It’s strangely fitting that one of the bleakest years in modern history has been one of the strongest for Hindi long-format storytelling. To be fair, we needed the arts. We needed the entertainment. But it’s not like I’m overstating their quality only because 2020 gave us plenty of time to mull over our small screens. (Though one can’t deny that the OTT space truly upped its game at the turn of March, at the beginning of the pandemic). Still, picking the 5 best titles of the year wasn’t, for once, a straightforward task. It also meant leaving out a number of competent contenders. This doesn’t mean the ones that didn’t make it (Asur, Undekhi) weren’t good. It’s just that the ones on the list are simply better.
Irrespective of thematic relevance and narrative diversity and the binge-watching culture, these shows are just fundamentally solid works of filmmaking. After all, unless you’re the Indian cricket team, when was being spoilt for choice not a boon?
Here are my top 5 Hindi-language web shows of 2020, ranked:
5. Aarya (Disney+Hotstar)
On paper, Aarya was a difficult sell. Yet another Hotstar remake of an international show, it was to be led by a star who hadn’t acted in a decade. It was set in a Rajasthan rarely acknowledged by Hindi cinema, and centered on a middle-aged woman – a mother, a widow – who is forced to inherit her late husband’s “business”. But this mismatch of worlds is precisely what creators Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi manage to weaponize: Everything in and about the show is a misfit, including its titular protagonist, as a result of which the narrative sort of internalizes this meta battle for survival. Sushmita Sen is eerily good, the writing somehow spotlights multiple threads (including an investigating officer who is both a sexual and religious minority), but what’s most remarkable about the ‘family thriller’ is how it illustrates the importance of culturally adapting – as opposed to artistically translating – a dramatic story. None of it looks derivative or forcibly inspired. Most of the battle is won when the world of Aarya feels like it could have existed nowhere else.
4. Pushpavalli Season 2 (Amazon Prime Video)
Pushpavalli is by far the ‘riskiest’ series in the Indian web space. Everything about it is disconcerting to the average viewer – the protagonist is a stalker, a delusional and pathetic character in a culture where ‘madness’ is considered more of a character trait than a mental condition. She is also a woman: one with self-esteem issues and a shame complex, unhinged in the manner of a wild puppy rather than a bloodthirsty wolf. Just as most of us are wired to use humour as a defense mechanism to cope with serious emotions, the show also uses a goofy exterior – the primary actors are stand-up comics – to hide a troubled core. To make matters worse, the second season of Pushpavalli released at the cusp of a new era (the nationwide lockdown) in March. It was the first of the streaming shows on this list to drop, and therefore the easiest to forget. Yet, Pushpavalli is memorable for how it turns anxiety into an artform – driven by persuasive filmmaking (the flashback montage becomes a language), excellent performances and a modest ecosystem whose complicity frames its “hero” as a backbencher in the class of life.
3. Panchayat (Amazon Prime Video)
Panchayat, the only “light” series in this list, is actually a poignant social drama parading as a slice-of-life comedy. As with most TVF shows, the tone is satirical – constructed to lull the viewer into an unsuspecting state of mind before slapping them with some life lessons. But this one gets the balance right. An episodic sitcom – about a rat-racing city boy inhabiting an obscure village to work as the secretary to the chieftain (or in Dwight’s universe, “assistant to the regional manager”) – isn’t meant to be fodder for thought. Panchayat, however, is charmingly written and performed, characterized by veteran Raghubir Yadav as the “pradhaan-pati”, without being overbearing. There are messages – progressive ones, practical ones – without being woke and patronizing the inherent regressiveness of its environment. In a way, the series is also a sweet little indictment of mainstream Bollywood’s crass treatment of the rural-urban divide: the villagers are emotionally intelligent, the young man is angsty but not arrogant, and Panchayat is a feel-good portrait of a universe often darkened by cinema. The highest compliment one might afford is that Schitt’s Creek comes to mind.
2. Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (Sony Liv)
Apart from having the best ensemble cast in recent years (by which I mean pitch-perfect performances by unusual suspects), Scam 1992 is not finance for dummies, not Gujaratis for dummies, not journalism for dummies and certainly not Mumbai for dummies. It is not a lot of things, and in the process, manages to be a lot more. By being centered on an impressionable Bollywood-obsessed stockbroker, the Hansal Mehta-directed series earns the license to be stylish and melodramatic with colourful punchlines, yet resists the same flourishes in the pacing and structuring of a crowded narrative. The writing is sophisticated, and respects the viewer’s ability to “feel” the rhythm of greyness rather than understand it. The language may be Hindi but the soul is very much Gujarati: a significant triumph in a self-important industry that is built on stereotyping regional cultures. Most importantly, Scam 1992 finds nuance in both honesty and dishonesty, morality and mayhem. It doesn’t hesitate to put an entire system on trial, while simultaneously blurring the line between villain and victim. Some might argue the series absolves Mehta, but it actually dissolves his legacy. We hate to love his guts, but we also love to hate his glory. The difference between the two is what defines this modern marvel of storytelling.
1. Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime Video)
Somehow, Delhi triggers the worst of humankind and the best of art. Paatal Lok is world-class storytelling. It isn’t about a disgruntled cop, a deceitful broadcast journalist, an unhinged killer or good people who like dogs – it’s about an India that unravels while we’re too busy taking sides. Almost every episode is a long-form chapter seamlessly condensed into parts of a whole. Systemic rot is the theme of most profound narratives over the years, and Paatal Lok, not unlike a Chernobyl and When They See Us, is so universal in its condemnation of class dysmorphia that it virtually fools us into celebrating our own apathy. For curious outsiders, Paatal Lok can be both an introductory and final module: a portrait of a country on fire and an examination of the mythology of hope. It’s wonderfully calibrated television, but also a deep-dive into the heart of darkness that most of us are merely happy to intellectualize. Most of all, it is civilization – and cinema – folded into a question mark. The answer, of course, lies somewhere between Hathiram and Hathoda.
Churails (Zee5): If not for a minor technicality (it’s Pakistani), Asim Abbasi’s cleverly disruptive series – about four Karachi women whose patriarchy-smashing vigilantism goes pear-shaped – is made for this list.
Afsos (Amazon Prime Video): The blackest black comedy in recent memory, this wry series about a suicidal writer being hounded by the assassin he’s hired (to kill himself) is deceptively entertaining.
Mirzapur 2 (Amazon Prime Video): The follow-up season of the hinterland hit makes up in raw world-building for what it loses on the novelty scale.