Director: Randeep Jha
Writers: Gunjit Chopra, Diggi Sisodia
Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Barun Sobti, Harleen Sethi, Varun Badola, Manish Chaudhari, Vishal Handa, Rachel Shelley
As a police procedural, Kohrra is a bilingual blend of sense and suspense. Days before his wedding, an NRI named Paul (Vishal Handa) is found dead in the bleak fields of small-town Punjab – a 180-degree riff on the mustard fields that immortalized the NRI charmer who whisked away his starry-eyed soulmate in Nineties’ Bollywood. The bride (Anand Priya), an arranged match, is heartbroken to lose the London-based hero she met two weeks ago. The victim’s best mate, a British national named Liam (Ivantiy Novak), is also missing. Two local cops – veteran sub-inspector Balbir Singh (Suvinder Vicky) and young subordinate Amarpal Garundi (Barun Sobti) – start the investigation. Their crumbling personal lives are interspersed with a case that throws up a coffin of complex truths.
There are red herrings and dead ends, suspects and secrets, moral guilt and human complicity. Multiple characters act shady; everyone has a future-snatching past that makes them as culpable as the one who took a life. The whodunit morphs into a whydunit and howdunit at once. By the end, the finely crafted atmosphere gives way to a revelation that’s more inevitable than predictable. It’s a familiar journey, one where the ‘twist’ is hiding in broad daylight all along. The title – Kohrra, meaning “fog” – explains the narrative smokescreen.
As is usually the case with intricate long-form storytelling, the six-episode series is more than its genre beats. Kohrra, at its core, is a cultural investigation. It probes the ongoing tragedy of a place and time, where culpability is a cocktail of social and generational oppression. The series also urges the viewer to inspect its drama, seek its themes, join the dots and play the jaded detectives who’re trying to solve – and not just finish – the puzzle of sharp pieces. The writing is delicate and layered, the cast is an inextricable element of the setting, and the film-making treads the thin line between text and subtext. The text is conventional, a way to invite us into a world popularized by books and movies. The investigation we see represents the lens of the Punjab Police, led by two men who are very much the products of a patriarchal land of corruption and class rage. So their suspects are the ones they’re conditioned to see. The biases at play shape the foreground of the series. They go for the easy targets.
The clues they follow are actually tropes. Like power and ego: A bitter land dispute between Paul’s father (Manish Chaudhuri) and his younger brother (Varun Badola) brings them into focus. Like jealousy: Paul’s light-eyed cousin, Happy (Amaninder Pal Singh), seems dubious enough to avenge his status as the black sheep of the family. Like Punjab’s drug problem: A raging addict (Jagga Singh) is arrested for stealing Paul’s smartwatch and ring. Like romantic rivalry: The bride’s ex-boyfriend (Saurav Khurana), a wannabe artist, is enough of a comical threat to make him a suspect. Like poverty: A cash-strapped bus driver (Sumit Gulati) comes into focus when CCTV footage of a road accident implicates him days before the murder. Or like politics: Balbir’s bosses pressurize him to stay away from the wealthy families, and pin everything on the drivers and junkies instead. Or that age-old cliche, honour: Paul’s dad is an abusive man who bullied his son for abandoning his turban and “sense of masculinity”.
Balbir and Garundi pursue the sort of leads that might help them decode one of these societal cliches. It’s their worldview, after all. Balbir is wary of the cycle he peddles in the name of duty. After decades of bridging both sides of the law, Balbir is troubled by the fact that, once again, the oppressed will be blamed for pulling the trigger, while the privileged will go scot-free for purchasing the gun. He knows how it works – and he detests himself for participating in this circus of zero-sum prejudice. His job used to be an escape from his broken home; now it’s just a bigger broken home. Ditto for Garundi, who quietly idolizes Balbir, but sees the older man helpless in the face of the ‘system’. Together, they wonder how Punjab will become a better place if accountability remains the cloak of the elite. This is a potent story on its own, where two flawed gatekeepers see through the smog and grieve the demise of justice. They’re no angels themselves, which is why every breakthrough resembles a cracked mirror, a cue to the darkness that nurtured their male entitlement.
