First, let me say good riddance to an awful 2020, our annus horribilis that we lived through the miasma of fear. And boredom. I hope 2021 will free us of this dreadful pandemic at least by the end of this year, and we can go to the cinema, enjoy watching a film on the big screen with others, once again. But, I do have this niggling doubt if we will ever throng theatres with the old nonchalance again. Binge-watching series after series (playing catch up) and hunting down an arcane film will grow from an acquired taste (in my case) to a settled habit.

I have a confession to make. I took care to stay away from all the much talked about series because of the fear of addiction — having seen maniacally obsessed fans of Game of Thrones putting aside all else in life. I had tasted this with Homeland, and swore to stay off. Famous last words. I appreciate how much more creative leeway a series gives writers, directors, and actors. It can give the freedom to be expansive, explore sub-plots and minor characters, to create an immersive world for us to plunge in. Paatal Lok sucks you in and doesn’t let go, a noir crime thriller that rewrites the genre and makes it so India specific. The gritty narrative reveals wheels within wheels, and exposes the cosy nexus between the media, top echelons of the police, and the unseen political players. Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) is stationed on the fringes of Delhi, where nothing exciting ever happens. Gul Panag as his wife, Renu, brings to nuanced life the middle-class mindset of a woman who has to keep up with other wives in the dreariest of grey government quarters.

Bollywood

The tone and ambience, both at home and police station, are pitch perfect. Kudos to directors Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy of Season 1. They make the transition from Lutyens Delhi — the swarg reserved for the privileged few — to the drab outskirts of the capital where real people live their mundane lives, and then plunge us into the hell of India’s badlands, where the unseen parallel power centre bludgeons the locals into fear and submission. The writing team, led by Sudip Sharma, creates a layered narrative that starts with a high octane chase on a bridge and a botched attempt on a primetime news anchor Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). The basic idea is supposed to be based on Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of my Assassins (I haven’t read it), but the makers take it to a level that hasn’t been seen in an Indian series so far, including Sacred Games. The minute detailing — of characters, back stories, locations, inter-connections, dialects — heightens the drama and suspense, all edged with black humour. And yes, glancing political comment that thrusts like a rapier in spite of being oblique. It is revealing of producer Anushka Sharma’s penchant for gritty, even brutal drama — as shown in NH10, the first film she produced. We are avid for Season 2.

As we are for The Family Man’s second coming. This Manoj Bajpayee starrer is engaging and professionally told, though predictability creeps into the formula of a secret ops agent maintaining the façade of a dull file-pusher in a bureaucratic labyrinth. His friendship with loyal colleagues is what keeps him going on the path of derring-do, while he helplessly watches his wife drifting away, along with the two kids. A family man’s dilemma when he has to serve the country incognito. The Bombay this series creates is recognisably aamchi Mumbai. Honestly, till the Emmy crowned it the best drama, I desisted from watching Delhi Crime that premiered in 2019, because one really doesn’t want to go into the harrowing Nirbhaya territory again, to be reduced to anger and sorrow by the inherent gratuitous voyeurism one expects after two much feted documentaries on the subject. India’s Daughter was broadcast by the BBC in the face of our government’s strenuous effort to block its screening, and many here saw it online. The focus was on the rapists and their lawyers. Leslee Udwin stripped naked these self-righteous apologists, who trotted out class and educational differences between the victim and her unrepentant rapists as mitigating factors. Deepa Mehta’s Anatomy of Violence reconstructed with a group of actors the background of men who are portrayed as social dregs, driven by their deprived circumstances. It was disturbing, because in the process of deconstructing the roots of violence that created such monsters, the narrative lost focus on the victim. Given this background, Delhi Crime redresses the narrative bias that had crept into more “prestigious” productions. It is an efficiently constructed police procedural, based on extensive research into the women and men working in the police stations. I mention women first because the hero of the series is DCP South Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah is known for being choosy about her projects), who lives in the police station for days and nights till all the six criminals are caught, within a record of six days.

