Kafas Series Review: A Shabby Drama Against a Bollywood Backdrop

Sharman Joshi and Mona Singh play parents who accept hush money after their son is abused by a star. The series is streaming on Sony Liv
Kafas Series Review: A Shabby Drama Against a Bollywood Backdrop
Kafas Series Review: A Shabby Drama Against a Bollywood Backdrop

Director: Sahil Sangha

Writer: Karan Sharma

Cast: Sharman Joshi, Mona Singh, Mikhail Gandhi, Vivan Bhatena, Tejasvi Singh Ahlawat, Mona Vasu, Preeti Jhangiani, Zarina Wahab

When a publicity poster features a single word as a hashtag, near the headshot of humans who are gagged for effect, expect trouble. Or should I say, #Trouble. As if this isn’t gimmicky enough, the tagline is: “Chup rehne ke paise liye hain” (Our silence has been bought). SonyLiv has been airing spots of Sharman Joshi and Mona Singh saying this line to the camera – without any context – to drum up some intrigue. But the result has been quite the opposite. They’ve disturbed my viewing experience of The Ashes so often that I assumed it was just another tone-deaf ad campaign designed by an ‘edgy’ agency. Or maybe it's a provocative commercial for filmmakers looking for the wrong camera to make their next found-footage thriller. But deep inside, I suspect I knew the truth all along – that this was a misguided web series whose subtext was going to be louder than its text.

The title is Kafas (meaning: Cage), for the record. An adaptation of the British limited series Dark Money, the six-episode Kafas plays out like a long and cringey recreation of a crime on a primetime news telecast. I kept waiting for a hyperactive anchor to pop up and shatter the fourth wall with a question-laden monologue: Is showbiz full of rich pedophiles and deviants? Is nobody safe in this demonic industry? Do Indian parents have no moral compass? When one character tells another that “I’ll meet you in the evening,” why does nobody mention the precise time? The nation needs answers.

In Kafas, the middle-class family of an abused child signs a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and accepts hush money from a predatory Bollywood superstar to stay silent. Sunny (Mikhail Gandhi) is a 15-year-old child actor whose first film shoot with superstar Vikram Bajaj (Vivan Bhatena) is tainted with the trauma of “private rehearsals”. Touted as the next big thing, Sunny is haunted by the nightmare of his big break. Not even his Harry Potter-style glasses can change that.

His parents – a modest cinema manager named Raghav (Sharman Joshi) and a pushy hair stylist named Seema (Mona Singh) – are slowly torn apart by the guilt of selling their son’s dignity. Sunny’s elder sister, Shreya (Tejasvi Singh Ahlawat), feels neglected in this household of shame and secrets. Not unlike The Fame Game (2022), the premise is in a position to explore the dark side of celebrity, as well as the toxic stranglehold of stage parents who sacrifice their kids at the altar of their own incomplete dreams. The timing is never wrong. A post-MeToo world only shines a sharper light on the complicity of society in the abuse of power and privilege.

Sharman Joshi in Kafas on Sony Liv
Sharman Joshi in Kafas on Sony Liv

If the story is the skeleton and the execution is the flesh, Kafas is a corpse of its own making. Nothing about it feels informed. It has the social and emotional sincerity of a seedy Reddit thread. The writing is bereft of sensitivity or taste. The treatment lacks the maturity to deal with heavy themes. This is the sort of show where a star-struck school principal interviews Sunny during the morning assembly and asks him questions like: “How does it feel to work with Vikram Bajaj, my favourite actor and an outsider who has reached the top of this nepotistic industry?”. It’s the sort of show where the intrepid reporter (played by casting director Mukesh Chhabra) works at a website called ‘Truth Serum’ and has his cellphone number in his byline (position: Senior journalist). Worse, his headers have three exclamation marks. It’s the sort of show where the abuser’s socialite wife (Preeti Jhangiani) does nothing but deliver vampy one-liners in designer dresses. Case in point: “Vikram, (smirks), why didn’t you just get a blowjob? 10 crores, (smirks), for a handjob, that’s too much, no?”. Or this gem: “Are you gay, (smirks), or do you just like younger boys?”. When Vikram gets sidetracked and asks where they were during a discussion, she purrs: “Nowhere you’d like to be”. It’s the sort of show where Dad of the Year Raghav sabotages Vikram’s trailer launch (the film is called Superdad of course), and then does a happy jig with Mom of the Year, Seema. It’s also the sort of show where entertainment journalists quietly watch a star make sick sexual innuendos (“inke bete ki haath ki kamai”) to mock the family’s poorly-worded allegations (on the lines of “his hands are weak, so he used our son’s hands'') at a press conference. While the crude star continues to taunt them, the camera cuts to his ruthless lawyer in the auditorium muttering words like “Genius!” and “Brilliant!,” stopping just short of singing “What an idea, sirji!” to the tune of a cell service provider.