Yet, the fog of Kohrra is not just a narrative smokescreen. The series we see – where the adults hijack both plot and life – is a fitting reflection of what we don’t see. It speaks to the distance between vintage ideals and self-made ideas; between parents who mistake deference for loyalty and children who mistake bloodlines for blood. When the truth is revealed in the dying minutes of the series, it’s predictable to the viewer, but not to the inhabitants of the story. We see it coming because we’re supposed to. The film-making is replete with hints: Family photos as establishment shots, carefully shot flashbacks, incomplete tensions, implications of domestic discord. But the cops don’t see it coming because they aren’t equipped to recognize the grammar of generational conflict. They aren’t built to notice that passion and intimacy are legitimate emotions, forget them being the catalysts of rebellion. They aren’t attuned to heed the hormonal rashness of love.
“Love is a bitch,” we often hear Balbir say, with an air of cranky-uncle dismissiveness. He comes from a lineage so casually regressive that it rarely lends youth the dignity of individualism. It never occurs to those like him that perhaps they are the ones responsible for turning love into an illegal – and therefore cannibalistic – drug of choice. As a result, he misses the clues. He misses that the story is full of signs from characters who are tired of being invisibilized and unseen; youngsters forced to fight for the right to love and be loved; men and women aching to untether themselves from the burden of succession. Nearly every dimension of the case involves familial friction and dysfunctional households. Happy, the cousin, is desperate for validation from his influential father; he wants all the respect and affection that the man has reserved for the brighter Paul. Paul himself was trapped in a double-life, thanks to the autocratic ways of his own father. Veera left her college boyfriend Saakar for a financially secure future; her aspiration for the West is not only mirrored by Saakar’s ‘rap’ career but also the fact that her meetings happen at an American diner-style restaurant. A pining Saakar lashes out in a way that suggests he would kill for her. Which is to say: The first instinct is always a reckless one, because they’ve been left with no room for voice or acceptance.
Most of all, Balbir Singh’s own home echoes this discord. The personal problems he’s spent his life escaping from are actually a projection of the truth at the center of the case. He has a difficult relationship with his daughter, Nimrat (Harleen Sethi), who now lives with him with her five-year-old son after leaving her husband. Balbir can’t understand why she would leave a stable and responsible father. When he discovers that she has a lover, Balbir’s rage is precisely the kind that he ends up investigating in Paul’s family. Similarly, Garundi is desperate to get married – and break away from the obligations of his older brother and obsessions of his sister-in-law. He hopes to embark on a life of normal companionship, free from the debt of emotional heritage.
Then there’s the sex in Kohrra, an extension of the covert lives imposed on an entire generation of outlawed lovers. The series opens with a young couple getting it on in the field, legs entangled and undergarments bunched at their ankles. (A field opened co-creator Sudip Sharma’s screenplay of Udta Punjab too; there, it was a camouflage for drug trade). Theirs is the kind of desperate desire that emerges from a space of unforgiving families and prying eyes. This is the couple that stumbles upon Paul’s body, and the police judge the boy for his amorous whereabouts. An early scene of Garundi, too, features a creaking bed and moans, while the camera lingers on a framed family portrait. The postmortem reports – which steer the investigation into unchartered territory – show evidence of discreet oral sex on more than one occasion. Even the mention of sex feels like a symptom of a neglected disease, one that stems from the need to feel seen and touched in a culture of tormented companionship.
None of it is for effect. It’s like the story is alluding towards matters of the heart, building up to an answer that nobody is willing to know. There’s even a gas explosion and an attempted suicide at the same time, as if to jolt Balbir and his colleagues out of their preconceived line of thought: Wake up, guys, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You sense that some might have an inkling, but continue to follow the police-procedural path in the misguided hope that ignoring the message will make it disappear – a worthy parallel to the toxic parenting across the episodes. The dusky facts don’t dawn on the cops, because they’re too caged to perceive the courage and challenges of those who’re pushed into the shadows. They’re too ingrained to detect that the audacity of love is stronger than the history of hatred. Balbir is too busy feeling sorry for himself – and where he stands on the social and professional ladder – to register his own role in this long-term tragedy. The subjugation of spirit cuts across class, caste, skin colour, nationality and religion. And by pulling on the fog that separates truth from realism, the series does an exquisite job of conveying that crime is an act of plurality – not least when self-identity is denied to those who defy a legacy of control. It says something that all the fathers in the show are ashamed of their children, but can only express ‘love’ by physically harming anyone that threatens their plans for them.
