Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Writers: Anant Tripathi, Abhishek Chaubey, Unaiza Merchant, Harshad Nalawade
Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Manoj Bajpayee, Nasser, Sayaji Shinde, Anula Navlekar, Kani Kusruti, Lal, Rajeev Ravindranathan, Anbuthasan
Streaming on: Netflix
Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, an influential family found itself in a soup. Corrupt businessman Arvind Shetty (Sayaji Shinde) is neck-deep in a money-laundering racket. To make matters worse, his daughter Apeksha (Anula Navlekar) has no intentions of inheriting his empire; she wants to study art in France. Prabhakar Shetty (Manoj Bajpayee) – or Prabhu – is a failed entrepreneur who dreams of starting a luxury hotel with his brother Arvind’s money; he has also scammed Arvind of a whopping INR 30 crore over the years. Prabhu’s wife Swathi (Konkona Sen Sharma) is a mediocre home chef who aspires to run a restaurant in said luxury hotel. Except she’s also having an affair with Prabhu’s squint-eyed masseuse Umesh (Manoj Bajpayee), who looks like Prabhu but loves her dearly.
When things go wrong one night, Swathi schemes to replace her husband with Umesh; she manipulates him into having a painful ‘makeover’. But they’re not alone. A jaded inspector on the verge of retirement, Hassan (Nasser), gets obsessed after his eager subordinate, ASI Thupalli (Anbuthasan), is found dead during the investigation. The soup thickens, with the involvement of Prabhu’s lovesick accountant Kirtima (Kani Kusruti), a loyal bodyguard and former jungle rebel Lucas (Lal), a bumbling private detective (Bucks), a bumbling DSP (Rajeev Ravindranathan), and many more characters that I’m sure we’re expected to forget.
Evidently, Abhishek Chaubey’s series has a lot going on. The narrative chaos is part of the fable-like design and title. The ingredients are disparate: a meaty stock (a Macbethian riff), a fishy broth (multiple deaths), some simmering heat (blackmail, incest, accidents, hallucinations), boiled veggies (a doomed love story), a lot of starch (8 episodes of black-comedy-crime-thriller shenanigans) and plenty of (easter) eggs. But it also raises the age-old question surrounding the excesses of ‘soup storytelling’: Are you in for the ride or the destination? The former is all flavour, the latter is all form. Killer Soup encourages us to enjoy it through both lenses. Like Guns and Gulaabs (2023), the ride is inventive, crowded and overlong. There’s magic realism, pop culture and everything in between. At times, getting lost in its greedy web is fun – like strolling through a tourist town and entering quirky bylanes without a plan. At times, it’s also like getting lost on the cold outskirts and not remembering the way back during a transport strike.
For much of Killer Soup, this journey is the show. Every death feels like a murder, but nobody is actually killed. A subsidiary company is called Last Resort, and a dream project is ‘Hotel California’. A woman screams “Oh Prabhu!” in the throes of sexual pleasure. Umesh’s ringtone is the song ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Bombay (1995), a film repeatedly referenced through his star-crossed romance. Swathi uses the moniker “Manisha Koirala” as her second identity – she evokes Koirala’s movie character when she wears a burqa to secretly meet her lover or attend cooking classes. A haunted cop is ‘assisted’ by the drenched ghost of his late poetry-loving colleague. (Yes, take your time with that sentence.) He is guided by quotes from Proust, Dickinson and, I suspect, self-composed riddles. A famous Western classical track (Offenbach’s Barcarolle) is employed twice – in paradoxical circumstances – like it was in Life Is Beautiful (1997): It pits the fake joy of a marital home against the fake sadness of a funeral. Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ stylishly closes out a dramatic episode. Indian heavy metal band Scribe gets a shoutout during an angsty-teen scene. Fireflies glow up a tree that becomes a plot point. All of which is to say: There are no rules. Anything goes. It’s like being hurled into a washing machine of the makers’ personal influences.
The tone is so willfully scattershot that it can get disorienting. Everyone wants to be the protagonist. Life stories collide for space. A few episodes in, it’s hard to recall what a character’s previous scene was, or where they stand in terms of their individual arcs. The writing is anything but tight. For instance, Inspector Hassan chases so many clues that it’s impossible to tell how much he knows at any given point. Swathi and Umesh have so many arguments that you forget if they’re mad at each other or not. Ditto for the equations between Arvind and his double-crossing family members. When alliances start forming, good luck figuring out the ulterior motives.
