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‘Upstarts’ Review: The Unexpectedly Relatable Success Story

This feel-good movie tackles millennial Indian ambition and does it right

Jessica Xalxo Oct 25, 2019

Chandrachoor Rai, Priyanshu Painyuli and Shadab Kamal in ‘Upstarts’. Photo: Netflix

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★ ★ ★ ★

(This review contains spoilers)

Upstarts begins like one would imagine any startup venture does – with a scared friend joining his mates on a plan he doesn’t believe will succeed. The Netflix original movie that dropped last Friday follows the journey of three young Bengaluru-based techies, Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli), Yash (Chandrachoor Rai) and Vinay (Shadab Kamal), who develop an app (Carry Karo) that allows travelers to deliver medicines to villages on their route. Directed by Udai Singh Pawar, a former IT professional himself, Upstarts charts the diverging journeys of three friends as their choices, business approaches and career timelines unravel the ebbs and flows of success (without glorifying either) in the high-risk, high-return startup game.

Upstarts spins the notion of success on its axis, questioning its ultimate purpose and profiteers as it confronts the human cost of both in millennial India. Kapil’s character is the embodiment of the startup dream; the 24 something CEO is in it for the long run, but hasn’t taken in the implications yet. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where he pitches a startup idea to a father whose daughter just eloped with his friend, saying, “Manager chodo, woh kal CEO banega. Aaj kal startup ka hi zamaana hai (Forget being a manager, he’ll be a CEO someday. Now is the generation of startups”). 

He wouldn’t be sane if not for his sounding board Jaya (Sheetal Thakur) who develops an app (Janani) that functions as a suicide helpline. Like most needed causes, she struggles to convince investors to fund it while fielding a blatant gender bias and lack of funding. Her role is not a stagnant commentary but an evolving one – does your startup have to be profitable to be successful and what does being a woman have to do with it all? 

Chandrachoor Rai, Shadab Kamal and Priyanshu Painyuli in ‘Upstarts’. Photo: Netflix

Every venture has someone who gets the short end of the stick and in Upstarts, that’s Yash. He balances work and its growing politics as investors come in, acting as a foil to Kapil while he battles alcoholism and the helplessness of seeing his father succumb to Parkinson’s disease. Yash’s struggle with business ethics, mental health and career setbacks are an important part of the plot that touch on a side of ambition often swept under the rug. After all, it’s not the success story. But Yash’s work in progress story is somehow even more important. There’s hope in his arc and a humor and rawness that Rai brings to the character, making it impossible to not root for Yash, because we’ve all at some point in time experienced the doubt and loneliness that he does — and that feeling is both heartbreakingly inalienable and illuminatory.

Vinay is divorced from the entrepreneurial ideology entirely but is absolutely devoted to the company. His approach is best described by this quote that is bound to become a pop culture staple: “Khula aasman, sasti daaru, ghatiya dost. Aur kya chahiye (Open skies, cheap alcohol, garbage friends — what more could anyone want?).” The trio’s dynamic is very interesting because they’re all invested in the growth of the company, albeit via very different means. They experience tremors, folding cards and distance but these friends keep finding each other in the adult mess that life is, and they pick each other up along the way, much like the garbage bit in the quote (you gotta love your friends after all).

Chandrachoor Rai, Priyanshu Painyuli and Shadab Kamal in ‘Upstarts’. Photo: Netflix

The editing is a little unsettling in the first half of the movie (as the characters shift between the city and village of Thamsandra) but the scenes soon find their grounding. Upstarts’ cinematography is urban-lensed and rural empathetic –  a balance that’s particularly hard to strike — and it never makes Carry Karo’s objective feel like a service with a savior complex. Filled with effusive instrumentation of both nostalgia and hope, the soundscape of the film complements the ups and downs experienced by the young entrepreneurs (Bengaluru folk band The Raghu Dixit Project’s “Lokada Kalaji” features in a scene where the trio are scene celebrating their first investor). 

In the film, Kapil says, “Jo ek chalta hai, woh chalta nahi hai. Woh udta hai (The idea that works doesn’t just work, it flies.)” And soar Upstarts does. The film tackles the idea and realities of success perhaps as endearingly and honestly as 3 Idiots (2009) did. It does not propose and portray ambition as one-size-fits-all and the dialogue (written by Ketan Bhagat and Pawar) is as funny and engaging as it is revelatory. There’s a rooftop scene where the friends confront each other’s demons and Yash quips, “Daaru mein kya burai hai? Burai zyaada peene mein hai (What’s wrong with alcohol? Its fault lies in us who drink too much of it,)” much to Kapil and Vinay’s chagrin and grinning agreement. 

Priyanshu Painyuli in ‘Upstarts’. Photo: Netflix

This trio of friends mirror the urban Indian millennial story, which more often than not, is a mixed bag of motley goals and achievements. Upstarts’ enduring relatability and brilliant performances will keep you hooked till the end as it subtly reminds you “Duniya badalne ke sab ke apne-apne tarikey hai (Everyone changes the world in different ways.)”

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