Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Writers: Tigmanshu Dhulia Vijay Maurya Puneet Sharma
Cast: Richa Chadha, Pratik Gandhi, Ashutosh Rana, Raghuvir Yadav
Cinematographer: Rishi Punjabi
Editors: Unnikrishnan P.P, Prathamesh Chande
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
Watching crime fiction is a form of interrogation. You listen to a story, engage with it, ask questions, and hope for answers that reveal its true identity. The good ones challenge you and give you information you didn’t bargain for. The bad ones indulge in cheap trickery and empty twists. But there’s a third and most worrisome category: the crazy ones. The crazy ones speak so much that they get lost in a web of their own conceit. They get so distracted by their own voice that they become unreliable thinkers, forget unreliable narrators. They ask the questions themselves, answer them in broken fragments and end up interrogating you, the disoriented viewer, for daring to trust them. Then they escape. No prizes for guessing which category The Great Indian Murder belongs to.
The overwritten, overplotted nine-episode series drove me up the wall with its exhausting non-linearity, shapeless intrigue and narrative density. It’s based on an equally frustrating Vikas Swarup novel (Six Suspects), but aspires to be a massy Paatal Lok without the crutch of a single protagonist. By the final episode, I was both impressed and defeated: impressed by its stamina to go far and wide despite divulging nothing new, and defeated by its anthology-like incoherence and cultural caricatures. One of the characters even lives in a spaceship whose accident causes a quake in Delhi. Actually, that’s untrue. I don’t know why I wrote that. But it’s not implausible, given that the show bides time by darting in the most random directions. The quake-in-Delhi part is true though – the shaky-camera natural calamity scene serves zero purpose but it’s there, because by then the writing has painted itself into yet another corner.
The Great Indian Murder, like the book, is designed to be a hot take on every India – poor, rich, religious, political, primitive, corrupt – through the disparate stories of suspects in a high-profile assassination. The pilot waxes Bhandarkar-esque about the victim, Vicky Rai (Jatin Goswami), a malignant young industrialist who is shot dead at a party celebrating the overturning of his own conviction. He is shown to be a man worth killing. Subsequent episodes focus on the handful of suspicious characters who were present at the party – Vicky’s home-minister father (Ashutosh Rana), an Andamanese tribesman (Mani PR), a small-time thief (Shashank Arora), a former bureaucrat who thinks he’s Mahatma Gandhi (Raghubir Yadav) – and the events in their life that lead to this party. Each of them has a motive to kill Vicky, some have a gun, but everyone is a lousy shot; every time an episode reveals the person murdering Vicky in cold blood, the next one reveals that the bullet missed and it was in fact someone else who got him. A CBI investigation team is also formed, led by a dishonest officer (Pratik Gandhi) who is unofficially hired to frame the chief minister. His female subordinate (Richa Chadha) is the conscience of the case. There’s also a popular vlogger – the show’s version of the book’s investigative journalist – who breaks the biggest stories on his channel by wearing a mask, distorting his voice and tapping the phones of powerful politicians. (What is this utopia of free speech?). There are many, many more people in this potpourri of whodunnit madness, but I’ll stop here.
But you do need to know that this is the first season. Two more suspects from the book – a Bollywood actress, an American simpleton – are yet to be addressed. Or maybe they were lost in adaptation, which is weird, because the pilot features a Bollywood actress (Paoli Dam) at public loggerheads with Vicky Rai. Yet nobody finds it prudent to follow up on her. “There’s a caste system even in murder,” the book declares, but there’s apparently a gender heirarchy too. Having a stupid American character may not be wise – he was the most cringeworthy part of the book – but then again, there are bigger problems at play here. No, there are problems within problems. The Great Indian Murder is like a python that ends up squeezing itself to death. It has no single narrator, so it’s hard to tell the perspectives of those being interrogated from the perspective of the actual series. At one point, Eketi, the tribal man who simply ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, narrates to the officer his story in which he’s narrating to another officer his story: a flashback within a flashback. Yet, my issue has more to do with how exactly Eketi – who can barely speak a language – elaborates on his life to the Hindi-speaking officers.
The episode about Mohan Kumar, the bureaucrat with a split personality, is just as confusing: The exposition of his story is unclear, with pieces told by his driver, himself, his mistress and ordinary flashbacks. Small-time thief Munna’s story is divided across three separate episodes, the chronology of which is too scattered to understand. His romance with the politician’s daughter feels curiously incomplete, as though he loses interest in narrating how their love blossomed past the first meeting. I like screenplays that urge the audience to join the dots, but this one takes it too far. Given that Swarup’s debut novel, Q&A, was adapted into Slumdog Millionaire (which might have worked for that Japanese tourist in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. looking for “Poor India Hungry India”), it’s hardly surprising that The Great Indian Murder, too, commits the crime of exoticization. The series travels the breadth of the country, but not without conveying its diversity to the viewer. An entry into Chennai is marked by a Tamil film song shoot, Kolkata is marked by a montage of all its famous landmarks (including Howrah bridge), Andaman by a tribal dance around a fire and, of course, Jaisalmer by a Rajasthani folk ballad that disappears before its second stanza. A local woman in Jaisalmer speaks perfectly urban Hindi, but she disrobes like a Hollywood cosplay character.
Swarup is an ex-diplomat so Six Suspects was apolitical to begin with. But the series furthers the safety-first tone by replacing Uttar Pradesh with Chhattisgarh, adding naxalite undertones, with nearly no allusions to the social unrest in today’s India. Most of the characters are superficial, existing in a closed loop of corruption and sinister motives. Rai’s misdeeds from the book (mowing down pavement-dwellers, shooting blackbucks, killing a Delhi bartender who refuses to serve him) are altered too, with him being arrested for the trafficking and murder of two 15-year-old girls.
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Despite the crowded scenery, the film-making remains remarkably bland. Most of the frames lack a sense of visual identity and inquisitiveness. Every scene exists solely to move the story forward, to impart more information: the storytelling moves faster than its characters. It’s why there’s no standout performance either (except Mani PR as Eketi); the worldview lacks detail and authenticity. No moment is allowed to breathe. The transitions are awkward. People are rarely seen eating, thinking, living. Not a single shot feels choreographed with care – even Vicky’s death is shabbily shot, with the band behind him disappearing between one frame and the next.
“There’s so much going on” is a Tigmanshu Dhulia genre. His films often lack rhythm and look like they need the bandwidth of a longer format. But even his shows – such as Criminal Justice (2019) – look like they’re bursting at the seams. They lack the same rhythm at a larger level. (For some reason, writing this reminded me of Anupam Kher toasting Shah Rukh Khan in DDLJ: “We only failed in India, but you went and failed in London!”). The storytelling is physically hurried and intellectually unhurried at once. It’s strange: Vikas Swarup’s chaos should have synced well with Dhulia’s anarchy. Instead, we have a bloated crime series that resembles the security detail at Vicky Rai’s party. No less than three guns made it inside. Maybe the guards need to be interrogated, too.