Director: Bhav Dhulia
Writer: Neeraj Pandey, Umashankar Singh
Cast: Karan Tacker, Avinash Tiwary, Abhimanyu Singh, Jatin Sarna, Ravi Kishan, Ashutosh Rana
Khakee: The Bihar Chapter is a cop v/s criminal tale based on a book written by the supercop. Over seven episodes, righteous IPS officer Amit Lodha (Karan Tacker) pursues dreaded ganglord Chandan Mahto (Avinash Tiwary) in the lawless Bihar of the early 2000s. Actually, that’s not true. Amit’s mission officially begins in the fifth episode. Their paths rarely cross until then. The first four episodes of the Neeraj Pandey-created series awkwardly convey the rise of the two men in their respective fields. The narrative darts back and forth across timelines and towns for no particular reason. A junior officer’s voiceover dutifully keeps us posted about the highs and lows of their journey. The ‘period tone’ is flaunted, not least when a character mentions Martina Hingis – a pointless detail made more pointless by the fact that he’s watching his boss play badminton, not tennis. In his Civil Services interview, Amit gives a very rehearsed answer, only to be offered a second chance where his answer – which supposedly clinches him the job – sounds even more rehearsed than the first.
Like most Neeraj Pandey titles, the problem with Khakee: The Bihar Chapter lies in its India-for-Dummies brand of storytelling. The treatment lacks finesse, boasting of neither the heartland excesses of Mirzapur nor the visceral rawness of Gangs of Wasseypur. There’s often a sense that the individual scenes – featuring elements like world-building, characters, action, motivations, personalities – are composed as afterthoughts, like flimsy lyrics conceived to keep the music going. Take, for instance, the transformation moments. Amit Lodha is a cultural oddity in Bihar at first, but to display this, the series chooses a dated comic device – like a bunch of terribly cast Bihari passengers in his train from Jaipur to Dhanbad. The idea (“who migrates to Bihar?”) is correct, but the execution belongs to a bygone decade. When he struggles to connect with the locals, it’s resolved through a single montage – that looks more like a discarded campaign video – and a subordinate’s advice to embrace the more inclusive pronoun: “Main nahi, Hum”. Next thing we know, he’s a local hero.
This is long-format storytelling, yet the makers opt for the most superficial narrative language. Ditto for Chandan Mahto’s arc – a single chat in prison with a fellow inmate turns him from a loyal employee of his mob boss to a cold-blooded killer. Just like that, his gait changes, he stops being a victim and he becomes the next big thing. The implication is that caste rage plays a role in the making of this monster, but it remains an implication. As is evident from stray allusions to Bihar’s notorious caste politics, the screenplay is not mature enough to explore this angle. Ditto for the staging of scenes, especially the manner in which Amit gets the groundbreaking idea to track down Chandan. We see him play hide-and-seek with his son in a long-drawn and clumsy sequence – a moment so random that it stands out like a sore (and non-inked) thumb. Of all the ways to give Amit his brainwave, this is easily the most cliched.
This half-baked vibe speaks to a larger malaise with the film-making. If the series were a person, it would be a flaky millennial who lacks the commitment to finish anything he starts – a bit like Hrithik Roshan’s character in Lakshya, except there’s no heartbreak to straighten him out here. Nearly every other scene feels incomplete and rushed, as though the makers begin a chase, gunfight or even conversation without knowing how to end it. At times, they bail on us midway through, making it look like they either ran out of production budget or simply lost interest. An example is an early assassination attempt on Chandan and his boss (Ravi Kishan). The camera opens with some calm before the storm in the car, with one character singing, evoking the start of a carefully choreographed one-take action sequence. It snakes towards the backseat, showing us the attack from a car in front, the windows shattering and bullets raining on them – and the shot ends. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess the crew just couldn’t get it right on the day, so they decided to abandon the shot altogether. (That rustling sound you hear is The Family Man shaking its head in disapproval). This is still not as jarring as a sequence towards the end, where an attack on Amit’s family is thwarted by a cop, but we don’t see how. The scene is cut short the moment someone hurls a coconut bomb (?) at them. I suspect this is editing dictated not by style but by necessity.
Even characters are introduced without a plan. Like Amit’s wife who mostly exists so that Chandan can threaten to harm her, or Vinay Pathak appearing as the Chief Minister for a hot minute before he gets voted out (from the cabinet and the show). I’m not sure why writers misinterpret upright protagonists as boring people – something that plagues Amit, and Karan Tacker’s vanilla performance, in this show. His constables assume he’s a Rajput at one point, which is perhaps an inadvertent nod to Padmaavat’s bland-hero problem. It doesn’t help that the final ‘chat’ between cop and criminal is one of the most anti-climactic exchanges I’ve seen – bereft of wit, urgency, spark, gravity. Avinash Tiwary does a good job as the dacoit-styled baddie, but his character is hampered by a script that puts effect over any real reading of human nature. That last scene does him no favours. Jatin Sarna, as Chandan’s second-in-command Chyawanprash, is too good an actor for a series that treats him as an excuse to use random retro songs.
The one thing Pandey does get right, as he often does, is the manhunt itself. This is when the plot can flaunt itself and move; it doesn’t have time to stop and think. The team’s mission to track down Chandan is compelling because of the way it relies on early technology – back in an era when phone-tapping wasn’t common and, therefore, fun to watch. (My favourite moment features Amit, our sanskari hero, yelling “abey yaar!” when he gets fed up of Chyawanprash’s phone-sex habit). But this comes at a price. The manhunt is the instrument around which the rest of the narrative is cobbled together, and it shows. There’s rarely a sense of time passing or reputations accumulating. Chandan’s explosive prison break is poorly crafted, as are his early sequences as a novice criminal. He is responsible for not one but two massacres in Bihar, but the stakes never feel that high. The script is so obsessed with the cat-and-mouse game that there’s no space for empathy and quiet, no prospect of pausing and feeling.
Abhimanyu Singh’s turn as Amit’s right hand in the mission is particularly puzzling, bringing to mind a Prakash Jha version of Entourage’s Johnny “Drama” Chase. It’s not his fault, though, if the setting is begging to be injected with intensity. It’s never a good sign when a series opens with a police raid in which the camera moves faster than the heavy-footed characters, and where the lead officer uses a concrete pole as cover while advancing. This is the result of occupying a world – on paper – without understanding its crevices. Then we see the cop sweating profusely, except it looks like an assistant director has splashed him with a bucket of water because there’s no time to waste. One can almost smell the struggle of the crew in uncontrolled conditions. If viewers notice, notch it down to Bihar being an exotic place where everything goes.