Before Kenny Sebastian became one of India’s most popular standup comedians, he was a struggling musician. For about three years, Sebastian and his friend, Anup KR, tried to make it big as a two-piece acoustic blues band. They played in bars, pubs and clubs where, in Sebastian’s words, “no one listened or bothered or even clapped as a show of courtesy”. They rented a studio and recorded an album in three days because that is all they could afford. Nobody bought the album.
Sebastian hopes that Die Trying, the web series based on these experiences, does not suffer the same fate. The seven-episode series, created by Sebastian, was released on February 14 on Amazon Prime video. It follows the misadventures of Kenneth (Sebastian) and Rohan (Vidyuth Gargi), two musicians from Bangalore who are convinced that they are the next big thing.
“The title is not just about reflecting the determination of these two guys,” Sebastian said. “But it was also one of the songs Anup and I had made long ago.”
Kenneth and Rohan are poles apart, which leads to much of the humour in the series. While Kenneth is affable and prone to be distracted by women, Rohan is angst-bitten and singularly focussed on his band. Sebastian says that when he was 19, he was very much like Kenneth “on the outside”, while, on the inside, he was like Rohan.
The screenplay for the 160-minute series went through over 12 drafts for each episode. Sebastian and co-writer Rohan Desai had two months to finish the script. After four drafts, Vaspar Dandiwala (Laakhon Mein Ek) was brought in. Fellow standup comedians Naveen Richard and Urooj Ashfaq took over at the end, giving the series its snappy tone.
Much of the series does feel like a collection of hit-and-miss short comic sketches that have made Sebastian famous on the internet. The third and, perhaps, the best, episode is an extended comic sketch that takes place in the house of a clueless sound engineer. In a surreal touch, his studio’s walls are covered with egg cartons, and his entire family, including his stay-at-home girlfriend, only consume eggs. With one absurd development after another, Kenneth and Rohan nearly waste a day recording nothing worthwhile.
Sebastian has an explanation for the egg cartons (“That is really the cheapest do-it-yourself method to make your studio soundproof”) as well as the strangeness of the sound engineer’s character, who will do anything other than his work.
“That character was a complete invention, though he is kind of close to some people I have met,” Sebastian said. “In the case of creative people, when you are struggling with money and you ask your friends for help, and if they slack, you cannot really shout, right? Since, they are doing a favour, they seem to technically have a higher status. So when you are recording an album for next to no money, you cannot call them out for not being professional.”
Though Sebastian’s struggling days as a musician began in 2009, the show is based in 2004 to prevent the influence of the internet on the story. “With the internet, people would go, ‘Why don’t you release your music on YouTube, bro’,” Sebastian said. “That story would be boring. I just wanted to focus on the personal story of these two guys.”
A key character is Jason, played by Adarsh Gourav of Maa (2017) and Rukh (2017) fame. Jason shares not just the name but, according to Sebastian, also the qualities of his best friend.
Jason is a rich man’s son who has everything that he needs in the world except his father’s respect and validation. Musically passionate, he goes around helping upcoming bands until he zeroes in on Kenneth and Rohan. For Sebastian, Jason is the only character who wants nothing for himself while the people around him are selfish.
“My friend Jason is also like that,” Sebastian said. “He encouraged me with my creative pursuits from a very young age. He always stood by me. It is just difficult to fathom why one would do that without expecting anything in return.”
These creative pursuits include making short films at the age of 15. Sebastian’s YouTube channel reveals a host of shorts, parody videos and musical performances from as far back as 2008. Yet, it is standup comedy where he has made his mark. Sebastian has also edited two little-known feature films, Saad Khan’s Station (2014) and Siddhant KS’s Joint Trip (2014). And he got his bachelor’s degree in painting and sculpture from the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath.
So is Sebastian a multi-hyphenate?
“My older brother took the brunt of the engineer dreams, and he wasn’t too happy with it,” Sebastian explained. “My father noticed that and I had the luck of being given the chance to do what I want.”
Sebastian realised at a young age the importance of money in a middle-class family. He started learning from the internet what he calls “skills.” Upon entering college, he was earning more money than engineering graduates by doing video and graphic projects for large companies. Having created a financial net for himself, he got the leeway to go in whichever direction he wanted.
If standup comedy did not pan out, Sebastian says that he will continue shooting, editing and making films until his hands fell off. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker,” Sebastian said. “It was something that brought me out of what was the academic torture pit that was school. Standup gave me the love and support to finally have an audience that actually sees what I make.”
Then standup comedy is essentially a gamble that paid off?
“I realised half way through music that it was emotionally draining to have the audience reject what you make with your heart and soul,” Sebastian said. “Standup happened incidentally because I loved talking on the mic between my songs. With standup, it’s very clear that my purpose is to entertain the audience, while with music, I was putting my heart out. The rejection in music hurt much more compared to standup.”