The murkiness of the channels of money laundering and the darkness that dwells in human souls dominate the black hole that Kaala, a Disney+Hotstar series created and directed by Bejoy Nambiar, dives into in order to explore a bitter and violent battle of attrition between a pair of wronged heroes and a clutch of deadly deviants.
Notwithstanding a handful of surprise twists, a couple of attention-grabbing characters, a few startlingly enthusiastic performances and its technical proficiency, the show does not whip up the kind of excitement, tension and mental stimulation that one would expect from a crime thriller with a complex, multiple-timelines narrative.
With the writers biting off more than they can chew and, therefore, grappling with too many wayward, untamable components, the intricacies of the plot are lost in a bewildering maze of convolutions. Kaala, as a result, is a frenzied blend of suspense, adventure and dramatic highs that never settles into a rhythm.
For all the manic momentum that Kaala attains, the eight-episode series is an incoherent blur. Its pace and densities, which should otherwise have been the strengths of the show, get the better of it and lend it a gratuitously breathless feel.
Set in Kolkata, the hills of North Bengal and areas around India’s border with Bangladesh, Kaala, which is Nambiar’s first shot at being a showrunner and solo director of an entire series, deals with two men from two generations who fight with their backs to the wall to clear their names.
Set up by rivals within their own organisations – the Indian Army and the Intelligence Bureau – the two victims of calumny are up against international money laundering masterminds, a motley group of New York-based individuals who do not reveal themselves until pretty late in the series.
In the course of a black op on the border in 1988, an ambush claims the lives of eleven Indian soldiers. Only one man, Major Subhendu Mukherjee (Rohan Vinod Mehra), survives. He is blamed for the deaths and branded a traitor. A lookout notice forces the army officer to go into hiding.
Thirty years on, another Mukherjee, Intelligence Bureau officer Ritwik (Avinash Tiwary, in his second web show of the week), aided by information provided to him by a mystery caller, is on the trail of a reverse hawala scam. He stumbles upon too many truths and upsets people who wield political and financial power, including a waste recycling entrepreneur Naman Arya (Taher Shabbir). Ritwik is framed in the very case that he is investigating. He takes to his heels.
Hopping back and forth between 1988 and 2018, with occasional pits stops somewhere in the mid-1990s, Kaala tells a story so tortuous and contrived that it often leaves one gasping for breath – and an air of clarity. One man goes from being a soldier to a deserter; the other from being an IB officer to a wanted felon. Fate isn’t the only thing that connects the two.
The show abounds in interesting characters that you want to know much more about – nobody more so than the one that Jitin Gulati (who, too, has another web show this week) plays with phenomenal panache. The character has an arc that probably deserved a whole show but since that isn’t the case – the role is riddled with holes.
The screenplay (co-written by Nambiar with Francis Thomas, Priyas Gupta, Mithila Hegde and Shubhra Swarup) is exceedingly sparing with information that could illuminate the motives and compulsions of the supporting characters. Among them is one key member of Ritwik’s team who is more than a colleague, Sitara (Nivetha Pethuraj).
If the idea is to keep the audience guessing, the overly showy, elliptical sleights that Kaala banks upon are usually more befuddling than mystifying. The result is a show that seeks to deliver thrills without letting the audience know what on earth is going on.
Kaala has a female character clearly modelled on the current chief minister of Bengal. That lady is played by Mita Vashisht (it is unlikely that she has ever had role this shallow and half-baked). She isn’t named but in one stray scene someone refers to her as Didi. She has a giveaway accent that reduces her to a gimmicky, single-note woman. She is also given negative shades that are never fully spelled out.
That is the fate that befalls many of the other supporting characters in an overcrowded show that seems to believe in the-more-the-merrier dictum. So, people appear and disappear and reappear randomly around Ritwik and Sitara. The former has a well-connected mother (Sreelekha Mitra) who pops up occasionally, the former is mother to a chirpy little girl who remains largely in the shadows.
The IB’s tech girl (Tanika Basu), the bureau’s chief Himanshu (Danish Aslam), CBI man Danish (Anil Charanjeet), Darjeeling footballer Aaloka (Elisha Mayor), a girl with links with the fugitive army man we see in protracted flashbacks, and an Indo-Bangla border dweller (Hiten Tejwani) who has revenge on his mind, get the short shrift although a few of them do have sufficient footage to be able to emerge above the din.
The show casts a Tamil actress to play an IB official from Chennai – and that is great for the sake of authenticity because she has an identifiable accent that goes with the flow of role and does not reduce her to a butt of ridicule the way a caricaturized diction does in the case of the unnamed woman politician.
Kaala makes do with non-Bengali actors for its two principal characters. The cast, however, has several supporting actors from Kolkata – they either punctuate their Hindi with a smattering of Bangla or have a stereotypical accent.
On the subject of authenticity, the worst casualty in Kaala is Rabindranath Tagore. Two of his songs, which play as part of the background score, are mauled beyond recognition. What the makers of the series forget is that Tagore’s verse set to music is as much poetry as it is sound. Forget the poetry – the songs chosen have no bearing on the story – Kaala does not even get the sound right.
Avinash Tiwary (in his second web show of the week) gamely shoulders the responsibility of fleshing out the tormented yet tenacious male protagonist. Rohan Mehra plays a steady hand amid the mayhem swirling around him.
Nivetha Pethuraj is saddled with a sketchily-etched character that could have done with more substance. Elisha Mayor, playing a meatier role with a clear trajectory, has her moments but the actor to watch in Kaala is Jitin Gulati. One is left wishing that he had greater support from the script.
Kaala, all sound and fury, is a shot in the dark that misses the mark by a mile and a half.
Avinash Tiwary, Rohan Vinod Mehra, Nivetha Pethuraj, Taher Shabbir, Hiten Tejwani