On the face of it, Dahaad (meaning roar) is a solid police procedural. There’s a serial killer, there’s an investigation, and there’s a cat-and-mouse chase. It’s an addictive watch for its form alone. This is no whodunit. There is no big twist. The identity of the culprit is no secret. He’s a monster hidden in plain sight: The married Hindi literature professor, Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma), teaches at a girls’ school. The officer leading the case is Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha), a woman whose spirit and intuition push her male superiors into action. Over eight technically sound episodes, Anand struggles to keep his ‘spree’ going. A few slips put his carefully constructed double-life in danger of cracking. Anjali, along with her senior colleagues Devi Singh (Gulshan Devaiah) and Kailash Parghi (Sohum Shah), infuses her detective work with human empathy. She closes in. That’s the gist of the premise.
But the body of Dahaad is just a clever front for its sociocultural roar. The devil is in the details. The setting is the small town of Mandawa in Rajasthan. The first episode features the chaos of a more contemporary India. A Thakur girl has eloped with her Muslim lover, and the ruling party turns it into a political spectacle. Devi Singh gets calls from above, directing him to nab the couple, slap kidnapping charges onto the boy and ensure swift ‘justice’. Meanwhile, Anjali wards off catcalls on the street, the lecherous gaze of the superintendent of police in his office, and marriage proposals brought by her mother at home. Despite dropping her father’s surname (Meghwal, which is known to be of the dominant backward castes in Rajasthan), she is stopped at the doorstep of the town’s upper-caste households; a constable lights an agarbatti to cleanse his cabin every time she walks by. Even Anand is stuck in his own dysfunctional-family story. His wife is having an affair, his father considers him a failure, and his younger brother runs their jewellery business.
The defining image of this episode arrives when a lower-caste villager – whose missing sister is reduced to a forgotten file – joins the right-wing mob after being ignored at the police station. In an act of desperation, he wades through the crowd of flag-waving extremists and starts to chant with them. It’s like watching the origin story of a bigot in real time: He, like the rest, wasn’t born as one. But the truer reading is: He has nowhere left to go. The political goons exploit the man’s fragility to further their own agenda of hate and fear. They make him feel special and seen, seducing him with a plethora of empty promises and personal attention. This moment – where systemic apathy drives a marginalised person towards dark company – is the central theme of the series. Replace the wily politician with a sweet-talking psychopath, and you get Dahaad.
The character of Anand is simply the manifestation of a power that preys on the cocktail of complicity and shame. It comes to light that his victims, too, are very specific. He knows they have nowhere else to go. He knows that their individualism – defined by the courage to defy their community – is still raw. He also knows that their families might disown them once they elope with him; and that most will be too embarrassed to report their disappearance. In other words, the man grooms them through the limitations and stigmas of their own environment. Even his manner of murder – a roundabout horror in which they are found dead by suicide in public toilets – milks their anxiety of being minorities in a country conditioned to judge them. It’s almost like Anand seduces them and trusts his surroundings to do the rest. That’s why the first episode initially looks isolated from what follows. It’s in fact a smart portrait of the inherent noise and biases that can allow a criminal to go unnoticed for years – and also how the randomness of those biases can become his undoing. The police chance upon the missing women while probing a ‘love jihad’ allegation.
Anand counts on this endless cycle of oppression to hide him while he goes about his sins in broad daylight. Which is to say: While most murderers manufacture their own cover to trick the law, someone like Anand has a ready-made smokescreen. His mask is handed to him on a platter. He’s an upper-caste Hindu male minding his own business in a communally sensitive area. Just as his victims are invisibilized by their lack of privilege, Anand is camouflaged by his privilege. That his wife is looking for love elsewhere is an advantage, too, because he can live his alternate life as a ‘good man’ who disappears on the weekends in his mobile library without inviting any scrutiny.
The excellent Vijay Varma plays Anand like a man who weaponizes his awareness. Like someone who has read the news, studied his setting, stayed abreast with its politics, and perfected his pattern over time. Varma’s Irrfan-style calm and Nawazuddin-like edge combine to extend his Darlings character – an alcoholic who swings between physically hurting his wife and charming her – into the realms of cold-blooded obsession. You can tell that the actor is riffing on his character’s duality – there is only reptilian deceit (and no violence) involved, so it’s eerie to see his performance melt into his role within the performance. I can imagine Anand watching Baazigar (1993) reruns as a kid and imitating Shah Rukh Khan in his bathroom. I can also imagine Anand watching Kahaani (2012) reruns as an adult and rooting for Saswata Chatterjee. One might argue that Varma has been typecast as the creepy incel (She, Pink, Darlings). But he’s so good at being covertly bad that I’d be terrified to spend more than a minute with him in an elevator. It’s not about what he’ll do; it’s about what he might say and how he might say it. He seems to understand that toxic masculinity is not a Bollywood movie trait; it’s a slow poison that doesn’t sting the victim until they’re paralyzed by it.
