Grahan, On Disney+ Hotstar, Is A Vast Story Lost In A Haze Of Wasteful Filmmaking

What’s the point of a brave story when the telling is so paranoid?
Grahan, On Disney+ Hotstar, Is A Vast Story Lost In A Haze Of Wasteful Filmmaking

Created by: Shailendra Jha
: Ranjan Chandel
Starring: Zoya Hussain, Pawan Malhotra, Wamiqa Gabbi
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Based on Satya Vyas's novel Chaurasi, the premise of Grahan is compelling. The 8-episode series is centred on a Ranchi IPS officer named Amrita Singh (Zoya Hussain) who, on the eve of the 2016 elections, finds herself leading a special investigation of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Bokaro. Very early on she discovers that the mob leader on that violent night was her gentle father, Gursevak Singh (Pawan Malhotra), who back then went by the name of Rishi Ranjan (Anshuman Pushkar, a macho mix of Sonu Sood and Sunil Grover). The past – featuring Rishi's love story with his Sikh landlord's daughter Manu (a striking Wamiqa Gabbi) – is intercut with Amrita's emotionally fraught quest for the truth, and her piecing together of a puzzle that gets murkier with every arrest.

I can see why this story would make for Indian long-form fodder. The modern-day relevance of a historical conflict aside, the narrative is inherently mainstream – a hybrid of romance, drama, intrigue, morality and communal politics. I like the fact that a Muslim actress plays a Sikh officer, a fleeting nod to the uniformity of religious minorities in a land prone to Hindu extremism. The central conceit – of the accused rioters adopting the Sikh identity as a cloak in the future – is not gimmicky but relevant, bringing to mind the Jewish ruse of ageing Holocaust perpetrators. (Rishi is a Bihari steel worker, so the internet uproar about a Sikh himself triggering the riot is misguided.) The protagonist's nickname is a nice little ode to the film Amu, Shonali Bose's sensitive 2005 drama starring Konkona Sensharma as an NRI who discovers that her parents were part of the 1984 massacre. The period love story is watchable, thanks to the song Chori Chori, a lavish Sairat-style track composed by Amit Trivedi and penned by Varun Grover. Add to this the opening scene of the series – a journalist being assassinated by hired thugs – and Grahan speaks a familiar language.

But Grahan fails at the fundamental level of crafting. The '90s television aesthetic – ripe with iffy dubbing, corny dialogue, simplistic filming and heavy-handed acting – is difficult to overlook. For instance, one of the first scenes features Amrita making out with her fiancé before he leaves for Canada. There's nothing wrong with showing her topless, but the shot feels disingenuous in context of the tone – a honey-trap inserted to manipulate the viewer into staying for the next seven episodes. Then there's the way we are supposed to learn of Amu's integrity – her grey-haired boss uses the terms "millennials" and "you hot-headed youngsters" in various combinations at least five times in the first two episodes. That's just ham-fisted writing (not to mention the phrase "imaandari ki aag mein pakki mehnat ki roti" spoken by a man in the middle of a desperate chase). When Amu confronts her father on recognising an old photograph of his complicity, the moment is milked for what feels like half an episode – an orgy of deafening music and slow-motion emotion. The camera stays on his face, and stays, and stays. Across the series, this is what a fine actor like Pawan Malhotra is reduced to: a one-dimensional look of crestfallen shame.

The structure of the story, too, is needlessly puzzling. The recurring flashback, which starts in 1983 up to the night of the riots, gets mixed up with the witness accounts of the Bokaro survivors. The result is a non-linear, confusing timeline – which starts with the end and then goes to and fro like a drunken wedding dance – that is also filled with red herrings and convenient omissions. I get that the subterfuge is deliberate – for instance, the depiction of only half a scene so that the other half is part of the climactic revelation – but this gets silly over eight knotted episodes. The efforts made to throw the viewers off the scent are self-defeating. For example, when the father is introduced as a man who cheats in card games with his family, it's immediately obvious that the scene exists to colour our perception of him. While most makers use the device of an unreliable narrator to mislead the audience, the makers of Grahan themselves become the unreliable narrators. It's not as amusing as it sounds.

It doesn't help that the writing refuses to trust the viewers. A layered moment features an ailing survivor who respectfully refuses a glass of water from a lower-caste officer ("you are a big man, I am small"), only for the makers to then ram home the subtext by inserting a tragic backstory for the officer. The point is to hint at the parallels between the oppressed across class, caste and religion, so we have the officers spell it out during a tearful and righteous exchange of views. Similarly, towards the end, we have a politician say things like "we look at the world as black and white, but the truth is grey" and Amu silencing an entire Hindu-Muslim riot with a sermon in the middle of a communally sensitive area. (The men shut up and listen, go figure.) Moments later, with an injured officer in her arms, you can sense the director's instructions to the actress: yes, look at the sky, upward, make a pained expression, imagine it's raining but those are your tears, now hold that look, yes, yes, let the camera rise above you. Zoya Hussain is awkward at best, despite being an urgent physical presence, thanks largely to some tactless direction. After making her debut as a mute character in Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz, it's painfully ironic that her voice falters – both literally (her dubbing is disjointed) and figuratively (Amu's complexity is reframed as high-pitched trauma) – in the heat of soap-operatic battle.

This isn't a terrible series, but the mediocrity is more frustrating than that. There is no intellectual curiosity; every other scene becomes a broad and exploitative version of something that may or may not have happened. There was an opportunity, at one point, to get into the mindspace of the common man and understand how a modest tea-seller morphs into a bloodthirsty rioter by night. What is it about religion that brings out the animal in humans? Yet, the focus remains on the morbid visuals and the yellow-journalistic gaze, with the fateful night being explored from several gory angles.

Worst of all, the payoff is a courtroom sequence that virtually recreates the Veer-Zaara ending (and revelation) shot by shot, especially with the dramatic entry of a long-lost lover. Given that the show's background score is an unsubtle riff on Bulbbul's central melody, it's this stunning lack of imagination that viewers are likely to be left with. This is a real shame, because it's hard enough to design a politically expressive tale in these intolerant times. After all, what's the point of a brave story when the telling is so paranoid?

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