In its first episode, Dahan: Raakan ka Rahasya seems promising. We meet Avni (Tisca Chopra), a disgraced Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who is also mother to the teenaged Anay (Rohan Joshi) and a widow. Reeling from charges of corruption and her husband’s suicide, Avni convinces her superior to send her to a village in Rajasthan, named Shilaspura, where a mining project is facing resistance from locals. As Avni and Anay make their way to the village, they learn the story of the beheaded sorcerer Ridhiyakan and his demoness mother Haadika. If Haadika is awakened, people turn into the bloodthirsty “Raakan”. The first step to this awakening is seemingly caused by entering the caves of Shilaspura – the very mines that Avni is here to blast with the aim of bringing progress to this remote area.
There’s a lot here that could work well for a supernatural thriller. The tussle between blind faith and development, clan rivalries, the blurred lines between mental illness and superstitious beliefs of possession, the impact caste, class, gender and education have on a person’s life, the opposition between science and myth – all this is good fodder, especially with a cast that includes talented actors like Chopra, Saurabh Shukla and Rajesh Tailang. And in the initial episodes, Dahan holds the viewer’s attention.
Directed by Vikranth Pawar and Jai Sharma, Dahan is sublimely eerie at times. Cinematographer Arkodeb Mukherjee draws out the tension between the real and imagined through haunting visuals: Dead fish rise to the surface of a lake; faces smeared with purple gulal stare unblinkingly as a woman is brutally exorcised. His use of a high fish-eye lens traps characters into frames that seem to collapse onto them, turning it into a prophetic metaphor. Sunil Nigvekar’s production design gives life to Shilasthal, the temple that harbours the severed head of Ridhiyakan and whose fire keeps dark spirits away (it’s a multi-purpose space). Mukherjee and Nigvekar help establish Dahan’s central conflict and a recurring dread as we wonder whether the rising Raakan is proof of a supernatural force or if there’s a pragmatic explanation for what’s happening in Shilaspura.
Consequently, when after all this, Dahan goes on to flop face-forward, it feels doubly disappointing. Despite Mukesh Tiwari as the corrupt cop with a golden heart, Tailang as the duty-bound antagonist and a thoroughly-entertaining Happy Ranajit as the deadly Toothpick, Dahan fails to live up to its potential. It doesn’t help that the writing includes nonsensical elements like an ancient map that unlocks when four boys simultaneously pee on it; animalistic killers who repeatedly let off certain victims; a terrible approach to safety measures during an epidemic (after 2020, this feels plain insulting); and the use of unfortunate dialogues like, “Soch lo. Duty yaa beti.” (In case you were wondering, this is the work of three writers, as per the official credits.)
The weak writing is particularly evident in Avni’s characterisation. While we love a disagreeable female character, the IAS officer has all the charm (and maturity) of a teenage rebel without a cause. She’s constantly snapping at the helping hands around her – unless the hand in question is attached to her hot ornithologist friend, Sandeep (Ankur Nayyar), who just happens to be chilling in Shilaspura — and instead of trying to win over the locals, Avni seems hellbent on antagonising them. At one point, Avni says she’ll listen to the villagers’ decision as far as the mining project is concerned. Moments later, after she’s threatened by village chief Pramukh Swaroop (Shukla), Avni announces mining will start next week. When a corporate official later asks Avni about the go-ahead, she channels her inner Chulbul Pandey and shoves her sunglasses down her shirt, and says, “The Shilasthal folks need to think twice before threatening a government officer.” It’s an odd approach for an IAS officer to take when she’s come to prove herself after a corruption scandal.
It’s obvious that we’re supposed to draw parallels between Avni and Anay, and the mother-son duo of Haadika and Ridhiyakan. Haadika and Avni are both headstrong women, raising their sons alone. Both are outsiders – Avni, because she represents technology and development to the villagers; Haadika because she was a demoness with superhuman powers — and you can imagine Avni suffering the same fate as Haadika in a different time. This idea is given its due towards the end. Keeping in line with the belief that the only way to stop the violence is by chopping off a human-turned-Raakan’s head (hacking human limbs is a recurring theme of the show), we see Avni being dragged to the temple in a metal neck trap. All around her, purple-faced men chant, “Raakan, Raakan! Ridhiyakan!” Avni, who already has mental health issues, is visibly shaken as her physical, mental and spiritual demons come together. The writers try to illustrate how guilt is just another form of being possessed, but this clever idea flops when Avni — spoiler alert — eludes the grasp of the murderous villagers and just skips down the steps of Shilasthal, seemingly without a care in the world.
It’s worth wondering whether Dahan may have fared better as a feature like Cuttputlli, rather than as a nine-part series. Forced to stretch the story, Dahan winds itself into a series of plot holes that only get more baffling with every passing episode. From the number of views that crime fiction is scoring, it’s clear that audiences are in the mood for thrillers and mysteries. Let’s just hope this means that eventually, streaming platforms like Disney+ Hotstar will find projects that do a better job with this classic genre.