Creator: Harman Wadala
Director: Ajitpal Singh
Writers: Harman Wadala, Sandeep Jain, Mr. Roy
Cast: Pavan Malhotra, Supriya Pathak, Gagan Arora, Paramvir Cheema, Ranvir Shorey
Streaming on: SonyLIV
For the second time this year, Pavan Malhotra plays a Sikh father of ambiguous personality in a Punjab-set web series. Whereas Grahan reduced him to a device of slow-motion suspense, Tabbar gives this fine actor the platform – and the cultural complexity – he deserves. A lot of Tabbar depends on his character’s exaggerated sense of family. It is centered on Malhotra’s ability to look both capable and incapable of weaponizing the whims of middle-class morality. His role can’t afford to be as showy as the protagonists driving “family thrillers” like Ozark and Aarya; there is no drug empire or villain-of-circumstances arc attached to Omkar Singh’s journey. As a retired police constable wary of the system he once occupied, Malhotra instead paints a riveting portrait of an Indian guardian who loses sight of the future he set out to conserve. Like most parents his age, he isn’t blinded by love so much as the absolution of everyman guilt.
His is an unsettling performance in an unsettling story, not least because it takes place in a region torn between the toxicity of tradition and the wastefulness of youth. The Jalandhar we see in Tabbar is fraught with blood and bloodlines. There are good people forced to adopt a bad language: Omkar Singh, his wife and two sons have their lives turned upside down in the very first episode, after which they keep plugging new holes in their rapidly sinking boat. And there are bad people who adopt a heroic language: A powerful politician (Ranvir Shorey) grieves the death of his brother, vowing to nab the culprits. Despite his clearly corrupt disposition, one can’t help but feel sorry for him. Early on, his brother invades the Singh home in a scene reminiscent of Mirzapur’s opening salvo, where an unhinged Munna bulldozes his way into an upright lawyer’s house to teach his two sons a lesson. Except in Tabbar, life interrupts cinema. The consequences of this incident reverberate throughout the rest of the series.
This is an important moment; the way it’s staged and acted determines the viability of an anti-fairytale about a family breaking bad. Fortunately, the film-making is solid: At no point does the chaos feel too designed, and Omkar Singh’s impulsive reaction – of covering it up instead of calling the cops – is the key to many narrative doors. It’s shot like a nightmare coming to life; there’s a tense sequence featuring a corpse and a police vehicle that brings to mind a famous Khiladi scene, but in the best way possible. The bond between the father and his two sons riffs on another popular Hindi film from the era; there’s a bit of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar coursing through the long-form veins of Tabbar. The older son, Happy, is the apple of his father’s eye: an IPS aspirant in Delhi and the driving force behind Omkar Singh’s reckless faith. The old man doesn’t think twice before investing his savings in the boy’s metaphorical cycle. The younger one is the black sheep, crippled by the burden of being a Sanjay Lal Sharma with no redemption arc.
The actors playing the boys deserve credit, particularly Gagan Arora as Happy, whose Ratan-like sincerity remains at spiritual odds with an ominous limp. Another ode to ‘90s Bollywood inadvertently exists in his love triangle – echoing Baazigar, where Happy scrambles to blindside his unsuspecting girlfriend, with the third wheel being a tragic policeman (a terrific Paramvir Cheema) who’s always on the verge of singing “Chuppana Bhi Nahi Aata” to the girl. It’s not as filmy as it sounds, of course. Tabbar subverts our perception of mainstream storytelling by allowing it to be diverted by the vagaries of reality.
All along, Supriya Pathak as the diabetic mother is the heart of a story that recognizes the emotional toll of unlikely thrillers. Hers is a deceptively poignant turn, because she headlines the kind of melodrama that might have gone frightfully wrong in the hands of lesser actors. Her chemistry with Pavan Malhotra defines the conscience of a culture that is perpetually in danger of perishing in the face of succession. Over the years, Supriya Pathak has come to be typecast as the disillusioned or spiralling homemaker. But she’s so versatile in the reading of dysfunction and trauma that it’s hard to imagine a more accomplished artist in this space. Throughout Tabbar, we see her character attempting to snap out of the haze with inbred coping mechanisms – cooking, caring, crying – almost as though she were striving to stay out of the way of a pacey premise. But it’s not so much her gender as her inherent humanity that keeps the series from turning into a misguided comment on social justice.
The conceit of stories revolving around ordinary people doing extraordinary things is rooted in a lack of control. The actions can’t seem too slick; the clumsiness of wading into a dark zone needs to be apparent. (Breathe did this well). At points in Tabbar, the characters of the Singh family stretch the limits of behavioral plausibility. For instance, a crucial scene involves a smooth motorbike heist in broad daylight. It’s a bit too competent, too flashy, with the writing crossing over into misfitting masala territory. Yet, I like that the “victims” in Tabbar appear in ascending order of nobility – from the politician’s shady brother to a genuinely nice ‘hero’ – thus making it more complicated to invest in the integrity of the family. (One of them is seen killing a dog, a misstep in the show’s treatment of human duality). It’s a tough path to walk but also a logical one, because it’s too easy to villainize the fallen in pursuit of Robin-Hood-ing the protagonists. That the largely Punjabi-language series occurs against the backdrop of its infamous drug problem aids the textural authenticity of a time that presents parenthood as the most invisible drug of all.
Tabbar works even when it doesn’t, for it reflects the disquiet of middle-Indian aspiration by focusing on the individualism – rather than systemic fury – of survival. It blurs the lines between sacrifice and murder, between faith and fate. And it often asks why it’s so difficult to separate the protection of heritage from the preservation of love. Maybe it’s only fitting that Tabbar (“family”) begins and ends with a father, steering the mother of all misfortunes.