I’m not done. There’s more. The series opens with a present-day murder sequence that turns out to be one of the worst red herrings in television history. The track of Raghav’s ex-wife (Mona Vasu) and son (whose only job is to be rude to everyone for exploiting Sunny) could have been a merit, except the characters are reduced to one-note clichés with no depth. When Vikram Bajaj sees Sunny in private, he always intimidates the boy by behaving like a lecherous Eighties’ villain. At one point, he almost forgets that Sunny’s sister is in the same room, only to cackle with sleazy glee when he sees her: “After all, a girl can do everything a boy can''. The word ‘trailer’ is repeatedly used in the script to trigger Sunny (“Is the trailer of Superdad out?”), because he was abused in Vikram’s trailer on set. When Sunny’s rich friends mercilessly tease him for not passing lewd remarks on Instagram photos of female classmates, he pulls a girl’s skirt to prove his worth. It’s all so awkwardly filmed and performed that the boys addressing each other as “bro” every millisecond is the least of our worries. It’s particularly jarring after watching the child actors outperform their older counterparts in School of Lies, a series set entirely in a private boarding school.

The broader problems are nearly secondary. For example, the arguments between Raghav and Seema come across as glorified exposition dumps. Marital conflict and guilt are theories here not complicated human traits. They don’t look like they’ve lost any sleep after taking the money; that’s why they have to keep saying it to remind us. Things happen because they’re written, not because one character is reacting to a crisis differently than the other. I get the logic of casting Sharman Joshi and Mona Singh, both of whom have successfully played righteous parents – Joshi in Ferrari ki Sawaari (2012), Singh in Laal Singh Chaddha (2022) and Yeh Meri Family (2018). The idea is that their noble on-screen image will ultimately make this greedy couple accountable for their mistakes and become adult saviours. But the series overplays this card, turning Raghav and Seema into performative sadsacks who don’t deserve a redemption arc. No last-ditch speech about middle-class struggles can change what we think of these parents, who are just as culpable as the sharks in the sea into which they fling their children.

It’s hard to feel for the sister, Shreya, too, because her oblivious words to Sunny – where she playfully asks him if he did any “R-rated stuff” on set, and later yells that aspiring male actors don’t get assaulted like women do – don’t sound all that oblivious. The writing is so obvious that it’s as though she knows of his secret and is purposely trying to trigger him. Moreover, it rarely looks like Sunny is in the movie business. Superficial nods to a lucky audition aside, nothing about his life suggests that he is a rising artist with broken dreams and passions, never mind adult-written lines like “acting normal is my best performance”. Given that it’s a school year, it’s simply implied that his parents manage his career and that all eyes are on him in the run-up to his first film’s release. In fact, the same can be said about the Bollywood backdrop in general, which is all but incidental to the shabby drama in the spotlight. It doesn’t help that the trailer of “Superdad”, the fictional action movie starring Sunny, has the same tone and pitch as Kafas; it’s impossible to tell the film from the show. As it turns out, then, the publicity poster of gagged faces is a perfect reflection of this series. A series so lurid and hollow that the audience is #bound to be left #speechless. How’s that for a cool tagline?

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