The commentary of Kohrra is stimulating, but it’s the craft that allows meaning to emerge like a truck piercing the morning mist. It isn’t apparent at first, until it’s suddenly all too clear. The detailing (by writers Gunjit Chopra and Diggi Sisodia) goes a long way in terms of this staggered impact. A barking dog marks the presence of a corpse in the beginning and an accident towards the end – a nod to the skewed balance of sound and subservience that defines the show’s human relationships. A helpful petrol-pump attendant is seen playing Ludo, a board game that manifests the victim’s fate in how it originated from India but was patented in England. When a doctor discloses evidence of fellatio in a postmortem report, a female assistant quickly excuses herself from the room. A missing Liam’s mother is played by Rachel Shelley, the English actress who famously played the villain’s liberal-minded and noble sister in Lagaan (2001). She even arrives in a “Captain Russell cab” from the airport, which isn’t just a playful homage but also a reminder that her Lagaan persona evolves into her character’s unwavering sense of empathy here.
Every scene is staged with visual information and care, an effort to convince the viewer that the police are scrutinizing people and lives in motion, not gimmicky characters. Faces aren’t introduced so much as constructed. Something as simple as a blood stain on a truck is woven into a broader moment of a man and his helper stopping for a break; the reason the blood becomes a point of concern is because there are other people – and curious gazes – in the garage. Something as ordinary as a father getting a phone call weaves into a larger moment, where we notice how his firm grasp over his factory atones for his detachment to his son. A young lady constable (Veerpal Kaur Gill) – the most disarming peripheral character of the show – enthusiastically orders a frappe before interrogating a suspect at a cafe. She becomes a shot of unwitting humour, but the writing does not reduce her to a pressure-diffusing device. Her equation with Balbir is a nice running quip. He warily utters her name (“Satnam-ji”) everytime she acts her age; he is derisive of her generation, and his reactions are akin to that of a father exhausted with the manners of his daughter.
Another thing the detailing does is legitimize an inquiry that has no easy answers. At times, we lose track of who Balbir and Garundi are tracking down, or how they’re connected to the bigger picture. But that’s also the point; the links are blurry on purpose, as though it were allowing the police to confirm their own (dissipating) biases. Our confusion is part of their design. Even in his feature-film debut, Halahal (2020), director Randeep Jha devised an interactive picture, where our notions of storytelling shaped the language of the story. The arc of a grieving father is subverted by what he – and the audience – learns about his late daughter; it’s there in plain sight, but the film preys on our instinct to canonise the dead rather than explore their legacy. Kohrra does something similar, except it turns the camera back on a society that’s quick to infantilize the rich and victimise the poor. The closest to a false note is the rhythm of the finale, where a loud shootout at a farmhouse is (too) rapidly followed by a quiet showdown at another. It looks like the sequences are fused together – an injured character simply walks out from one place and into another – and time is compressed to reach a faster resolution. That said, it’s a testament to the most captivating Indian show of 2023 so far that unearthing an issue feels like nitpicking.
The most striking thing about Kohrra, though, is the pitch-perfect cast. The supporting actors (particularly familiar names like Varun Badola and Manish Chaudhuri) disappear into the dichotomy of a Punjab on trial. Each of them gives the impression that they exist beyond the scenes they’re in; that they are at the mercy of a life beyond storytelling. Barun Sobti aces the tricky exam of playing a crowd-pleasing cop without losing his lived-in edge. His Garundi is a learner, a follower and a hotheaded doer – he spends a lot of time ‘squeezing’ information out of suspects – but also a protege in search of his own image. It’s a measured turn, one that pits his deep-rooted niceness against a performative roughness. As Balbir, Suvinder Vicky (Meel Patthar) is incredibly lean in his reading of a Sikh man blind to his own shapelessness. His turn is so intuitive that it’s hard to tell whether Balbir is venting at who he is or making amends for who he was. It’s the bent body language that evokes the mirage of an enforcer at odds with his own failures. Even a tipsy dance at a party – which brings to mind Pavan Malhotra’s drunken jig in Tabbar (2021) – articulates Balbir’s inability to be guided by his own home. It’s a loaded feat, right up there with Rajshri Deshpande’s marriage of grief and agency in Trial by Fire.
The journey of this protagonist informs the parable of the show’s title. In many ways, Kohrra refers to the dialect of both denial and tradition – and the smoky fields that discriminate between the two. It’s the fictional mist that people create to distract themselves from the truth. It’s the cloudy stories that adults tell themselves to continue being parents and protectors. It’s the murky void of communication between clashing generations. It’s also the haze of genetic trauma that elders pass on to their descendents. After all, the deadliest ghosts are not the ones that can’t be seen; they’re the ones that can’t be understood. They’re also the ones that won’t be considered. Because in Kohrra, falling is just a foggy synonym for love.