But the fluidity also extends to the performances, which make the parts more entertaining than the whole. Watching Manoj Bajpayee and Konkona Sen Sharma act with each other – and more so, react to each other – is a rare gift. Even though there is manipulation and lies between the two characters, their bond seems to be ignited by the walls closing in on them. Chemistry is too small a term for that. Swathi ‘uses’ Umesh, and yet she is constantly taken aback by his decency. It’s an abusive relationship, but it is oddly humanised by the toxic environment around them. Sen Sharma buys into the homegrown eccentricities of Killer Soup. The result is a shape-shifting ode to Lady Macbeth that’s never as sinister as we’re conditioned to believe. Bajpayee is a hoot as Prabhu, but he is unexpectedly moving as Umesh, a man so besotted that his squint-eyed subservience is tragically funny. The duality eats him from within.
Usually, a man who wants to be with a woman at any cost is defined by an aggressive brand of masculinity. Umesh, though, is almost heartbreaking for how pathetic he is – simultaneously reluctant and ready, drunken and sober, sad and happy. There’s a scene in which he explodes, startling Swathi with his rage, but his comical reaction on being spotted by her son diffuses the moment in the most natural way possible. The supporting turns are equally versatile. Nasser gives shape to Hassan’s peculiar grief: The inspector wobbles through the series like a deluded father seeking justice for a son he barely knew. There’s a bit of slapstick, but the track is never trivialised in pursuit of surreal humour. It’s refreshing to see Sayaji Shinde not only in a substantial role, but also one that critiques his typecasting as a mainstream baddie. His Arvind is the perfect cocktail of hammy and human. Every time he acts like a patriarchal douchebag, you expect a loose canon to emerge. The loony tenderness, then, always comes as a surprise.
The ride of Killer Soup has ups and downs, convolutions and indulgences, good scenes and flabby episodes. But it’s the destination that ultimately makes the difference. This destination emerges slowly, in the final few episodes, when the different threads start to gravitate towards each other. That's when you start to understand the little details sprinkled across the show. For instance, Umesh Pillai’s real surname is revealed to be Mahto early on. The erasure of his social identity goes hand in glove with the premise: Umesh is after all pretending to be an oppressive upper-caste man, and his struggle is rooted in the danger of literally losing himself. His past also explains his primal instinct of simply wanting to elope with Swathi instead. Umesh is not used to exploiting others, being seen too clearly or being in a position of power, because he was invisibilized by society for decades.
Then there are the sly machinations of the plot. The needle of suspicion often points towards socio-cultural minorities: A Dalit man, a Muslim cook, a housewife, a woman accountant. Hidden within the running joke of Swathi’s awful soup is a smart riff on gender dynamics. The Shetty men do not hesitate to wring her neck or remind her of her place, but these same men are afraid of telling her the truth about her cooking. Her place in the kitchen – and as a caretaker (she’s a former nurse) – is sacrosanct in their eyes. Most of all, though, Chaubey’s Macbethian soup is refashioned as a sharp comment on female agency. There are seeds of the play’s power subversions. Like an acid attack staged on a man and not a woman. Like a liplock that reverses the gender roles of the famous ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ kiss. Or like a woman and her niece teaming up to con the males of the family.
But the story refuses to grant Swathi the privilege of a proper Shakespearean swing. Umesh never becomes a tyrannical king; he feels the guilt that she is supposed to; ‘victims’ perish, too, in a manner that teases her inability to be truly ruthless. It’s as if the original themes start conspiring against Swathi because of who she is – an Indian homemaker with desire and ambition. The title mocks her skills as well as her personality. Every time she’s close to her goal, someone dies. Whenever a meek Umesh suggests eloping, Swathi insists on staying back and tricking the system that suppressed them; she wants her dues. The narrative turns her into a villain because, like society, it cannot fathom her sense of purpose. She is culpable for wanting more. She is guilty of dreaming big. Consequently, none of her plans work, and too many characters gatecrash her party. The climax is eerily reminiscent of Haseen Dillruba (2021) – except this is a feminist tragedy that seeks refuge in the dimensions of pulp fiction. The love story is a last resort. Forget winning, Killer Soup implies that those like Swathi and Umesh can’t even lose like they are destined to. Forget failing in life, they can’t even fail in the language of literature. Forget the destination, they can’t even afford the legacy of a ride.