Directors: Mihir Desai, Karan Anshuman, Gurmmeet Singh

Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Ali Fazal, Vikrant Massey, Rasika Dugal, Divyendu Sharma

Streaming on: Amazon Prime

Many classic crime motifs collide amidst the testosterone-driven loins, and lions, of Mirzapur.

There are no heroes, but anyone defending his family becomes one. A city’s King (Pankaj Tripathi), a feared don who uses his carpet business as a front for a murky guns-and-drugs trade, is looking for signs of succession in his errant son. A faithful henchman (Shaji Chaudhary) protects his masters’ bloody legacy. A loyal friend (Abhishek Banerjee) is ready to do anything for the disgruntled prince. A crippled patriarch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who spends his time watching wildlife-mating programs, casts a keen eye on the shadowy events of his household. A sexually frustrated young woman (a brave and breathless Rasika Dugal), who is unsatisfied by the performance of her older husband, lusts for greener pastures within the four walls. Two ambitious brothers (Ali Fazal, Vikrant Massey), who sacrifice their education to boost the don’s empire, battle to build their own rags-to-respect underdog story. A righteous lawyer (Rajesh Tailang’s resemblance to NDTV’s Ravish Kumar is appropriate) watches helplessly as his two sons choose a career of crime and power over working-class grit. A college-going girl (Shweta Tripathi), whose free-spirited sister (Shriya Pilgaonkar) falls for one of the bad boys, challenges the status quo by campaigning for president in the student elections. A regional rival (Shubrajyoti Bharat) wants to avenge his banishment by toppling the rulers. A lawful cop (Amit Sial) arrives to restore order.

These littler movies combine to form the body of Mirzapur. Each of them is a trope that threatens to “design” the recklessness of Indian badlands. Each of them threatens to follow a narrative. At the heart of this familiar body, though, lies a character that can’t stand the movies unfurling around him. He gets off on disrupting them. Some of cinema’s most memorable psychopaths transcend the concept of villainy by defying, and destroying, the direction of cinema. “Agents of chaos,” as a wise clown once said. Munna Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma), the clown prince of Mirzapur, expresses his disdain for film villainy from the very first scene of the nine-episode series.

Much of Mirzapur‘s sex and violence borders on sensationalism – fingers are severed, guts spilled, cusswords hurled, torsos burnt, and orgasms screamed with graphic regularity

All coked up and reeking of daddy issues, he is annoyed to see a marriage procession blocking the street. He charges into the noisy celebrations. And reaches for his gun. His friends in the jeep expect an explosion; they brace for impact. Munna senses all eyes on him. He enjoys the jitters. And then, he promptly breaks into a wild dance with the baarat. Almost as if he were parodying our perception of cinematic suspense. Seconds later, he accidentally shoots the groom’s face off. And chuckles.

This is a stunning moment – one that comes full circle later in the season. Munna gatecrashes a wedding reception, with all the menace of the Joker crashing the Harvey Dent fundraiser in The Dark Knight. He takes a girl hostage by pulling her into his arms in such a way that her twirl evokes an elegant dance move; it is timed precisely with the crescendo of a popular Bollywood song. Again, like he were mocking the movies. Minutes later, he teases horrified onlookers by pausing, creating his own twisted version of tension, pulling the trigger when everyone least expects it. Munna’s unpredictability is mirrored in the show’s penchant for shock value.

Just as he did in Gurgaon, Pankaj Tripathi expertly masks the weariness of an adult male torn between playing a murderous Godfather and an Indian father

Much of its sex and violence borders on sensationalism – fingers are severed, guts spilled, organs cut, cusswords hurled, torsos burnt, and orgasms screamed with graphic regularity. One of the girls is introduced through a library-corner masturbation scene, and another virtually spends the entire series in the throes of toe-curling climaxes. At first this style feels like a crude visual crutch to compensate for Mirzapur’s simplistic, almost Shakespearean, dramatic markers: Jealousy, betrayal, anger, greed. But the gore and gall gain context once we realize that Munna is someone who strives to infect his environment, too, with the symptoms of his impulsive nature.

Hence, some of the show’s most visceral set pieces – for instance, an opening-episode living-room shootout featuring clumsy punches, a traumatized housewife and a severed ear – involve Munna. Because, by extension, they internalize his anti-choreographed angst by hinging on the grisly “how” over the logical “why”. The ones without him – an assassination attempt at a tea shop, a shabbily composed flashback brawl, a cop-versus-gangsters bullet-fest in a multistoried chawl – lack the same edge, because they are devised for cinema rather than life.

Divyendu Sharma, an actor misused by many an overzealous director after owning Pyaar Ka Punchnama, sparkles in a breakout turn that has been years in the making

That’s not to say the others in Mirzapur don’t matter. With an ensemble featuring some of Hindi cinema’s most talented (and underutilized) actors, it’s no surprise that the performances paper over the awkward cracks in the narrative balance. More productions might do well to recognize the importance of a dialect coach – the younger actors have visibly worked on grasping the lawless physicality of not just the words but also the actions in between them. Ali Fazal is a revelation as the brawn to Massey’s brains – his hunched gait as a hotheaded bodybuilder is reminiscent of Tom Hardy’s in Warrior. Just as he did in Gurgaon, Pankaj Tripathi expertly masks the weariness of an adult male torn between playing a murderous Godfather and an Indian father. Initially, it appears like he hires the two brothers to provoke his son into overcoming the luxury of inheritance. But Tripathi’s deadpan face barely lets on that his character is far more systematic – he has in fact hired two contrasting personalities to help his son learn that he must evolve from brawn (psychopath) to brains (villain).

As a result, it’s Divyendu Sharma, an actor misused by many an overzealous director after owning Pyaar Ka Punchnama, who sparkles in a breakout turn that has been years in the making. Much like the land he represents, he is boyish, brutish and everything in between. He injects Munna with the sort of emasculated resentment that, at one point, against our good sense, even convinces us to empathize with his perverse coming-of-rage journey. Mirzapur leans on him as he navigates the chasm between method and madness.

Yet, for all the grand flourishes of temper, Sharma never lets us forget that Munna too, like most youngsters his age, is conflicted between natural identity and societal pressure. There’s not much separating the man from the monster. After all, he is just a boy, standing in front of a father, asking him to love him.

 

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