In the age of social isolation where the world is discussing self-reflection and introspection, it’s timely that a series like Phone-A-Friend makes its presence felt on digital platforms. It’s quite interesting (or even ironical?) that a show addressing our obsession with technology also needs to make use of the digital space to reach our homes. The show takes a cue from Shankar’s Endhiran/Robot to a certain extent – it personifies a mobile, gives it an identity. The device goes onto share a possible bromance with the mobile owner and complicates his life beyond repair. It gives a sci-fi twist to a conventional romance between childhood sweethearts.
If ambitions were the only criteria to discuss the impact of a show, Phone-A-Friend certainly hits it out of the park. However, if we were to discuss if that translates into a gripping show, the answer is a clear no. Phone-A-Friend largely ends up biting more than what it can chew and the result is expectedly indigestible.
Varun Pandya isn’t the most likeable of male protagonists – he’s 27, working as a lecturer in a business school, someone who needs the society to validate his worth and is desperately looking forward to losing his virginity. Things can’t clearer when a voice-over says, ‘A lonely guy can either become a monk or a pervert and Pandya’s the latter’. Varun’s mobile is the only outlet that distracts him from his loneliness. It’s a nightmare for Varun when the mobile begins to speak and takes control of his life - it practically knows his darkest secrets, houses his passwords, knows his acquaintances in and out and can slide into any of his social media conversations unabashedly and even initiate them. Interestingly, his prekindergarten crush, Jiya, is working on a project to minimise the impact of technology on the environment.
The writers of Phone-A-Friend (Allyson Patel and Yash Dave- who have also directed it) literally flesh out the idea of ‘what if gadgets control our lives?’. The creepy undertones in the writing are a major cause of concern. The mobile even knows the spot where Varun’s superior has a mole and worse, asks him to get to a massage centre for confirmation. The mobile claims a pink-colour mobile stand to be feminine, even as the protagonist calls out the sexism in the statement. If at all these aspects were assumed to be the quirks in the characterisation of the ‘mobile’ – sorry, they don’t work at all.
Once the show is past this creepy phase, it finally finds some purpose. It vocalises the fear of many humans who are beginning to lose touch with their humanly facets owing to technology. The gadget does a better job of talking to the girl than the human, is witty and knows to be the charmer. The protagonist needs the mobile to discover his strengths. Unlike Shankar’s Robot, the gadget-controlling-a-human’s-life idea is restricted to the male protagonist alone.
There are funny episodes, where the mobile voluntarily purchases shirts for Varun, surprises his girlfriend, pushes him to pursue a career in standup comedy and even imitates SRK. The sequence where Varun gets his mobile repaired at a shop and imagines it to be an operation theatre where the patient’s being treated is a case of great visual imagination. There are flashes of brilliance, yes, but Phone-A-Friend crams too many things – from standup humour to environment to technology to romance and repressed sexuality.
The pacing of the show is terrible – the scope of a single conversation is sometimes extended to an entire episode. The writing is only intermittently sparkling but fares way better in comparison to the (generally) poor execution. The preachy ending has several tall statements about hope and faith and the need to make the planet a better place to live, be better humans – the message is imposed upon the viewers and isn’t organically weaved into the story.
Akhlaque Khan struggles to headline the show as a performer – he’s never fully into the role, his comic timing is way-off, the monologues are a disaster. Swati Kapoor is a relief in comparison – there’s a natural grace about her that reflects in the performance. The not-so-bad music score is still an excuse to extend the run time of the show. The makers could have been more imaginative while personifying the mobile visually – it certainly needed something more than a voice. Phone-A-Friend tries hard to not be a run of the mill fare but ends up being consumed by its own mediocrity.