Farzi Review: Shahid Kapoor, Vijay Sethupathi Make a Pitch-Perfect Debut with This Raj-DK Crime Thriller

The eight-episode series is streaming on Prime Video
Farzi Review: Shahid Kapoor, Vijay Sethupathi Make a Pitch-Perfect Debut with This Raj-DK Crime Thriller
Farzi review.

Creators: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.

Writers: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K., Sita Menon, Suman Kumar, Hussain Dalal (Hindi dialogues)

Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Vijay Sethupathi, Bhuvan Arora, Kay Kay Menon, Raashii Khanna, Regina Cassandra, Amol Palekar, Zakir Hussain

At many points in Farzi, we see Indian news channels being Indian news channels. Anchors pose loud queries about crime and politics and the economy of the nation. This isn’t unusual. Most stories use media theatrics as a source of easy amusement, but also as a reminder of narrative scale. It tells us that the characters we watch often have implications on the world they occupy; that private pockets belong to a broader fabric. The news telecasts are connective tissues between reality and perception. But in Farzi, these bulletins come as a shock to our senses. It almost feels like a prank. That’s because none of the characters ever behave like they’re capable of making the headlines. They don’t sound like the slick criminals, cops or spies we read about. The characters themselves look bemused at the public consequences of their actions. This dysfunctional relationship between the big picture and the small story – between the idea of India and the disarming ordinariness of the individuals who shape this idea – is what a Raj and DK series thrives on. 

Like The Family Man, Farzi is a fine example of high stakes and cultural commentary offset by low-key social language. It’s enormously clear-eyed and entertaining, because all the corruption and violence and cat-and-mouse suspense are ultimately defined by people who are just struggling to be people. Their little idiosyncrasies ensure that the fiction – both literally and figuratively – always hits close to home. At face value, Farzi is a quintessential Bombay tale. Sick of being poor and invisible, a hustler named Sunny (Shahid Kapoor) decides to game the system he so despises. He starts off the small and idealistic underdog, before getting sucked into the void of organized crime. His aspiration is displaced by dark ambition. On his trail is a troubled cop, Michael (Vijay Sethupathi), who finds fresh purpose in this hunt. He has no choice but to win, because he has lost everything else in the name of duty. It’s a formula as old as time. 

Shahid Kapoor in Farzi.
Shahid Kapoor in Farzi.

But the Raj-DK treatment means that the language is not as dramatic as the plot. The deadpan storytelling never hijacks the life of a moment. The action leaves room for sharp little observations and remarks on the tragicomedies of middle-class living. A frantic chase ends with Sunny’s best friend and partner-in-crime, Firoz (a breakout Bhuvan Arora), breathlessly cursing India’s unemployment rates because “mobs chase people without even knowing why”. Another time, Firoz awkwardly eyes a drink that arrives seconds after a meeting at a dive-bar. He has no choice but to chug before exiting, an act that transforms the exchange – one that has supposedly ended – into an everyman blunder. An abduction in a bedroom at night opens with the thugs cursing a defunct light switch. Two cops sarcastically clap while grilling a minister who deflects with patriotic whataboutery. Michael gets annoyed with a shopkeeper who preempts the bargaining process before he asks the price. A policeman agrees to aid a task-force agent under the condition they get Starbucks (“not cutting chai again”) all night. These aren’t the sort of forced quips that deflate the gravity of a scene. The humour is a coping mechanism – composed of desperate but innately human reactions – that just happen to look like ‘comedy’ to a third person. It’s something that Anurag Kashyap had introduced in his Gangs of Wasseypur films; it peaked with Raj and DK’s long-form mastery in The Family Man

Even the filler scenes – which normally exist only to convey information and move the script forward – remain busy and interesting. For instance, when Michael is taunting a captive, he quickly corrects himself – clarifying that by “you people” he means “Mansoor’s stooges” – once he remembers that the man is Muslim. When one of the show’s three superbly filmed chases is cut short by a traffic jam, a group of cops get confused about whether to continue on foot or return to their van. Michael himself has a habit of stylishly lighting a cigarette while entering crime scenes – like he’s watched too many Rajinikanth movies – but it’s this very chain-smoking that leaves him gasping during chases. None of this is staged to be funny, which is why it’s funny; the film-making constantly urges us to detect the inherent cinema of life. Raj and DK’s affection for Mumbai also determines the sly marriage of fact and fiction – a plot-point reimagines the mysterious 2011 appearance of ‘ghost ship’ MV Wisdom on Juhu beach.

