In a seemingly innocuous scene from Udai Singh Pawar’s Upstarts, Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli) is sitting with his first investor Veer (Rajeev Siddhartha) whose old money and suave lifestyle intimidates him. They are both seated on one end of a long table in the conference room of a venture capital film — the second investor they are trying to attract. The investor walks in and she is everything that Kapil is not — firm, forthright and to the point. Veer talks about profits and she realises that he is not the founder. She looks straight at Kapil and asks him why he is letting the investor talk.
She explains that the investor will never be able to answer her question — “Why?” She walks away saying they’ll be in touch. Kapil comes to his senses and talks about the death of a man and how a timely injection could have saved him.
The scene works thanks to some inspired blocking from Pawar. As Kapil gathers himself to speak, he moves towards the venture capitalist on the other end of the table. She is almost out of the room. Veer is left alone on one end and the venture capitalist takes a seat to listen to Kapil. His story and his company now have a reason to exist. Pawar tracks the three characters from one end of the room where none of them was in harmony to the other end where Kapil finally finds himself, leaving the bad influence behind.
Upstarts is a about three friends bitten by the start-up bug. As the aforementioned story suggests, lack of medicines in a village they volunteer at, leads to a death and they begin on-demand delivery of medicines to remote places. Kapil, Yash (Chandrachoor Rai), and Vinay (Shadab Kamal) begin their venture on a whim. Most ventures such as theirs spring up on such a note. Yash is the technical brains behind the venture and Vinay is more of an ideator, who is also from a more privileged background compared to the other two.
Upstarts, written by Pawar and Ketan Bhagat, doesn’t romanticise the idea of startup and its culture. It recognises some, if not all, pitfalls of the culture, mainly the lack of empathy that is often the elephant in most board rooms. The three friends are either seduced or stressed in different ways and they are often at a loss as to how to deal with success and failure. Upstarts doesn’t cover the full gamut and neither does it wish to satirise the startup world, a luxury for a sprawling series like Silicon Valley.
The film trains its focus on very specific things — the struggle to stay afloat, the daily drudgery of solving the big picture problems the company is supposed to solve while thinking about compensation for the employees. It doesn’t let go of the inner lives of its protagonists — Vinay has had a failed love affair, Yash’s father is suffering from Parkinson’s, and Kapil shares his career woes with Jaya (Sheetal Thakur). Jaya becomes the moral center in Upstarts, the voice of reason who is ever present for Kapil to bounce off.
At the crux of the film is the eternal struggle that manifests itself as service vs profit. Jaya runs a startup that is more than just a suicide helpline app and faces her share of sexism-mixed cynicism along the way. Kapil has a hard time balancing his social outlook along with those of the investors who are portrayed as they are — constantly on the profit and valuation cycle.
The joys here mostly belong in the one on one conversations between Jaya and Kapil. Even their phone calls are shot with thought and care — when it is Jaya’s time of struggle, she is in a room full of boxes as she is moving her office for the hundredth time, and it is Kapil who conveys her own pep talk back to her.
The film is critical of the startup bubble — the exponential valuation of loss-making companies with the promise of growth. The scene described in the beginning is blocked to illustrate this bubble too. The first investor has earned his profit and made his exit. It is now the second investor who is promised the growth and Kapil sits down with her, and the inflated valuation. Upstarts delineates this by creating morally upright characters that don’t necessarily fit in in that world and are therefore able to look at it from a safe distance.