Lootere Review: A Gripping, Violent Voyage on Choppy Waters

Jai and Hansal Mehta’s survival thriller series is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
Lootere Review: A Gripping, Violent Voyage on Choppy Waters

Showrunner: Hansal Mehta

Director: Jai Mehta

Writers: Anshuman Sinha, Suparn S Varma, Vishal Kapoor 

Cast: Vivek Gomber, Rajat Kapoor, Martial Batchamen, Gaurav Sharma, Athenkosi Mfamela, Amruta Khanvilkar, Chirag Vohra, Harry Parmar, Gaurav Paswala, Preetika Chawla, Aamir Ali, Alino Katombe, Chandan Roy Sanyal

Episodes: 8

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

The scale and ambition of Lootere are hard to resist. The eight-episode series is an excessive but potent marriage of two distinct genres. The nucleus – and sometimes, the periphery – is that of marine thriller Captain Phillips (2013), the Tom Hanks-starring biopic about an American merchant ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. Lootere features a Ukrainian cargo ship with a South Asian crew – 10 Indians, two Pakistanis and one Bangladeshi – getting hijacked by Somali pirates. The Mogadishu-bound ship is diverted to Somalia’s northern coast of Harardhere; the hostage situation blows hot and cold for two weeks. The homage is evident from the name of the pirate leader, Barkhad – a nod to Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-American actor who won an Oscar nomination for his role as the pirate leader in Captain Phillips. As a character in a long-form story, Barkhad’s (Martial Batchamen) challenges are not immediate. They seesaw from a mutinous gang and a resentful brother to maintaining a deal involving multiple players. 

The periphery of this narrative – and sometimes, the nucleus – is inspired by Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020). The central character of Lootere is not the ship’s captain, A.K. Singh (Rajat Kapoor); it’s a shifty Somalia-born Indian businessman named Vikrant (Vivek Gomber), whose future rests on the fate of the ship’s consignment. Vikrant’s journey is a darker and hyperactive version of Mehta’s, but his battles are similar. His trading company is a front for murky dealings, and despite being the Mogadishu port president, he feels like an outsider being targeted for breaking new ground. The locals and corrupt officials who once profited from him are now out to eliminate him and ‘reclaim’ their system. At every juncture, the man is advised to “leave the country” by both his friends and foes. The world seems to be closing in on Vik, even as he tries to manage the hijack, which was his own last-ditch plan to stop his illegal container from reaching Somalian shores. His weak point, too, is his family: Wife Avika (Amruta Khanvilkar) and teen-aged son Aryaman (Varin Roopani). He also has a filmy voice-over with proverbs like “jannat mein naukar banne se accha narak mein raja bano” (be a king in hell rather than a slave in heaven), and a Harshad Mehta-like affinity for the word “dhandha” (business). 

Rajat Kapoor in Lootere
Rajat Kapoor in Lootere

Big-Picture Gaze

If the ode to Scam 1992 isn’t obvious yet, Lootere is helmed by father-son duo Jai Mehta (credited as director) and Hansal Mehta (showrunner). Vik’s right-hand man, Gupta, is played by Chirag Vohra, the veteran actor who played Harshad Mehta’s friend and business partner. Further, Vikrant’s surname is Gandhi, a nod to Pratik Gandhi, the Gujarati actor whose performance as Harshad Mehta became a cultural moment. Like Scam 1992, the show doesn’t glorify a murky man like Vikrant, nor does it empathise with him. What it does is empathise with his truth: Vik believes that he is right, that he’s taking the right decisions, and it’s all that matters. It’s difficult not to feel – and feel for – his desperation. It’s the same for Barkhad and his mission, even though some abruptly emotional scenes with Captain Singh spell it out. Ditto for Gupta and the other people doing questionable things. In fact, when Barkhad’s younger brother comes into focus, his transformation brings to mind the hyper-kinetic French thriller Athena (2022). You don’t root for these people, but it’s to the show’s credit that you strive to understand them. 

Given the rotating identities of backdrop and foreground, Lootere is a complex beast. Watching it is like riding the crests and troughs of a hard-fought Test match. The pilot episode is sharp and pacey, like the stage-setting opening day full of wickets, swing, runs and endless promise. Over time, the ball slowly loses its shine and the pitch wears out, a bloated draw comes into view – before the mid-show lull culminates in a frantic finale. There is no instant gratification; it demands patience, often earning it. There are many moving pieces: A militant outfit called Al Muharib, Vikrant’s search for his son’s friend Ismail, Avika’s perilous hunt for Ismail, the husband-wife spats, father-son tensions at the Ukrainian shipping outfit, Shakespearean tensions between the pirates, Singh’s struggle to keep his crew sane, a disgruntled Gupta’s loyalty test, a shrewd election rival’s heist, the Indian high commission’s extraction attempt, even Vik’s stringer Bilal’s hustle. 