The characterizations feed this tone wonderfully. Tamil star Vijay Sethupathi plays Michael like the cultural oddity he is. At first, Michael’s stilted Hindi sounds a bit strange, often puncturing the fluidity of his image. His arc, too, is eerily identical to The Family Man’s Srikant Tiwari, generating direct comparisons with Manoj Bajpayee. But it emerges that Michael’s straight-faced use of language not only reflects his status as a ‘family man’ – a broken alcoholic going through a divorce; an irresponsible father – but also his disdain for the system he works in. Like a child picking up a new language, his vocabulary is limited to its expletives. Some of the show’s best scenes feature Michael gently trolling the finance minister (a hilarious Zakir Hussain) like a naughty student with an exasperated teacher. Yet he uses it to his advantage, even with his Telugu wife (Regina Cassandra), knowing that his inability to express himself properly makes him seem innocent and vulnerable. The terrific Kay Kay Menon, as villain Mansoor, uses English for different reasons – to sound rich and powerful – except he isn’t as fluent in its profanities. Mansoor’s trademark is that he randomly employs the F-word as an epilogue to his thoughts, a symptom of someone who imitates a language without actually getting it. The title of the show (Farzi translates to ‘fake’) reiterates these characters, most of whom are steeped in different degrees of dishonesty.

Vijay Sethupathi in Farzi.
Vijay Sethupathi in Farzi.

What these little touches do is unlock heavier themes without being oversmart about them. The writing slowly reveals the substance behind the style. The design starts to speak to a more contemporary – and contradictory – country. The tropes invite us into a space where Farzi becomes an expertly veiled indictment of everything from art to the vicious middle-class cycle to demonetization. The details hint at that. Sunny is a broke street artist who specialises in portraiture and replicas of famous paintings. His grandfather runs a Hindi newspaper called Kranti, a dying dissenter in a dead democracy. At first, Sunny sets out to rescue the newspaper by applying his talent to counterfeiting – to ‘produce’ the money his grandfather’s journalism and his art deserves. But Sunny doesn’t stop at that. More than the get-rich-quick scheme, it’s the acclaim he had long craved for – the validation of being a true artist – that gets him addicted to counterfeiting. He is so good that he catches the eye of the high-rolling Mansoor, a financial terrorist who wants to destabilize the Indian economy. 

Farzi holds well as a rags-to-riches-to-crime story. The thrills of small-time forgery and the lofty ways of the counterfeiting industry are neatly folded into the narrative. But the eight-episode series works best as a view of the Striver Story through the lens of an Artist Story. Sunny refuses to be a victim of circumstances – he refuses to let his social situation dictate his choice between the anonymity of greatness and the tangibility of fame. But in avoiding one cliche, he becomes another. In a not-so-parallel universe, Sunny could very well be the disenfranchised film-maker (his codename is “Artist”) who goes from shaping a revolution (‘Kranti’) to selling his soul to the Remake Gods. The selfishness of art ultimately infects the selflessness of patriotism. It’s not long before he drops the pretense of social justice – of doing it for his grandfather – to serve himself. The politics are there for those who seek it. In an age of counterfeit ideologies whose only religion is money, Farzi cuts deeper than its form. It’s no coincidence that tea – a symbol of pro-establishment purism – is a recurring motif in this series. Early on, Sunny even discovers that soaking the fake currency in tea is the key to making money look more ‘legitimate’. Michael and RBI analyst Megha’s (Raashii Khanna) dealings with the Center supply the demonetization swipe; a government plan called “Dhanrakshak” is a cute riff on the term, too. 

Casting Amol Palekar – a progressive artist who traded mainstream fame for alternative greatness – as Sunny’s grandfather is a masterstroke. Palekar’s character is plagued by the onset of memory loss. But he makes this tired trope look poignant by underlining the role of trauma in his condition. His moral fibre pushes the viewer to wonder if the man is perhaps choosing to forget a few bitter truths. His bond with Sunny is not only the soul of the story, it also lends Shahid Kapoor’s performance a similar reel-real echo. As a result, Kapoor’s digital debut – much like Sethupathi’s – is nearly pitch-perfect. In context of the actor’s career, it always feels like his Sunny is in a battle with a more commercial version of himself. At one point, Sunny loses his temper at a police station, insults a senior officer and gets locked up for this attitude. When an irritated Firoz warns Sunny to tone down the ‘heropanti,’ it seems like he’s asking him to resist the temptation of turning into Bollywood Shahid Kapoor. To his credit, Kapoor reframes this internal war of ego and image as a moral conflict. And Farzi nicely dovetails the two – the cockier Sunny gets, the deeper he sinks. Eventually, he becomes the connective tissue between reality and perception. Between national news and a nation defined by people who are just struggling to be human. Perhaps there’s some poetry to the fact that the not-so-sunny nature of its anti-hero distils Farzi down to two questions: Is ambition the costliest self-portrait of aspiration? More importantly, is rebellion the cheapest replica of revolution?

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