Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Writers: Vishal Bhardwaj, Jyotsna Hariharan, Anjum Rajabali
Cast: Wamiqa Gabbi, Neena Gupta, Gulshan Grover, Priyanshu Painyuli, Naseeruddin Shah, Lara Dutta, Ratna Pathak Shah, Chandan Roy Sanyal
Streaming on: Sony LIV
It’s fitting that Vishal Bhardwaj’s first web series is a small-town whodunit. If there’s one film-maker capable of reinventing the wheel of an overpopulated genre, you’d imagine it would be Bhardwaj. You’d also imagine that, as a virtuoso adapter of literature, Agatha Christie would be his mystery match made in heaven. Sure enough, Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley is based on Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery. The prospect of perhaps the most complete Hindi storyteller of our time reframing a classic as a quirky detective story is nothing if not intriguing. Unfortunately, that’s where the suspense ends.
Forget reinventing the wheel, even the horses have bolted with this one. It almost saddens me to write that this six-episode series is uninspired and forgettable. It doesn’t look like a “Vishal Bhardwaj production” – which, in the right circumstances, can be construed as an ode to his all-round versatility. Here, however, it feels more like a weirdly generic voice, a la Anurag Kashyap for Dobaaraa (2022); even a retro Teesri Manzil (1966) tribute looks clumsy. There were times I double-checked the opening credits, convinced that I had misread them. Maybe Bhardwaj is the producer or, mercifully, the showrunner? But there is no escape: He is the sole director, and this show is its own imposter.
As the title suggests, the protagonist is a young Punjabi entrepreneur named Charulata “Charlie” Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi). She arrives in the snowy Himalayan valley of Solang as the girlfriend of a man (Vivaan Shah) who has been wrongfully convicted of killing his wealthy uncle (Gulshan Grover). With the Manali police floundering, Charlie takes matters into her own hands and casually probes every member of the man’s cash-crunched family. Needless to mention, this is a very extended family, some of whose indirect connections (Aunt’s nephew’s friend? Neighbour’s dog? Tenant’s daughter? Who knows?) stay blurry.
You know the drill, though: Each of them has a murky past that doubles up as a red herring, and the gentlest is likely the culprit. Charlie, the outsider, joins forces with an insider, a local TV reporter named Sitaram (Priyanshu Painyuli). Given the recent trend (Sujoy Ghosh with Jaane Jaan), the ending is custom-fitted with an extra twist – one that’s supposed to modify the cultural context, only for it to look like a last-ditch gimmick.
I’m trying not to use crutch-phrases like “boring” and “lacks bite”. There’s no specific (tonal) problem. It’s not the fact that a solid supporting cast is wasted; that the visual language is stagey; or that the playful treatment is not old-school but awkward. It’s not even the fact that a Bhardwaj title is expected to be fascinating, which is why a mid outing looks worse than it is. The issues are broader.
Take Charlie’s Fleabag-style staging; she often breaks the fourth wall, speaking and thinking aloud directly into the camera. In theory, this first-person lens should work, particularly because a whodunit is defined by its conspiratory relationship with the audience as well as the loneliness of its detective(s). But Gabbi’s uneasy performance reduces the camera into a vessel for Charlie’s cutesy reactions and striking eyes.
The film-making only cares for the physical impact: Every other discovery is punctuated with Charlie’s wide-eyed “Bhen di lakkad,” so as to assure us that her Patiala-ness has comic appeal. There’s no real depth or timing to this gaze, except for a handful of Phoebe Waller-Bridge-inspired instances – like when Charlie demands privacy during a difficult moment, or when she treats the camera as if it were an extension of her conscience. The wry smiles or knowing glances aren’t organic enough. If written better, this device might have been able to subvert the psychological grammar of the genre. As it turns out, the viewer is reduced to an adoring assistant, whose only job is to enable the moods of their boss.
The series is so invested in showing Charlie as an exceptional ‘character’ that she rarely feels human. She doesn’t appear to be very upset by the fact that her boyfriend is the one in jail; in fact, none of the family members seem to remember that. The idea is that Charlie comes of age during the investigation – she starts poking around to rescue her partner, only to realize that sleuthing is her personal destiny. Her necessity becomes her catharsis. But neither of the emotional bonds – her love story, or flashbacks of her mother – feels compelling. The fourth episode is abruptly dramatic, because it tries to compensate for this overall detachment; it strives – but fails – to convince us that Charlie Chopra is no live-action cartoon.
There are sudden breakdowns, bad haircuts, cool sunglasses only to convey intelligence (and a version of the famous Charulata binoculars), phantom phone calls and spirited comebacks – all compressed into a timeline that betrays the urgency of the stakes. Within minutes, it’s (franchise) business as usual.
As catchy as the title theme and her catchphrase is, these are the sort of things that become annoying over time. It doesn’t help that the rhythm of the series is predictable. None of the suspects stand out as individuals, and the Goosebumps-level ‘thrills’ (like the silhouette of a hooded murderer) resort to loud sound cues.
There are a few decent touches. Like the victim’s name, Meherbaan (“benevolent”), being at odds with his stingy personality. Or Charlie’s relationship with smoking – and her mother’s unfinished cigar. (Cigars – earlier a Manish Chaudhari-character staple – are having a wider moment in Hindi cinema, thanks to Jawan). Or just the sight of the perennially underrated Gulshan Grover as an ex-armyman. There’s also Naseeruddin Shah biding time, as a spiritual leader who leads a seance to open and close the story. And Ratna Pathak Shah’s on-point Parsi accent. Or the semi-meta casting of Neena Gupta.
But we’re really clutching at straws here. The bottom line is that Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley has a bottom line. Vishal Bhardwaj is the sort of director whose misfires, too, have had a sense of flair and narrative dissent: Rangoon (2017), 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013), even Pataakha (2018). But Charlie Chopra is something none of those features were: Bland. And in a culture where the auteurist likes of Sriram Raghavan and Vishal Bhardwaj set their own bar, blandness is a crime no whodunit can solve. It forces an intrepid critic – the investigator of this long-form mystery – to break the fourth wall, yawn, sigh and hope for a resurgence.