Embarking on his first Agatha Christie adaptation, director Vishal Bhardwaj has skipped the usual suspects — and detectives — and settled on The Sittaford Mystery, a shivery, snowbound story from 1931. The book’s one-off heroine, the nippy and likable Miss Emily Trefusis, presented a ripe opportunity for Bhardwaj and lead actor Wamiqa Gabbi. Unburdened by the cultural ubiquity of a Poirot or a Miss Marple, they could take the character anywhere they pleased; even make her a foulmouthed Punjabi girl in a beanie who frequently addresses the screen. And yet, this need for eccentric invention becomes a roadblock for Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley.
Before we meet Charlie, we’re introduced to some of her suspects. On a stormy evening evocatively shot by cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain, several people huddle inside a cottage, watching a séance. A spirit named ‘Lady Rose’ is apparently summoned; she, in turn, indicates the death of one Brigadier Rawat (Gulshan Grover). Though the guests seem to brush it off, one twitchy character decides to trudge down to Manali — several kilometers away — and check on his old friend. His instincts prove right: the moneyed brigadier is found slain in his home. The cops hastily arrest Jimmy, the ex-armyman’s nephew who had visited him earlier in the day, the improbability of Vivaan Shah playing a cold-blooded murderer clearly lost on the Manali force.
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Particularly convinced of Jimmy’s innocence is his fiancée, Charulata aka Charlie. She is an amateur sleuth (in a sweet detail, it was her mother, Patiala’s fearsome Dolly Chopra, who was the professional). Arriving posthaste in Manali, Charlie unearths a web of secrets and lies, motives and money problems. Turns out, mustachioed Rawat was leaving behind a large estate and everyone, including his closest relatives, wanted a piece. Kenneth Branagh with his recent Poirot films has revived interest in the all-star Christie adaptation. Bhardwaj takes a different, slightly arthouse route to this trend: in addition to the entire Shah family — Vivaan, Naseer, Ratna Pathak, Imaad, Heeba — we get Lara Dutta as one of Rawat’s secretive tenants, and Priyanshu Painyuli as a streetsmart reporter who teams up with Charlie.
Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley (Hindi)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Wamiqa Gabbi, Priyanshu Painyuli, Gulshan Grover, Vivaan Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Naseeruddin Shah, Lara Dutta
Run-time: 34 to 49 minutes
Storyline: Charlie, an amateur sleuth, is determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé, arrested for avunculicide
Wamiqa Gabbi is one of the most exciting actors working in current Hindi cinema. She’s got wit and charm — and a prettiness that is not standard-issue Bollywood. She was striking in Jubilee, playing an actress in the 1940s and 50s, but also sweetly memorable in the Vishal Bhardwaj segment in Modern Love: Mumbai. The actor and director have forged a thrilling creative partnership — they have Khufiya coming up next week — and while Charlie may not be the most compelling protagonist on paper, Gabbi peeps and probes with flair and self-possession. There is, however, one fatal snag.
Now and then, Charlie trains her hazel-brown eyes on the camera and talks directly to the audience. It is a blatant steal of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s inspired fourth-wall-breaking in the two seasons of Fleabag. Here, it’s not so inventive, Charlie’s remarks neither cutting nor revealing in a special, privileging way. They work as an occasional exclamation mark — “What even…?!”, Gabbi blinks on multiple occasions — but mostly register as a gimmick. Also, what’s the point of getting inside a detective’s head when the fun lies in staying on the outside, observing and trying to work out their every move?
Bhardwaj and his co-writers draw out the suspense with a series of reveals and red herrings. Episodes flit from character to character; the process of elimination — once we latch on to it — leaves out only a handful of suspects to charge. It is a rather standard, elementary way of designing a whodunit. As in his Shakespeare films, though, Bhardwaj finds interesting ways to Indianise the material. Charlie’s introductory scene is at a brash Punjabi wedding, where she gamely tracks down the groom’s stolen shoes (notice the motif of implicating footwear). A sub-plot resolves itself through knowledge of the 1966 thriller Teesri Manzil. Elsewhere, a reference to Hindustani classical music is followed, funnily and inevitably, with a death by tabla.
Charlie’s credo, announced with a confident head bobble, goes: “Case jinna mushkil, fees unni katt.” Memorable female detectives are thin on the ground in Hindi films and shows. Vidya Balan has played a few over the years — most recently in Neeyat — but none have yielded or deserved a franchise. If future seasons are made, Bhardwaj and Gabbi stand a chance to change the game. Just drop the Fleabag.
Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley is currently streaming on SonyLIV