Writer/Director: Anjan Dutt
Cast: Arjun Chakraborty, Anindita Bose, Sourav Chakraborty, Suprobhat Das, Sandeepta Sen, Rajat Ganguly, Rajdeep Gupta, Anjan Dutt
Streaming on: Hoichoi
Darjeeling is to Anjan Dutt what a muse is to an artist, a place that has been reiterated in his works so many times that it has become parody. It's his mistress, childhood, and home all rolled into one and a continuing source of much of his creative output, mainly his songs, but also his movies. Some of Dutt's best films may have been set in Kolkata, but it's almost as if his sensibilities were shaped by the Anglo culture of Darjeeling, where he had his schooling both literally (in St Paul's) and figuratively.
Dutt is in home turf, then, in Murder in the Hills, a new web series written and directed by him, which stars both Darjeeling and him (in a brief role). It opens promisingly, with the man himself, out on a walk in his boots and jacket, smoking a pipe, set to a cover version of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" sung by him, placing an order at Glenary's in a tone that tells us about not only his familiarity with the place but also the character's. Dutt plays Tony Roy, a former movie star with deep ties to Darjeeling, and like all Dutt characters in his films, a riff on his own persona: eccentric, bohemian, but also a bit of a jerk, an ageing rockstar still indulged by his friends only because his charms are undeniable.
I quite like this semi-autobiographical facet of Dutt (even though Tony Roy has elements of Victor Banerjee, described as someone who has worked with both Ray and Polanski). Even if it looks like he is playing variations of the same character (Madly Bangali, Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona, Dutta vs Dutta), Dutt taps into a part of himself that seems true, vulnerable, and strangely self-revelatory. That's why the first ten minutes of Murder in the Hills are quite nice: it's an Anjan Dutt showcase by way of introducing other players of the production—Bob Das, a former footballer; Bijoy, a filmmaker; Sheela, a language teacher; Neema, a doctor; Suvankar, a cop; and Ranjan, a writer. Most of them are Bengalis living in Darjeeling. They are his coterie of friends, and guests for the night at his birthday get-together. Someone is getting the pork, someone else is getting the cake. Tony insists that they at least let him get the brandy. As it happens, he dies at his own birthday party and my heart immediately sank, not because I am Tony Roy's friend but I knew what this meant for the show: it's going downhill from here. Watching Dutt doing Dutt things on screen is play, but watching the rest trudging through a mystery that's at best mediocre is work.
To be fair, it's Dutt the writer-director who is to blame. There is some potential in the premise: Tony's death, or murder, opens a can of worms about his past, and the story is doggedly pursued by intrepid reporter Amitava, who was the only uninvited guest at the party. Local Marwari promoter Jaiswal, who he owed money, is prime suspect, but how does it connect to the skeletons in Tony's closet? In the course of his investigation Amitava is faced with obstacles from Tony's friends, who seem guarded about the scandal and aggressive to his queries. There is an idea in here: does death absolve someone famous and respected like Tony if he has committed a heinous crime in the past? The thought challenges the notion that we don't speak ill of the departed, or write only good things about people in their obits.
The story could have gone in a number of previously uncharted directions from here. Instead Murder in the Hills goes for an old trick in the book (and betrays any possibility of such ethical questions). It's tempting to blame the terribly cliched revelation in the end as the main culprit, but honestly it's not its biggest problem. It's not like you are having a whale of a time watching the show but the twist spoils it. The whole thing is a drag. It's not the story so much as the telling that lets down Murder in the Hills, the hilariously convenient things it does to reach there, and the overall complacency that seeps through the enterprise. I can't believe Dutt said he was inspired by international TV shows and went ahead and made this.
Dutt has a fondness for the old-fashioned murder mystery and here he sets out to making one: we get the classic ransom note made up of newspaper cuttings of letters that someone slips into Tony's pocket. We get two variations of the Summation Gathering scene, when the mystery is being explained to a room full of characters–one in the beginning and one in the end. We have the perfect setting in Darjeeling. But we don't have characters that are interesting (disappointing, because Dutt knows the place and its people) and even if they are, the actors are unable to make them look and sound convincing. Arjun Chakraborty's journalist is a stand-in for the detective in the story, but he lacks the charisma you need for such a pivotal character. Anindita Bose's annoying Bangla accent keeps throwing you off (ironically, she plays a language teacher; among the actors only Suprobhat Das intrigues). As a result, their conversations, exchanges and actions don't ring true.
Murder in the Hills looks like any other Hoichoi show. Dutt and cinematographer Ramyadip Saha aren't able to find a distinct style for the story (drone shots are not style). But forget style, it doesn't even get some of the basics right. The episodes from the past don't look too different from the present. But for an even more specific example, let's look at Murder on the Orient Express (since the show keeps doffing its hat to the classic), adapted for the screen by Sidney Lumet in 1974.
In the "Summation Gathering" climax, when Hercules Poirot explains to the rest of the characters the solving of the crime, we revisit some scenes that we have already seen in the movie. Only now, they assume "greater melodramatic significance", as Lumet writes in his book "Making Movies". Lumet then proceeds to explain how he and his cinematographer achieved that with a simple and faultless choice of lensing. They shot the same scene twice, first with a normal and then with a wide-angle lens. The normal lens made the scene look like a normal part of the movie, whereas the wide-angle lens version made it look more dramatic, for the climax. Dutt and Saha use the same lens and the same camera position to show us the same scene twice, even though the context has dramatically changed. I don't know what to call it. Lazy? Bad? Certainly Darjeeling deserves better. So do you.