How The Stars Aligned To Make Criminal Justice India’s Most Watched Show

Pankaj Tripathi, predictable writing and Disney+ Hotstar’s growing subscriber base have come together to make this legal thriller a huge hit
How The Stars Aligned To Make Criminal Justice India’s Most Watched Show

When the first two episodes of Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach dropped in August this year, there was barely any of the marketing blitz that you’d expect from a show that has steadily grown in popularity over the past two seasons. It turns out there was no need. Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach had an estimated 8.9 million views in its first three days, according to Ormax Media’s weekly report. Almost a month later, the show has held on to its audience. This week, Criminal Justice was the third most-watched Hindi show, with 6.1 million views. (To put things in perspective, Mirzapur S02 and Family Man S02 — arguably two of the most popular shows on Indian streaming services — had 8.6 million and 5.6 million views respectively, in the first three days.)

Despite being one of the most-watched shows Criminal Justice has kept a modest profile, compared to some other marquee streaming shows. Based on a 2008 British series with the same name, the Indian adaptation had Vikrant Massey, Pankaj Tripathi and Jackie Shroff in its first season, which was directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia. In its second season, Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors veered away from the original and retained only Pankaj Tripathi, Anupriya Goenka and Mita Vashisht from the original cast. Tripathi’s Madhav Mishra was now the protagonist in a completely new case. He’s since become the anchor and Criminal Justice’s biggest draw.  

“Hands down Pankaj Tripathi’s effortless acting is why I go back to this show season after season,” said Atreyi Dasmahapatra, a California resident who has been a fan of the show since 2019. She said she had reservations about the second season — she was moved by its underlying feminist messaging, which addressed marital rape, but the season didn’t entirely work for her — and the first three episodes of the third season are reminding her of David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), but she’s sticking with it for Madhav Mishra. 

Shailesh Kapoor, chief executive officer (CEO) of Ormax Media, pointed out that the second season of Criminal Justice coincided with Tripathi’s rise as a streaming superstar. “In the first season, one could argue between Vikrant Massey, Jackie Shroff and Pankaj Tripathi [about] who was the most popular star on the show. But Pankaj Tripathi today is probably up there among the top three stars, with the ability to draw viewers,” Kapoor said. 

Tripathi himself reckons that the show draws as many viewers as it does because of the underdog that Madhav Mishra is. “I remember a scene from season one. I think it was outside a police station where five or six girls, who probably work in dance bars or brothels, approach Madhav Mishra. And Tigmanshu Dhulia said something along the lines of how Madhav would probably help them out. They pinch him on the cheeks and he helps them get bail, Madhav seems like a guy who would do something like that,” said Tripathi. “That one gesture encapsulates Madhav Mishra’s journey.”

Both fans and critics accept that while Criminal Justice’s popularity has grown from season to season, the first one was more crafty than the second. Film critic Shomini Sen said she’d guessed the ‘twist’ as early as the second episode, but enjoyed the second season all the same. In addition to Tripathi, she pointed to the distinct brand of humour in Criminal Justice and praised the writing. Director Rohan Sippy, who came on board as director for the show’s second season along with co-director Arjun Mukerjee, said the pivot around Madhav Mishra suited him well. “I believe a decision was made between the production house and the studio, which the streaming service was on board with — it made a lot of sense to me,” says Sippy, “It allowed the Indian show to have more original elements in it as it departed from the British version.” 

Gaurav Banerjee, content head at Disney+ Hotstar, said the streaming platform had identified thrillers as a “white space” on the Indian content canvas. “A good thriller makes the viewer think, play along, try and guess and outsmart the writing team and we’re making stories for an involved, discerning audience,” he said. The success of Criminal Justice isn’t simply the result of being a preferred genre. For instance, Amazon Prime’s Guilty Minds found only a quarter of the audience that Criminal Justice did. Meanwhile, Disney+ Hotstar was so confident about Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach, it gave the show a staggered launch, bringing out weekly episodes instead of dropping the entire season at one go. This strategy is usually reserved for sure-shot properties, like Marvel shows or the ongoing House of the Dragon. “If all the episodes were dropped in one-go, we might have seen viewership increase by 30-40%. But that audience will eventually come once the show nears its finale,” said Shailesh Kapoor. 

Kapoor thinks a big reason for the show’s increasing viewership is the platform’s growing subscription base. Disney+ Hotstar is India’s biggest subscription video on demand (SVOD) platform with a reported 58.4 million subscribers as of May this year. It continues to be miles ahead of its competitors’ reported subscription base — as of this January, Amazon Prime India had 22.3 million subscribers and Netflix India had 6.1 million. 

While some critics have noticed that Criminal Justice has become more simplistic with each season, the shticks employed by the writers’ room may have helped to set predictable patterns that make the show a comforting watch for audiences. A suspect is rounded up for a crime (more often than not, a murder) at the start of the show. The case invariably ends up in the hands of Madhav Mishra. The suspects refuse to cooperate with law enforcement or their lawyer (Madhav). Flashbacks follow, inside prisons or youth detention centres (like in the third season) and the courtroom. All evidence seems to be pointing towards the suspect as guilty, and then Madhav uncovers a ‘twist’. The prison or the youth detention centre track almost always borders on a lurid version of realism. For example, there was projectile vomit over a snorricam in the second season. In the third season, we’ve already seen some graphic scenes of violence and bullying inside the youth detention centre.

Even if the narrative feels dumbed down on occasion, the show does well to unpack the legal procedural, diving into sections of the law and its many interpretations. Tripathi, an actor who has turned doing ‘nothing’ on screen into an art form in the last few years, brings his customary charm to the show. His exchanges with his wife, Ratna (Khushboo Atre), rarely feel contrived. He’s also surrounded by actors like Kirti Kulhari, Jisshu Sengupta, Mita Vashisht, Purab Kohli, Swastika Mukherjee, and Shweta Basu Prasad. “He comes in pretty late in the first episode [of the third season], they don’t make a gimmick out of his presence. Pankaj Tripathi’s character is not being accommodated in a way to compromise the content and that’s refreshing,” Kapoor pointed out. 

There’s surely some alchemy at work here. Criminal Justice seems to have struck gold with its formula of a functional plot, cliffhanger endings and often incomprehensible twists. The show might often feel like a drawn-out version of a Law & Order episode, we’ve already consumed six hours of it. In all probability, we’ll be hearing about a fourth season soon. 

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