In Conversation with Sandeep Balan – the Man Behind the ‘Half Day’ Viral Video

13 . Aug . 2018
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Sandeep Balan is brimming with content – and that shows in all the web series that’s he writing up. Sandeep’s writing shows the deep understanding he has of the nick nacks and nitty gritty that an urban individual faces in their lives. His web series Rise gained good reviews and now, What’s Your Status is turning out to be one of the better made web series. The Digital Hash got in touch with Sandeep and spoke about everything that makes him – and his work tick.

What’s the basic concept behind the channel Cheers

We wanted to tell fun, entertaining & slice of life stories which the youth could relate to. The Cheers channel was born out of that desire to entertain with real stories and real emotions. While the channel is only about an year old, but the love from the audience for our kind of stories within this short span of time has been overwhelming. We have released 3 short films (Half Ticket, Half Ticket 2 & Born Free) and 2 Web Series (Rise & What’s Your Status) under the Ultra Shorts banner on our channel till date. The channel has clocked over 40 Mn views and has over 3.45 lakh subscribers so far.

How do you decide on the concept for your stories?

Every writer has his own way of developing a story. For me, it starts with an idea…a brainwave. And then I go on building the story around it. The first short film I wrote for Ultra Shorts on Cheers channel was ‘Half Ticket’. I just got fascinated with the idea of a blind date unfolding at a Derby and two strangers having a fun evening out there. ‘Half Ticket’ was born out of that thought. We had 0 subscribers when we released our first Ultra Shorts and had to depend on word of mouth to get this story to travel. It ended up getting close to 1.8 Mn views and users loved it! There was something magical about ‘Half Ticket’. The chemistry between the lead pair – Naveen Kasturia & Gunjan Malhotra, the production team that captured the little things and the fun vibe of the Derby; everything just worked really well and we kick-started our journey.

For the next short film, again the idea of a beatboxer stuck in a mundane 9 to 6 corporate job started taking shape in my head and I started developing the story. It resulted in ‘Born Free’, featuring Sumeet Vyas & Mukti Mohan. It clocked over 5.4 Mn views and really accelerated our growth.

The thought which led to our first web series, ‘Rise’, is also an interesting story. I was reading a lot about the IT layoffs around the same time last year. ‘Rise’ was born out of the idea of an IT guy losing his job the same day he manages to buy his dream bike after saving for years. This road trip story needed more run time and it became our first web series on the channel. Vikrant Massey really got into the skin of the character, Shrey, and ‘Rise’ made a lot of people take notice of our channel. The Cheers channel really started taking shape with this particular web series.

‘The Rise’ Web Series has been critically acclaimed. Tell us the process of starting this web series.

‘Rise’ was really special as it got the channel a lot of recognition and awards! Besides all the awards it picked up here, it was the only Indian web series to be selected at the Los Angeles Web Festival which had over 6300 submissions from over 40 countries. ‘Rise’ was screened at the Sony Studios, Hollywood earlier this year and also picked up an award there. It came out at a time when the ‘IT layoffs’ were a really hot topic and hence instantly connected with a large number of people. There’s hardly any content piece of ours where you won’t find comments from users asking for the next season of ‘Rise’. It got a lot of critical acclaim and was popular among the online audience at the same time.

As I mentioned earlier, the idea of losing your job on your most special day was the premise with which I started writing. Then I started building on the road trip angle. The thought of a road trip, which starts solo but circumstances leading to a completely opposite personality, a 55 year old stranger, becoming the pillion rider, was how I took the story ahead. Both Vikrant as Shrey and Atul Shrivastava, who played Sharma Ji, were in top form and had a crackling chemistry. That combined with all the beautiful shots on the road trip to Sikkim really made Rise a must watch. It clocked over 20 Mn views! We were thrilled with the response and we scaled our first significant YouTube milestone of 1 lakh subscribers with ‘Rise’.

You have signed up some of the most talented actors for the quirky characters. Tell us about the casting process.

When I am writing the screenplay and dialogues of my stories, I generally write keeping an actor in mind. I guess each writer has his own process and this is mine. It helps me bring in the quirks in the dialogues better and I am able to visualise the sequences in my head while penning them. Kudos to the casting & production team of Ultra Shorts, we have been lucky that to rope in the same actors which we had in mind while developing the script.

Who is your favourite character from the web series?

Each one has been special. Ayaan from Half Ticket, played by Naveen Kasturia, was a character who was forever confused which leads to funny sequences. Naveen tells me he is like that in his personal life as well and perhaps that’s why it came out so well on screen. Samarth from Born Free, played by Sumeet Vyas, on the other hand was a character who was living a double life and had to be handled accordingly which Sumeet did so well! But my favourite has to be Shrey from Rise, played by Vikrant Massey. He was not the typical hero where everything goes his way and when the series starts off, there was a lot of frustration and negativity in his character. It’s the journey that slowly starts bringing out a totally different side of him. It was challenging since you want the audience to like the character despite all his flaws. It’s these flaws, but the willingness to adapt and change, that makes Shrey an interesting character. Vikrant did a brilliant job bringing Shrey to life.