Writer and director Richie Mehta researched for five years, and met the then Commissioner of Police to get the facts and details right. It is a challenge to engage an audience when you know the outcome of an investigation, and the skill lies in telling us how it was done. Next, the balance between detail, action, and suspense has to be very fine. Mehta’s success owes to the right cast, who come out real (even when their backstories are necessarily brief), sound real in their quirks of speech, have the right body language, and their interactions hit the right tone. Some actors stand out other than Shefali Shah — Rajesh Tailang as Sub Inspector Bhupendra Singh, the DCP’s reliable right hand, Jaya Bhattacharya as Vimla Bharadwaj, who asserts herself to charge the teenaged criminal as a juvenile, Raska Dugal is the fresh-faced, sensitive IPS trainee who is assigned to help the victim’s family, Adil Hussain as the suave Commissioner who backs his team, and navigates, adroitly, through various political pressure groups. Not that the others are any less, but these stand out. Delhi Crime is restrained when it comes to scenes dealing with the rape victim. Her ordeal may be described by the attending doctor in clinical terms, but shocked revulsion and overwhelming compassion come through in an unexpected manner. It is a must-watch, not because it won an Emmy, but for its scrupulously fair tone that shows the police at their best, and sometimes, bumbling worst, but doesn’t indulge in a whitewash job. Another plus point is the natural mix of English and Hindi (including the gaalis, which the subtitles don’t shirk). It’s the way much of India speaks, not just the big cities.

2020

How you wish Mira Nair dared to use this easy mix of languages in a prestigious project made by the BBC. A Suitable Boy has many charms, and a lot more flaws. People might have given up on this miniseries that compressed a 1000+ word epic tome set in an India that is no longer euphoric, but faces many post-Independence problems. Epic is implicit with a multi-layered narrative, embedded with many sub-stories. The outraged Hindutva puritan’s complaint against a kiss in a temple (between a Hindu girl and Muslim man) might have briefly brought the justifiably criticised series a few curious viewers, but not all would have lasted through a turgid tale that crammed events and people into a severely restricted time frame. The central story of the hunt for a suitable boy to marry Lata Mehra, a fetching 19-year-old student, branches out to include her extended family, friends — taking her to Calcutta and Lucknow from fictional Brahmpur. So many themes — India’s first general election, fraught Hindu-Muslim relationships, land reforms, feudalism, snobbish Anglophones versus pragmatic desi entrepreneurs — they all clamour for space in a mini-series that can’t accommodate them. Along with Lata’s three suitors, there is the younger son of a minister, and his obsession with the older tawaif Saeeda Bai, played with world-old sophistication by Tabu.

You need two episodes to find out who is who, and how they are all related. The all-important hook goes missing in the confusing welter of so much happening to so many people. If only Mira Nair had insisted on a longer series, over two seasons, A Suitable Boy could have been memorable. It remains an unsatisfactory curiosity now. One doesn’t know what Vikram Seth thought of Andrew Davies’ script. That remains in the realm of conjecture.

Period recreation can’t be an end in itself. It has to have flesh and blood, characters, and a story that goes beyond its setting. The Queen’s Gambit is already being touted as a serious contender for next year’s Emmys. Even if you can’t tell a pawn from a rook or a knight from a bishop, The Queen’s Gambit makes chess sexy, and capable of working as a larger metaphor for a lonely, troubled child’s journey to success unimaginable for a teenage girl in ’60s America. The 1983 Walter Tevis novel was advertised as ‘a sleeper gem’, and Michael Ondaatje said he reread it “every few years — for the pure pleasure and skill of it.” So, as expected, a few fans of the novel who seek life lessons from it find the series flawed. I don’t carry that literary baggage. The Queen’s Gambit, created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, certainly deserves the cult status it has gained. The early episodes are masterly in evoking atmospherics, the cinematography creates the chiaroscuro of B&W. They start as a flashback from a Paris hotel, where Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, remember this name) struggles out of a bathtub where she has passed out in a drunken stupor, and staggers to meet her penultimate opponent before taking on the Russian grandmaster.

2020

This is a fictional story, not based on any real girl, but there are strong echoes of Bobby Fischer, the child prodigy. Changing the gender is empowering. Beth Harmon transforms into a focused, confident young woman from a gawky child. Taylor-Joy owns the entire series. She lives her character’s obsessive passion for the game, and also her dependency on drugs and alcohol. Will there be a season 2? Where will Beth Harmon go after defeating the reigning world champion? The world, hooked on the story, waits. The world that is interested in the Indian arranged marriage system, also waits for season 2 of Indian Matchmaking, that most love to hate. Is it honest in its portrayal of a section of wealthy Indians at home and abroad? It is supposed to be a reality show, but is so obviously scripted that we can question the documentary label. Sima Taparia is Mumbai’s best-known matchmaker, finding a suitable girl for a diffident Mama’s boy who wants someone like his mother; or the difficult Aparna in the US who will not compromise with what she demands from a prospective husband. Aparna is the only person I could relate to. This is a series that makes you cringe, and at the same time, has that inexplicable ability to make you watch the next episode against your conscious will. What’s the secret of success of cringe-worthy stuff getting under your skin, a different kind of virus that needs a vaccine? Is it because we are like that only?