Film: SONYLIV: Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Wamiqa Gabbi, Priyanshu Painyuli, Naseeruddin Shah, Neena Gupta, Lara Dutta, Ratna Pathak Shah, Gulshan Grover, Imaad Shah, Vivaan Shah and Paoli Dam
Her name is Chopra. Charlie Chopra. From Mohalla Gaddakhana, near Sheran Wala Gate, Patiala, Punjab, 147001. That’s how we are introduced to the protagonist. An introduction which would be akin to reading out someone’s Aadhaar card had it not been for the catchy tune and Sunidhi Chauhan’s wonderful voice! As a title song, it is quite hummable.
The series starts with Charlie Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi) cracking the case of missing juttis of a bridegroom and ends with solving a case of triple murder in the picturesque Solang valley. As the daughter of formidable detective Dolly Chopra, she has a legacy to carry forward, and we know how serious she is about her craft from her tagline — Case jinna mushkil, fees unni ghatt!
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Indianised version of Agatha Christie’s ‘The Sittaford Mystery’ unfolds at a cottage in Manali. A séance is in progress and one by one we are introduced to the characters who would eventually be on Charlie’s list of suspects. The spirit of some Lady Rose is summoned and it tells the gathering about the death of Brig Rawat (Gulshan Grover).
Most guests are sceptical but Col Barua (Baharul Islam) decides to brave a snow storm to walk to Solang, a three-hour journey on foot, to check on his friend and employer. On arrival, Barua finds the rich Brigadier indeed murdered. The cops arrest Jimmy (Vivaan Shah), the retired Brigadier’s nephew, the murdered man’s last visitor, on that fateful night.
Enters Charlie Chopra on the scene. Jimmy is her fiancé. As Charlie goes about checking on every member of the small community, directly or indirectly linked to the slain Brigadier, skeletons tumble out from the closets, pointing to their need and greed for the Brigadier’s money and a possible motive for murder. These stories hide their killed aspirations, refugee status, oppression and unrequited love.
Bhardwaj and co-writers Jyotsna Hariharan and Anjum Rajabali keep the suspense going throughout the six episodes. Staying faithful to Agatha Christie’s style of solving a mystery, Bhardwaj keeps things rather elementary. He doesn’t empower his protagonist with too much technical help, but for a local journalist, Sitaram Bisht (Priyanshu Painyuli), whom Charlie coaxes into assisting her. Charlie’s observational powers and analytical mind are her only tools to bring Jimmy out of the mess.
Except for Charlie snooping around or at the most jumping over high walls or breaking into awkward runs, we don’t see her doing much action. But what she does often is talk to the audience directly. Breaking the proverbial fourth wall, Charlie tells us what’s going on in her mind. The inspiration comes from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s iconic character in British dramedy ‘Fleabag’. But since it’s a murder mystery and the goings-on inside Charlie’s mind have little to do with the case, it diminishes the gravity of the situation.
What, however, sings is Tassaduq Hussain’s cinematography. His evocative shots of snow-clad Manali and Solang, complemented by Bhardwaj’s music, add depth to the screenplay. Together, they create an atmosphere where serenity and danger lurking behind it go hand in hand. Bhardwaj allows us both time and space to ponder, and make our own guesses. And when we finally arrive at a conclusion, he introduces a twist.
But where Bhardwaj lets us down is that despite gathering an ensemble cast, he gives them little to do. It’s Wamiqa who dominates each frame, delightfully so. Painyuli, too, makes his presence felt. But the character sketches of the rest of the cast are so sketchy that it often creates confusion — who is who, related to whom and how, their formidable talent is never fully explored.
At times there are some significant events that unfold a twist, but lack details. A raunchy video clip involving Jimmy and a girl goes viral, which makes Charlie end her engagement. Who is the girl in the video? And what exactly happened to Charlie’s mother Dolly Chopra (Richa Chadha)?
Will we have to wait for Charlie’s next outing to find the answers? In all probability, yes! Because, at the end when Sitaram shows Charlie the headline ‘A Detective Is Born’, we can sense a detective franchise being born! And that won’t be such a bad thing.