Jawan is playing so resoundingly in theatres that we’re bound to feel its reverberations almost everywhere. Like, for instance, in Disney+ Hotstar’s dour new crime series, Kaala. A patriotic soldier and his upstanding son are reunited across time. There is a reckoning with tainted legacies. Slimy corporations attempt to sway governments, topple regimes. Highway raids, hangings, ethical hackers, female snipers… it’s all there. This is Jawan for anyone who prefers the stiff, rarefied charms of Avinash Tiwary over the prosaic ones of Shah Rukh Khan.
Creator: Bejoy Nambiar
Cast: Avinash Tiwary, Rohan Vinod Mehra, Nivetha Pethuraj, Jitin Gulati, Taher Shabbir, Hiten Tejwani
Run-time: 30-55 minutes
Storyline: IB officer Ritwik attempts to bring down a multinational hawala cartel. As the past bears down, he finds himself branded a rogue and a criminal
Bejoy Nambiar’s series begins in 1988, with an Indian military truck blown up with dynamite on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Subhendu Mukherjee (Rohan Vinod Mehra), the sole survivor, is accused of turning on his own battalion, sent in to scuttle Bangladeshi rebel forces using clandestine wartime tunnels as a smuggling route. Subhendu escapes and, hunted and outlawed by the army, hides in Darjeeling. He continues to seek justice in civilian garb, assuming a new identity – Adinath Bagchi – and tailing the fortunes of three paramilitary guards who had set him up, including Balwant (Jitin Gulati). The botched mission was called ‘Operation Ricochet’, a suitably poetic choice, since its ramifications will continue to echo throughout the series.
Buttressing the past storyline is a relatively present one. In 2018, Ritwik (Avinash Tiwary), an officer with the Intelligence Bureau (IB), is held and tortured in a railyard. He is rescued by a team of assorted cops, who mention a timely ‘tip-off’. Could it be….? Anyhow, Ritwik is on the tail of Naman Arya (Taher Shabbir), a trim garbage magnet suspected of cross-national money laundering (or ‘reverse hawala’). A complicated chain of events sees Ritwik branded a rogue and a criminal, much like his father — you guessed it, Subhendu – was many years ago.
Kaala has five writers (Nambiar, Francis Thomas, Pryas Gupta, Mithila Hegde, Shubhra Swarup), multiple timelines (1988, 2018, 1971, 1965) and vast narrative scope. What begins as a taut thriller on post-demonetisation financial crimes quickly mushrooms into a generational saga about the circularity of pain. It’s potent material for Nambiar, a director easy to classify – and thus dismiss – as more style than substance. Mind you, the flourishes are there: drone shots, split-screens, a black-and-white flashback with a boxed-in aspect ratio. There is even a silent, extended cameo by experimental filmmaker Q. Nevertheless, Nambiar displays occasional maturity in the dramatic bits. Cinematographer Siddharth Srinivasan is in sturdy, restrained form. Several of the scenes land on account of the writing and performances alone, emotions surpassing embellishment.
Like The Family Manand The Night Manager before it, Kaala is attuned to the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent. The series is straight-faced about Indo-Bangladesh military relations before and after the Liberation War. It also has an eye on domestic politics — there is a smirking CM of uncertain loyalties. Though it’s not as well etched-out as in The Family Man, we see multiple agencies working together in an uneasy alliance; IB, CBI, local cops and officials. The pan-India accents are a source of constant comedy; when IB officer Sitara (Nivetha Pethuraj) instructs a state cop in Tamil-accented Hindi, the angered retort is in Bengali.
Mita Vashisht deserves a Razzie for her Mamata Banerjee act (it won’t diminish her several genuine accolades). Avinash Tiwary is a dependably stoic lead, very sharp and business-like. If only he could have some fun. His Ritwik isn’t as shrewd a protagonist as I initially presumed (“Can poisoning lead to a heart attack?” he enquires in one scene). I preferred Rohan Mehra in the older timeline; the actor conveys a nervy single-mindedness that’s perfect for his lonewolf character. “A patriot has become a traitor,” a newspaper article says of him, echoing the fate of Vikram Rathore in Jawan. It’s always healthy to have Indian audiences sensitized to the pitfalls of nationalistic narratives. Unexpectedly, a mainstream blockbuster is doing it so much better.
Kaala is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar