Director: Prawaal Raman
Writer: Prawaal Raman
Cast: Randeep Hooda, Adil Hussain, Sapna Pabbi
Bluntness is the enemy of the investigative thriller. How can a genre that delights in pulling the rug out from under the audience’s feet thrive when it’s pointing out the exact location, colour and thread count of the rug?
Sergeant doesn’t seem to have got the memo. A crime drama in which the only significant casualties are logic, urgency and subtlety, it adopts the recklessness of its renegade protagonist in flouting the norms of what a good detective film should be. There’s no thrill of following the actual procedure, no meticulous untangling of the story’s various strands. Instead, information is sought out and discovered offscreen, the relative ease with which its accessed deflating any revelations. The actual crime is solved around 40 minutes into this 105-minute film, the rest of its runtime spent in having its protagonist plumb the depths of his own existential crises. That they’re as shallow as a puddle will be apparent to even amateur sleuths.
When the film begins, London Metro Police officer Nikhil Sharma (Randeep Hooda) is being tried for negligence after one of his sources is killed in a drug operation. The camera hones in on the back of his head as accusations are made, and the voices take on a muffled quality, as if to suggest that all these conversations simply reflect his inner thoughts, all the ways he’s already blamed himself for the accident long before they did. It’s also the only instance of a visual creative spark in the film. The effect is less compelling when Nikhil is verbalising “I killed him” mournfully while simultaneously crushing pills into his glass of alcohol later.
There’s no empathy to the filmmaking even as tries to wring empathy from the audience. There are numerous closeups of Nikhil’s bloodied stump – he lost his leg in the same drug bust – his uneven gait and his winces of pain. To illustrate that he’s hit rock bottom, he slumps out of a cab drunk, hand grazing the street as it ferries him along – a sequence that’s too crafted to capture the messiness of a breakdown. The film’s romanticization of mental illness is echoed by a character pointedly saying, “The more pain you endure, the purer you emerge. Pain is beauty.” Nikhil’s therapy sessions are less geared towards getting him to understand himself better as they are towards funneling chunks of background information to the audience. Their tonality jars – in one scene, Nikhil denies drinking, at which point the scene switches to him getting drunk on the street, the quick-cut and jaunty background music creating an unintentionally comic effect.
The film slips into a procedural when he becomes convinced that his case was part of a larger conspiracy, its runtime extended by an insistence on police siren-blaring what should be apparent. It’s not enough to say Nikhil is a dogged officer, we must see him on the cover of the magazine Top Cop, have him pass by his wall-mounted Officer of the Year photograph, watch a news report of him single-handedly busting a drug racket. It’s not plausible enough that Nikhil’s time in the force has exposed him to enough departmental corruption, he must also believe that the police hushed up his mother’s murder case. It’s not enough for Nikhil to worry about a woman who hasn’t been in touch for a while, he must also imagine her at a strip club, face superimposed onto a stripper, as she’s strangled. It’s not enough for him to have an angry outburst at his father who consented to surgery that amputated Nikhil’s leg, it must be depicted in flashback, with closeups of frightening surgical instruments. Characters spell out exactly what they mean because subtlety is dead, the first to go among film’s significant body count. Those meant to be exchanging furtive glances gaze at each other endlessly, linger when they should be rushing and engage in endless existential ennui without a thought for the unresolved crime that should be nagging at the conscience instead.
There’s not much craft to the investigative portions either. Nikhil’s tactics involve skulking around London, physically intimidating sources and delegating the actual research to someone else. His methods of manipulation are transparent. His anger comes off as petulance. Alcohol is a substitute for personality. Social media becomes a lazy writing shortcut. By the end of this unsatisfying, exhausting film, you wish one of the several intertwined cases had involved a search for a coherent plot.