In a bachelors’ apartment in Bangalore, its three residents bring in Friday night by pouring themselves a glass of cheap rum. As the night progresses and the three ‘corporate slaves’ are sufficiently intoxicated, the conversation veers towards their dreams. One can sense that Upstarts is based on director Uday Singh Pawar and writer Ketan Bhagat’s real-life observations, seeing many of these midnight mehfils turn into a hot bed of ideas. Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli), Vinay (Shadab Kamal) and Yash’s (Chandrachoor Rai) friendship is established in the film’s opening moments, around a failed attempt to help someone elope. They have the entrepreneurship bug, and it’s visible in the way they start bouncing off startup ideas, while one of them is still tending to a heartbreak.
Upstarts navigates the trials and tribulations of the entrepreneurship world, with a sincerity few Hindi films exhibit these days. Kapil, Vinay and Yash participate in start-up conventions every other weekend, bemoaning their luck about being unable to identify a lucrative problem on behalf of the masses. Not mining the intricacies of boardroom politics like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, and without the captivating dialogue of David Fincher’s The Social Network, Pawar’s film doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a straight shooter. It even rejects the ‘quirk’ of TVF’s Pitchers, another show with a similar premise.
Upstarts organically puts forward the most natural conflicts between three friends-turned-business partners. The varying degrees of ethics, the ‘wants’ spurred by an overnight sky-rocketing bank balance, and just how much is one is ready to lose oneself to their venture, are some interesting questions posed by the film. There are others too, like – is it possible to bring about a change in society, while also monitoring positive cash-flows for the organisation? How day-to-day operations slowly annihilates an entrepreneur’s core values, and how the friendship gradually begins to sour.
The friendship in Upstarts feels authentic, and we see that in a wordless scene when Kapil tries to console Yash, after his father has been diagnosed with Parkinsons. As a result, the confrontations feel real too. Painyuli, who last showcased his righteous anger in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, is a slick businessman in this one. Painyuli’s Kapil is the bridge between the smooth-talking investor (Rajeev Siddhartha) and his (overly?) righteous friends. Kapil’s pliable nature manifests a ‘bigger picture’, allowing him to ignore the means to the end (read: a mind-boggling valuation). Here’s where the film along with the friendship, begins to disintegrate. The subplot around Yash’s downward spiral feels under-explored, and the tying of this track with the rest of the film feels forced.
Painyuli, Kamal and Rai are effortless for their parts, choosing to just ‘be’ instead of showcasing theatrics. However, one glaring flaw in Upstarts, is how the film flirts with showmanship of being an entrepreneur without investigating it further. The whole dichotomy of a CEO’s calm temperament in front of an investor, and the chaos behind closed doors would have been an interesting direction for the film. Instead, Upstarts ends up with a muddled message.
How does a character’s greed disappear overnight so much that he wishes to run an NGO by the end of the film? Has he learned his lesson about seva (to serve), without the expectation of mewa (rewards)? Is there a pragmatic middle path between a billion-dollar valuation and selflessly pledging oneself to the society? What are the regrets for swinging either way? Upstarts should have struggled with these questions, if not provided an answer to any/all of them.