MX Player’s new web series Thinkistan is premised on a series of conflicts: North versus South, creativity versus corporate drudgery, old versus new and Hindi versus English.

The last of these conflicts, which is also the most compelling, plays out through the contrasting experiences of two recruits at an advertising agency, the English-speaking Hema (Shravan Reddy) and the Hindi-speaking Amit (Naveen Kasturia).

Directed by N Padmakumar, Thinkistan is set in Mumbai in the late 1990s (though the production design contains barely a trace of that). The ’90s were regarded as a landmark decade for Indian advertising. The spread of satellite television helped advertisers find wider consumers, as did the “Hinglish” advertising era that combined Hindi and English.

Hindi and English may peacefully co-exist in product tag lines, but the relationship between the two tongues in post-colonial India remains fraught. The language divide is equally a conflict of class and ideology.

In Thinkistan too, the linguistic chasm between Hema and Amit is reflected in their disparate fates at the MTMC agency. Privileged and city-bred Hema joins MTMC after quitting a corporate job to chase creative satisfaction. His transition is unnervingly smooth, and he is immediately hailed as the future of the agency.

Amit, meanwhile, has made the journey from Madhya Pradesh to Mumbai with big dreams and no money. He is the eternal underdog, watching his junior’s rise to glory from the sidelines. Where Hema is fashionable and charming, Amit is awkward and old-fashioned, the kind who carries a briefcase to work and sports a moustache that’s several generations older than him.

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Thinkistan (2019).

Amit is the better-rounded character – he’s had a tough domestic life and has to work extra hard to be taken seriously. The series, however, spends too much time on Hema’s glorification. His bosses fawn over him, his female colleagues flirt with him, and his male peers take him under their wing. Hema frequently talks in cliches and puns, which wows his advertising peers but can be tedious for a viewer. The show springs to life when Naveen Kasturia’s Amit is on screen, but that doesn’t happen as much as it should.

Though not quite India’s answer to the American television series Mad Men, known for its rich period detail and warts-and-all portrayal of its milieu, Thinkistan spends considerable time in fleshing out the Indian advertising world. N Padmakumar, an advertising filmmaker who directed the movie A Billion Colour Story in 2016, carefully crafts his tribute to his original profession. MTMC has several colourful characters. There’s the self-important top boss Varun (Shashank Karmarkar), whose rants are frequently cut short by Mandira Bedi’s Anushka, the agency’s creative head. The brilliant copy writer Ashiq Jabeer (Satyadeep Mishra) is equally fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Hindi, and his sexual preferences are the subject of office gossip.

The show is equally a homage to memorable advertisement campaigns, including the Liril television commercial featuring Preity Zinta bathing in a waterfall and the Dhara cooking oil advertisement about a boy who wants to run away from his family but is lured back by home-made jalebis. Attempts are also made to touch upon weighty themes such as homophobia and gender discrimination, but the series doesn’t make enough leeway on those.

Mandira Bedi in Thinkistan. Courtesy MX Player.
Mandira Bedi in Thinkistan. Courtesy MX Player.

With so much energy spent on world-building, the season’s 11 episodes prove inadequate to juggle plot twists and character developments. The nuances of the themes Thinkistan seeks to address are undercut by the patchy dialogue and the lacklustre plot. There isn’t enough skin in the game for any character other than Amit, and the erratic pacing means that a bulk of the storylines just aren’t interesting enough.

More than a story of Amit or Hema, Thinkistan is a love letter to advertising, depicted as a world whose inhabitants are ahead of the curve and a place where work meets fun. Perhaps unintentionally, the series also ends up speaking to the social divisions of today. Language politics are more fraught than ever before in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled India. Indo-Anglian elites are frequently the target of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist rhetoric. Hindi, meanwhile, has emerged as a political hot button, sparking protests in non-Hindi-speaking states. In a web series, these conflicts can be easily resolved. In the real world, the linguistic divide shows no sign of letting up.