Thanks to Varma, creators Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar are able to use the serial-killer genre to unlock an India in which the normalisation of deep-rooted prejudice – caste, class, religion, gender – becomes the real killer. The three cops spend much of the series convincing people to open up: Nearly everyone is worried about the taint of an investigation, or the threat it poses to their honour. In that sense, Anand is a deadly allegory. He is the one who pulls the lever, but the gallows are forged from the regressive gaze that women spend their lives striving to escape. That’s another nice distinction Dahaad makes: It doesn’t smash the patriarchy, it merely revises the path of accountability. Given that it’s the victim whose character gets assassinated either way, the series isn’t afraid to put the onus on the native culpability of their households. It’s a sly nod to the practice of absolving rapists by blaming their difficult childhoods.
This reclaims the idea of female agency by condemning society – and not them – for the choices they are cornered into making. The plot is peppered with potent little threads to support this stance. For instance, Anjali’s pushy mother and Devi Singh’s jealous wife (whom he calls “backward” during a spat) are designed as reminders of the women who ultimately conform. Ironically, this insular outlook is what might have saved them from predators like Anand. Even more ironically, this is who his victims might have become if they hadn’t met him. Parghi’s life, too, is a sign. He is reluctant to bring a child (or worse, a baby girl) of his own into a world where danger is a death sentence and safety is a life sentence.
That’s not to say Dahaad is flawless. There are some plot contrivances – like the track of a survivor that should have prematurely ended the investigation. Or even Anjali’s unnecessary scenes with a criminologist. Some of Anand’s plans feel a bit stagey (the role of the India-Pakistan border is unclear), betraying his stature as someone more attuned towards emotional manipulation than intellectual deception. A lot of the show’s messages are explicitly spelt out by characters during verbal exchanges; Anjali, in particular, has this penchant for speaking in subtext. Sonakshi Sinha is well-cast as an imposing figure who overcooks her hostility to earn the respect (“Bhaati saab”) of her male colleagues. But the toll of working on the case rarely shows, both physically and psychologically. When her boss asks her to take a break after 72 sleepless hours, the gait isn’t too different – unlike Rasika Dugal in Delhi Crime or Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Soni (2018). Then there’s the rushed finale – strangely the shortest episode of Dahaad – where entire transitions and segments seem to be missing. It’s like the makers ran out of schedule and chose to fasttrack the climax after building it up for more than seven hours. What are the odds that this roar ends on a whimper?
Yet, in the larger scheme of things, these are minor quibbles. For a fictional story, Dahaad manages to summon the many strengths of fact-based shows like Delhi Crime. An example is how the case shapes the interpersonal relationships of those involved. Anjali and Devi share a mentor-protege bond, united by the smallness of the minds around them. But you sense that any romantic attraction is resisted because it might simulate the link between Anand and the women he targets: Anjali does not want her mother’s old-school attitude to be the reason she makes a man-sized mistake. She also sees in Devi (whose name – meaning “goddess” – echoes his brand of beta masculinity) shades of her late father, the one man whose memories she hopes to preserve without diluting them. Instead, the two rebel in their own tender ways. Devi is the Good Cop not only during intense interrogations but also at home. He has lovely scenes with both his son and daughter – the kind that showcase just how perceptive an actor Gulshan Devaiah is – where the woke policeman teaches them the value of independence and equality. Anjali’s defense mechanism is to scowl and snap at most men in town, but she also has a sweet friends-with-benefits arrangement with one of them.
At some level, they’re misfits in Mandawa by virtue of tracking down a painfully common man. That common man, though, is the ghost that haunts Dahaad. He does not roar. His hunting is incidental. He is the reflection of a blood-stained mirror. Anand (meaning “bliss”) need not exist. In a parallel universe, Anjali Bhaati and her team are going from door to door, entering homes of discrimination and bigotry, and releasing the girls from their actual captors. In a not-so-parallel universe, she is aiding their escape from a world where shelter is a death sentence and freedom is a life on parole. Some might call it a police investigation. Others might call it a cultural audit.