It’s a lot to handle. But I like that Lootere is not limited to the micro-dramas of a hijacked ship. It’s not a pretty balancing act, but a necessary one. The context, parallel threads and big-picture gaze make for a dense and inflated script, but they become a messy reminder that the vessel and its crew are pawns on a political chessboard. The nation is on the brink of a bloody civil war, so no event is as simple as it seems. More than once, Captain Singh and his team are subdued – mercilessly, anticlimactically – the moment they threaten to break free. Their plans mostly fail, regardless of how plucky they are. The respite is fleeting. Survival thrillers like theirs cannot afford to exist in isolation; this design reduces their heroism to a form of hopelessness. In a way, every character we see is a hostage of their own circumstances. For some, bullets pose a threat; for others, it’s life itself. 

A still from Lootere
A still from Lootere

An Excellent Cast

The little details add commentary and texture to Lootere. For instance, the ship engineer is a Pakistani man named Zafar – and he is convinced that the Indians, especially Captain Singh, hold an invisible grudge against him. His bitterness is shaped by a persecution complex and aggressive survival instincts. Every time he hears a Muslim pirate’s name, he tries to convince them that he is one of them. Yet, the treatment doesn’t demonise so much as humanise him – there’s no sentimental scene ‘redeeming’ Zafar, but he doesn’t sell them out either. They keep expecting him to. He stays true to his character, and is only humbled when a traumatised female crew-member puts his status into perspective. At another point, on learning that the captain hails from India, a pirate asks if he knows Akshay Kumar. When told that he hasn’t met Kumar, the pirate chides him for being a “bad Indian”. Most shows might have also used Vikrant’s choice to sabotage his own ship as a plot twist. You know how it goes: He would be an ally until the crew discovers his real intentions. But Lootere resists cheap thrills from the get go; it trusts in the fullness of all the lives and livelihoods at stake. 

Lootere is driven by an excellent cast. There’s not a false note, even when the writing gets greedy. The pirates, many of whom are played by South African actors, rarely let the awkwardness of conversing in English – not in Somali or Arabic – become a distraction. These are physical and dialled-in performances, like soap-opera characters coming to brutal life: Athenkosi Mfamela, as the mandatory loose cannon in the midst, is the standout. Closer to home, Gaurav Sharma is a scene-stealer as the slimy Bilal; he plays it like one of the hyenas of The Lion King, oozing scavenger-like hunger from the corner of every frame. It’s good to see Vivek Gomber chew into the lead role with such campy conviction. Vikrant’s exasperation is almost tragicomic, particularly in a land where he can hurl Hindi curses under his breath. He’s a guy so jacked up on his own adrenalin that his antagonism is secondary to the viewing experience; you can tell that he’s watched enough Hollywood gangster sagas to build up that reptilian gait from scratch. Note how Vikrant’s chain-smoking becomes a part of his language, too. 

A still from Lootere
A still from Lootere

Tracking the Soundtrack

A lot of the dialogue is cleverly designed. It’s a neat dance between the natural and the flowery. For example, take the track of the debauched heir (Chandan Roy Sanyal) in Kyiv with major daddy issues. The father keeps scolding his son for messing up the shipment; the sophisticated older man resorts to a formal lament like “yakeen nahi hota ki tum mere bete ho (I cannot believe you’re my son)” before casually punctuating it with “chutiya”. The contrast in tone – the politeness tapering into the slang – is quite funny. The action is rooted and slick, invoking Hansal Mehta’s hostage thriller Faraaz (2022); the verbal tussles feel like an extension of the gunfights and bloodshed. Juggling all the threads is tricky, but its people never sound or act inauthentic; their instincts remain raw, even when their outbursts double up as exposition. 

Does the series go overboard with its gore and assaults (specifically the fate of the women on the ship)? Probably. Are some moments provocative for the heck of it? Nearly. But Lootere is also a rare case of music becoming both a creative and technical tool. It serves as a focus-puller of sorts. Achint Thakkar’s catchy title theme aside, the background score takes up the difficult task of ‘editing’ the multiple lives into a single serpentine crisis. It merges disparate scenes and makes the transitions smoother, cutting through the clutter, and engaging us with its streamlining of mood and rhythm. The diversity of instruments – from acoustic strings to wind (in sadder times) – supplies these uneasy passages. It’s even more significant during a climax that changes stakes and locations faster than Vikrant Gandhi changes colours. That’s when the sheer futility of the hijack drama comes to the fore. It’s the narrative equivalent of a camera zooming out from a ship into the sky, until the vessel becomes a tiny speck on a globe in outer space. If anything, Lootere is defined by the irony of the blue ocean looking calmer than its brown and fire-yellow surroundings. To paraphrase a businessman’s proverb: Be an embattled prince on water rather than a burning pauper on land. 

The first two episodes of Lootere are available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. The remaining episodes will follow a weekly release pattern, and are set to release every Wednesday at midnight.

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