Slow burn, insightful, intriguing : The Tribune India

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Slow burn, insightful, intriguing

Slow burn, insightful, intriguing

Sonakshi Sinha, as Sub-Inspector Anjali Bhaati, makes a solid digital debut.

Film: Dahaad

Director: Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi

Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Gulshan Devaiah, Sohum Shah and Vijay Varma

Nonika Singh

A serial killer’s story with grisly social realities as its backdrop… what could be a better idea to foreground a significant concern in the shape of a thriller? Creators Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti come together once again, and the dream team unfurls its preoccupation with India’s prime time obsession — marriage. After the sophisticated world of wedding planners in ‘Made in Heaven’, they move into rustic Rajasthan.

Mandwa is a small town in the state where politics of caste and religion plays out in open domain. As the series begins, for a while you think it’s all about ‘love jihad’. The subject, though, simmers on the margins all through. But the larger picture here is of the subservient position of women, especially those who belong to low-caste, low-income households.

Of course, the series is not exactly a socio-political treatise or a sermon. It only flirts with the political climate in the country and is more concerned with social schism. But it sure is a reflection of the harsh world we in India inhabit even in the 21st century. At the centre of the drama unfolding bit by bit is a serial killer who lures vulnerable young girls of marriageable age. At the very onset, all fingers point at him and his identity is revealed soon enough. Clearly, this is not a whodunit but how he does it and how many has he managed to hoodwink to the point of fatality. Piecing together the jigsaw puzzle are Sonakshi Sinha as Sub-Inspector Anjali Bhaati and Gulshan Devaiah as Devilal Singh, her superior, the SHO. In a way, they are the moral centre of the world which is grey, amoral and outright sinister. Most thrillers centering around serial killers thrive on blood and gore. But ‘Dahaad’, the screenplay of which has been written by Zoya, Reema and Ritesh Shah, is more of a mind game. The methods the professor of Hindi literature, Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma), employs to get rid of his unsuspecting victims too are rather clean. That is why perhaps the series hits home harder for it’s close to the dismal reality… a chilling portrait of those preyed upon by a ruthless stranger and disowned by parents and family for fear of shame and dishonour.

If there is a pattern in the way Swarnakar entices women and makes them succumb to his advances, there is a pattern in the narrative too. At many a point, we are caught in a loop. Certain twists like Anjali Bhaati’s fleeting and nightly dalliances with her boyfriend appear forced, perhaps introduced only to find that elusive clue which will help her unravel the case. Cinematography by Tanay Satam paints a bleak picture of its own and the atmospherics are captured with great authenticity. In the later episodes, as Anand Swarnakar’s modus operandi is revealed, a certain kind of repetitiveness sets in the narrative. Since we get to see the victims only on the periphery, the series runs the danger of them being reduced to a number. Of course, the four main characters are fleshed out with complexities and greater detail. Sonakshi, last seen in ‘Double XL’, makes a solid digital debut. A rookie cop, she rides bikes, takes on her baiters and has her finger on the pulse of her case. She is supported exceptionally well by Gulshan Deviah and Sohum Shah. Shah’s character as Sub-Inspector Kailash Parghi is packed with some layers. Though why a cop without any moral compass does not want to be a father and feels the world is too ugly a place to bring a child into, is kind of indecipherable. Or perhaps, it is an indicator of the turn his character takes.

No doubt the series belongs to Varma, who has been proving his mettle in one project after another. Like his ‘Darlings’ character, there are many shades, and not just Jekyll and Hyde tones, to his persona. A psychopath with a singular lack of empathy, he plays the character of a monster hidden within without any standard tropes.

Stretching at eight hours, the series has its highs and lows. There are not too many nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat moments. The first Indian web series to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, ‘Dahaad’, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is slow burn yet an insightful and intriguing watch. It hinges upon the conventional cat-and-mouse game in an idiom and language that are typically Indian in their originality and flavour.

‘Dahaad’ may not exactly be a roar, but it’s a scream of thousands of real women, not just of the victims in the series.