Director: Sumit Saxena
Writers: Sumit Saxena, Arunabh Kumar, Karan Singh Tyagi
Cast: Vijay Varma, Shweta Tripathi Sharma, Yashpal Sharma, Gopal Datt, Seema Biswas, Suzanne Mukharjee, Sudev Nair
Available on: Jio Cinema
Formally, Kaalkoot is not bad at all. The storytelling is sound. The eight-episode series revolves around a benign sub-inspector who slowly realises his own complicity in a violently patriarchal society. This protagonist, Ravi Shankar Tripathi (Vijay Varma), learns tough truths while investigating an acid attack in a land notorious for crimes against women. The moral character of the survivor, Parul Chaturvedi (Shweta Tripathi Sharma), is scrutinised in grave detail: Her ex-boyfriends, digital history, friendships, fallouts. Ravi’s professional challenge neatly dovetails with his personal life: His late father was an anti-establishment poet and teacher; his mother craves a daughter-in-law; his sister is married to her sexual harasser; his fiancée seems extra eager to set a wedding date. Every lead in the case makes Ravi a little more enlightened as an Indian man, son, brother and potential partner. His colleagues are chauvinists at odds with Ravi’s enthusiasm. It’s a familiar long-form template – the police procedural is socially reflective, the whodunit is narratively expressive. The identity of the offender is hardly surprising (pay close attention to the names); it’s the process that reveals the cultural composition of the acid.
Given the meaning of “Kaalkoot” (a poison in Hindu mythology), the plot takes us on a tour of the darkest corners of discrimination: A doctor electrocuting homosexuals to ‘cure’ them; a brothel teeming with disease and disability; a revenge porn scheme; a slut-shaming father who treats his dog as the son he never had; farmer suicides staged as phosphorous poisoning; domestic abuse; murky abortion clinics; rampant female infanticide. No malaise is spared. Some of the touches resist appropriation. For example, I like that Parul is presented as a complex woman, with needs and desires, navigating a life in flashbacks. She makes judgement errors, takes a friend for granted, gets sidetracked by love, but stays flawed without compromising on her integrity. Pieces of her personality and perceptions of her character emerge at once. When Ravi and his subordinate, Yadav (Yashpal Sharma), start their investigation, the show walks the wafer-thin line between humanising Parul and decoding her through the eyes of police-men with confirmation biases. The red herrings – like shady online profiles and a broken engagement – symbolise a gaze that’s quick to indict the victim and view her as a temptress.
I also like how Ravi’s domestic tensions speak to the case without being too obvious. Take, for instance, his beef with his sister. The exposition is shaped more by the randomness of human nature than basic writing. We first see Ravi arguing with her in broken sentences, invoking torrid memories about his brother-in-law. It’s implied that something bad happened. Later, we hear him describe an incident to Yadav in passing; he doesn’t mention it, but we instantly get that the girl in this story was his sister. His arc with Sonali (Suzanne Mukherjee), the woman he’s planning to marry, also foreshadows the male entitlement behind the attack. When Ravi feels betrayed, his first instinct is to physically punish her; only his language of male rage differs. He spells this metaphor out in the end, but Ravi’s eventual empathy for the opposite sex is driven by Vijay Varma’s wonderfully nuanced performance.
After thriving as women-hating sociopaths in Darlings and Dahaad, Varma depicts the other side of the law here. It’s a trickier balance, because there’s no room for lunacy. Even when the story verbalises the cop’s lessons, it’s a turn rich in subtext and body language. Something as normal as the way Ravi carries his bag – on his back, over both shoulders, like a schoolkid buckling under the burden of his own disillusionment – speaks volumes. Towards the end, once he gets wiser, it’s no surprise that the bag disappears. You can tell from the way he reacts and thinks (his forehead and ears do that thing) that Ravi is the sort of Nice Guy who prides himself for not being an acid-throwing and wife-beating man. The bar is so low that his self-worth is all skewed. And his self-righteousness is a form of entitlement.
The series even opens with Ravi planning to quit the service because he can’t handle the corruption – the case jolts him out of his idealism and forces him to confront his own blind spots. It’s never as easy as Ravi looking down on or defying his small-minded boss (Gopal Datt) and colleagues. Ravi is repelled by their attitude but – like the naive newbie hoping to fit in – wants to impress them with a put-on masculinity. He acts rude during a few interrogations, yet Varma’s reading of the arc suggests that there’s always a fleeting moment where Ravi introspects about what kind of man he really is: Is he pretending to be better, or is he actually better? That he finally cracks and ends up changing them, not vice versa, is a testament to the actor’s intuitive control. At some level, it’s both Ravi and Varma turning self-discovery into an artform.
But Kaalkoot does have a problem. It’s a problem we usually associate with an all-male creative team telling a story about deep-rooted misogyny and gender-based crime. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But the voice needs to be candid. Kaalkoot often falls into its own trap, because a lot of its staging – particularly the establishing of this oppressive environment – feels performative. Almost like the series is mansplaining patriarchy. For instance, the first episode features the police in a sensitivity training session (the statistics of crimes against women bring to mind the cringe-satire of Kathal), where Yadav responds to a query about Parul’s statement with a quip about her lips glued shut by the acid. Cue loud chuckling. The intent, of course, is to show the casual crudity of a male-dominated field. But the brashness looks gimmicky, turning men into caricatures to atone for a lack of insight. It doesn’t help that, in other scenes, the subtext is framed as sentimental text. When Ravi scolds his mother for asking his permission to go somewhere, she tearfully begins: “As a woman, I’ve been asking my husband for permission all my life…”. When a gay man recalls how Parul and he became friends after he mistook her for an online escort, his words are too lyrical to sound honest: “I called her to become a man (mard), but she made me human (insaan)”. Cue loud eye-roll (by me).
There are more examples. Stylistically: Ravi’s father’s poetry throwing up a Hindi expletive, or the many overwritten songs scattered across Ravi’s journey. Politically: A sudden and clumsy chat between two cops about JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) and their burqa policies. Visually: A deformed female mannequin on the street, the long tracking shots and blood-soaked action in the finale, silhouettes of a drowning baby, and the ‘reveal’ of Parul’s half-burnt face. Or the dramatic design of the incident: Male bystanders (one sucking on a popsicle) stare lecherously at Parul seconds before she is attacked. Or the many times Yadav keeps voicing his sympathy for the male suspects, while mocking Parul’s fate and blaming her for the mess. At one point, we see Yadav and the boss Jagdish getting drunk and fretting about the revision of rape laws. At another, we hear Jagdish complaining about his ‘pushy’ wife. At yet another, he makes a lewd joke (“nare ke dheeli”) about Parul’s character and his minions burst into laughter (again).
Men like these exist, but there’s a disingenuity in the treatment that hijacks the humility of its themes. The crassness is italicised to elevate the protagonist’s struggle. It’s a bit much, and in the long run, quite the deal breaker in terms of the show’s overarching message. Stories that are truly progressive don’t keep reminding you that they’re progressive. In that sense, Kaalkoot is strangely insecure about its commentary. The flashiness tends to derail the technical smartness. Which is a pity, because it stars one of the brightest talents in contemporary Hindi cinema. At times, Vijay Varma – and the man he plays – rescues the show from its tonal disparity, especially when it threatens to enter the black-comedy space. But ultimately, it’s hard to separate the body of Kalkoot from the diluted blood in its veins. The gaze is hard to ignore. The irony is that seeing – and engaging with – Kaalkoot is different from seeing through it.