Apart from the main characters, there are also the important characters like the dad from Rise, brilliantly potrayed by Shishir Sharma and Sharma Ji, again amazingly played by Atul Shrivastava that are as special as the leads. The dad son scene in ‘Rise’ between Shishir Sharma & Vikrant Massey is my personal favorite. I wrote the dad’s dialogues basis how my father would respond in a scenario like that. That 10 minute conversation has so many emotions in it. Every time I play that part, it just leaves me with a big smile at the end of it.

How difficult was it to create not one but three storylines that vibe together so well?

To be honest, ‘What’s Your Status’, our latest web series, took me a long time to write. The show was built on the thought – ‘the other side is always greener’. When you are single, you want to be committed. And when you are married, there are times when you miss the days you were single and carefree. The idea was to bring out these nuances in a fun, engaging web series. I just thought it would be really cool to show 3 parallel stories around relationships, each one focusing on the status of their current romantic life.

While the idea got stuck in my head, writing it out was a lot difficult than what it looked at the start. It was like writing 3 different web series at the same time and that was extremely challenging! This could easily have been made as 3 different web series, one each for single, committed and married storylines; but then it would have been like all the other series already out there on the web. All three storylines combined makes it a grand affair and gives it a whole different vibe. What I started off thinking would be an easy, breezy write had me in knots once I started as the sequences across stories had to fit in and it needed to look like one. So yes, it was anything but a breeze. But the response has been worth all the time it took to write this one.

You have hired actors from a diverse range, how were your experiences working with them?

Our production house, Twilight Entertainment, does an amazing job of managing all the diverse talent we have on the floor. It’s a fun atmosphere at our shoots and the whole credit goes to them for pulling it off every single time. They shot and edited ‘What’s Your Status’ in record time.

The series has a warm, bittersweet feel to it, quite different from the dark and edgy ones that are popular right now. Was it a conscious decision to keep it like that?

Yes, I feel our strength is fun, slice of life dramedies. Our audience is used to a particular type of storytelling from us and we strive hard to keep it as relatable as possible. ‘What’s Your Status’ has something for everyone and it’s a fun watch. The warm, bittersweet feel about the series is the reason it’s getting a lot of interest. It’s a light watch and a feel good series.

One of the scenes has gone viral, tell us about that. How does it feel to see your work going viral?

The ‘Half Day’ video has gone viral and how! The response that the ‘Half Day’ office rant has got has been insane. Everyone is talking about it and sharing it! I have friends writing in from US, UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Dubai etc. that this is being shared there on their WhatsApp groups as well. It’s got over 6 lakh shares on Facebook from the user post links that we have been tracking and every other day, we come across new post links with equally big share numbers on them. It’s literally all over the feeds across all platforms. And it’s hardly been 3-4 days since we posted the clip. It’s really mind boggling.

To be honest, while writing the ‘Half Day’ scene, which is a sequence from our latest web series ‘What’s Your Status’, I had a strong feeling that this one had the potential to go viral as the insight was based on a deep rooted corporate culture that almost everyone had faced at some point. Writing basis an extremely strong insight helped create that magical concoction, I believe. Naveen Polishetty did an amazing job of channelling the frustration of a guy who is tired of such taunts every now and then and just letting go. He even added a few things from his own IT days into the dialogues and just ran with it. The output was terrific. Since it was relatable to the core and honest, we were sure every person out there would be able to find his voice in this clip. What I had not anticipated was that it would end up becoming one of the most viral videos in the country and go massively viral across all social platforms including LinkedIn & would be all over WhatsApp! It’s an amazing feeling. It just makes you realize and acknowledge the power of internet!

Some say that product placement is the death knell for creativity, but your series does it seamlessly, how did that happen?

The brand KF Ultra plays the enabler in each of the Ultra Shorts stories and is subtly woven into situations which lend itself to a natural integration. The attempt from our end has always been to tell a fun and entertaining story, showcasing real people and real emotions. And at the end of the day, that’s what the brand DNA is as well for KF Ultra. That’s the reason the integrations look seamless, I feel.

Will Cheers always be about feel good content, or will we see other genres of content?

Feel good content has worked really well for us so far. Our audience expects Cheers to keep coming with similar content, given the kind of stories we have been putting out. We are happy in this space right now and haven’t thought too much into the future to be honest.

Why do you think more and more actors and creators are coming to the streaming platforms?

It’s the absolute freedom that creators have to tell their stories their way that drives them to these platforms. And the instant & genuine audience reaction you get right on the spot. Make no mistake, online audience can be the most ruthless and will not hold themselves back from voicing their displeasure. So the creators can’t relax and take them for granted. I feel that makes the actors and creators be on their toes and give their best shot on the medium as well.

Do you think there should be a censor board for streaming?

No, there shouldn’t be. It takes away the freedom of expressing yourself that the creators right now enjoy, which is the best thing about streaming platforms.

What’s next for Cheers?

After ‘What’s Your Status’ season finale towards the end of August, we have a new web series lined up towards the end of September. Then a short film that will immediately follow the web series in November. We plan to release a few more titles between December to March and end this year on a real high!