-based ventures by young, budding entrepreneurs.
Helmed by debutant director Udai Singh Pawar, Upstarts weaves the story of three ambitious blokes trying to satisfy their appetite for both the moolah and social responsibility. But the film tells this story without a smidgen of sermonising about right and wrong — and this is where it scores its most handsome brownie points.
The film begins with three college graduates Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Yash (Chandrachoor Rai), helping their friend Vinay (Shadab Kamal) to elope with his girlfriend. While the plan fails, Kapil has a breakthrough. He excitedly tells Yash and Vinay they should start an eloping service together. As ridiculous as this may sound, the character of Kapil encompasses the spirit of every fresher graduate, bitten by the start-up bug, who identifies a path-breaking (or not) business opportunity even in the direst of situations.
However, it is the death of an old man in one of the villages where Kapil volunteers to work once a week, which drives him to come up with 'CarryKaro', an Ola/Uber-like delivery app that can be used to deliver life-saving medicines to remote villages. His motives may be welfare-driven but he is not shy to admit that he means to also make money. As opposed to his friend Jaya, played by Sheetal Thakur, his business model is unapologetically profit-driven.
Udai, along with screenwriter Ketan Bhagat, has deliberately taken a leisurely approach to unfold the events in the film. The first half-an-hour is spent laying out every aspect, conflict, and struggle of getting an idea into motion. From finding the most user-friendly app interface, spreading the word among prospective users, to scrounging for funds, the trio's journey is palpably arduous, which imbues the film with a kind of conviction that is oft absent from success-story films. It is not a homage to the winning ideas germinating from every nook and cranny of Bangalore's IT hub, but the effort, the money, the sacrifices that go behind perfecting the idea.
Once Kapil finds his investor in the idealistic son of the 'Beedi king of India', his grasp over his own creation starts to slip. The chic US-returned financier Veer Diwan (Rajeev Siddhartha) has noble intentions — he claims he is better than his 'cigarette seller' father for not "spreading cancer around the world," instead funding a project that would help millions get access to life-saving drugs. But as the film progresses, one realises even the noblest of people resort to cutting corners (and not something as dramatic as selling their souls), deluding themselves into believing they are doing it for the greater common good.
As their company grows in leaps and bounds, Kapil, Vinay and Yash's friendship begins to fray. Kapil, who has toiled hard to turn an abstract idea into tangible property, is determined to maintain its market supremacy. Yash is terrified he too will soon start showing signs of Parkinson's Disease, like his father and grandfather, and takes to drinking. After his breakup with Richa, Vinay has sought refuge under a guru, learning everything under the sun about inner peace and detachment from material things.
Their disparate personas and life experiences make them look at the same problem with different lenses. The solutions posed by these characters may not always be up the audience's alley, but it is to the credit to the actors, and Pawar's direction, the film never seems to take a moralistic stand. Even when Painyuli's Kapil is not doing the right thing, his earnestness makes you root for him. Every character is equally flawed, equally fallible, and equally likable.
Despite trying to strain almost all the theatrics from Upstarts, the film does fall into some quintessentially Bollywood trappings. Most of the exchanges feel organic, except for one where Kapil convinces a multi-billionaire Japanese investor to back their company, not with data and numbers, but with oodles of schmaltz. It is in this part the film feels most contrived, where Veer's assertive and somewhat manipulative nature can almost propel audiences to categorise him as an "antagonist," but the moment lasts too short to have a lasting impact — which bodes well for the film that thrives on subtlety of emotions.
Pawar's creative decision to direct all energies towards 'the start-up phenomenon' is also its con — perhaps the only glaring one — if one were forced to find any. While making for the pegs that bind the story, the primary characters remain somewhat one-dimensional. All their issues beyond the scope of CarryKaro do not find a playing field in this film — from Kapil's inability to talk to women, to Yash's relationship with his father, to Vinay and his spiritual journey. Jaya's struggle — as a woman and as a woman entrepreneur — to get funding for her suicide helpline gets some screen time, but mostly as a foil to the ever-flourishing CarryKaro.
As far as the acting is concerned, Painyuli, Thakur, and Rai hit it out of the park. All three of them are immensely watchable, and make their characters look like second skin. Beyond the watertight writing, their ease with the camera and the arclights makes the "millennial trying to find their footing" space thoroughly relatable. Shadab Kamal is nice but I wish there was more meat to chew on in case of Vinay. He ends up being the mediator figure, oscillating between the mercurial Yash and the calculative Kapil. If only he could pull off the Sameer from Dil Chahta Hai with as much aplomb.