Poacher Review: Gripping Police Procedural Meets Elite Eco-Thriller

Director Richie Mehta’s new show is available on Prime Video
Poacher Review: Gripping police procedural meets elite eco-thriller
Poacher Review: Gripping police procedural meets elite eco-thriller

Director: Richie Mehta
Writer: Richie Mehta
Cast: Nimisha Sajayan, Roshan Mathew, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Kani Kusruti

Number of episodes: 8

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Towards the end of Richie Mehta’s Poacher, a wild chase unfolds in the urban jungles of Delhi. A police truck containing the spoils of a nine-month-long case must reach the airport. It’s a race against time: They’ve just raided a secret warehouse. On their tail is, of course, a procession of media vans. Suddenly, the driver screeches to a halt. A flock of ducks are crossing the road. The truck waits patiently – nobody moves until the last duckling passes. Once the coast is clear, the ‘chase’ continues. This moment evokes a scene from Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018), Vikramaditya Motwane’s vigilante drama, where a masked crime-fighter dutifully stops his motorbike at a red light while escaping a bunch of baddies. Regardless of genre constraints, he refuses to break the law he is fighting to uphold; the idealism is both funny and moving. 

This reference isn’t random. Mehta’s masterful eight-episode eco-thriller – based on the 2015 investigation of the largest ivory poaching ring in Indian history – inherits the form of an Indian superhero movie. The formidable Nimisha Sajayan (Chithha, The Great Indian Kitchen) plays the protagonist, a Kerala forest range officer named Mala Jogi, as a quasi-mythological figure. Mala glares, listens, scowls and moves like she’s been chosen by the very beasts she sets out to protect. Her house is full of adopted stray dogs, a gender subversion of the famous line from another show ripe with mythical allegory, Paatal Lok: “If a man loves dog, he is a good man.” She comes home exhausted every night, but derives strength from them. Every other shot is a reaction shot, as if the show were willing her to peel off a mask and reveal her true self. But Mala’s mission is Captain-Planet-esque: To save the earth from (literal and figurative) man, nothing less. Several scenes open with a shot of an animal or bird navigating their not-so-natural habitat – a ghostly reminder that this was once their home and it’s humans who are the backdrop, but also a bat-signal of sorts.

Poacher on Amazon Prime Video
Poacher on Amazon Prime Video

Nimisha Sajayan as Mala the Hunter 

Her villains exist at the intersection of society and superstition. Mala has a troubled past, too, and her quest to bust an elephant-poaching racket is rooted in a tragic metaphor (reminiscent of Vidya Balan starrer, Sherni). As a crime-fighting woman in a male-dominated field, she too represents a near-endangered species that’s often exoticized – and exploited – in the name of tradition. The irony is worse: Mala’s goddess-like rage is pitted against the very language of religion. Most of the good samaritans – an airport manager, a guilty indigenous family – are driven by a deep reverence for elephant god Ganesha. What’s more, the ground-level poachers and artists only feed a system that’s led by wealthy agents, politicians and industrialists sitting in their ivory towers and paying fortunes for tusk-carved statues of their favourite deities. As a result, Mala’s power echoes the show’s superpower: A primal heart but a procedural mind.

The challenge of Poacher is to convey the value of a wildlife-saving story in a world where the premium of human life keeps reducing. There are times when Mala almost goes into a trance while explaining the significance of elephants (“engineers of the forest”) during her desperate moments. The on-the-nose exposition works because of who she is. Mala’s idealism, in this context, is not hard to fathom. Her childlife affection (a bird-chirp ringtone) for the environment aside, Mala’s tensions with her mother reveal that she is atoning for the sins – and the blinding masculinity – of her late father. Her view of poaching as a symptom of deep-set chauvinism and caste rage bleeds into the story. At one point, she instinctively jumps at a suspect who threatens to hurt his wife. At another, she gives an ex-poacher a chance to reform and help the investigation because his daughter swears by his innocence. Her valour exists by default, by virtue of having to survive (in) a world of predators and poachers. 

Poacher on Amazon Prime Video
Poacher on Amazon Prime Video

A Human Conflict

There are also Mala’s partners in anti-crime: Alan Joseph (Roshan Mathew), a Delhi-based computer programmer who moonlights as a snake expert and wildlife-trust analyst, and forest department director Neel Banerjee (a scene-stealing Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a former RAW agent whose lung condition hints at the consequences of native imbalance. More than once, we see city cops and colleagues bemused by the urgency of their mission – “they’re only animals” after all. But the characterizations of Mala, Alan and Neel weave the gravity of the case into the emotional texture of the narrative. Their obsession with nature is credible because it is shaped by a disillusionment with human nature. For them, ivory poachers are environmental terrorists, and killing elephants is like murdering the future of a planet that’s gasping for breath. 

It’s why the motif of wildlife cameos – dogs, monkeys, foxes, sloths, squirrels, ants, tigers, leopards, vultures, pythons, peacocks, porcupines and eagles – calls to mind Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary, All That Breathes (2022), another carefully composed snapshot of socio-ecological pollution. It reflects the motives of people like Mala, whose desires are often linked to the most fundamental components of the biosphere. As lower-level bureaucrats themselves, they are constantly renegotiating their relationship with their own complicity. Guilt plays a key role in their hunt, because every poacher they catch alludes to the lapses of the forest department in their patrolling. It’s a bit like how Mehta staged Delhi Crime as an ode to a few good men and women who fight the odds within fragile law enforcement structures. This is embodied by Mala’s history with Vijay Babu (Ankith Madhav), one of the range officers suspended for Kerala’s leaky forests. Not a conflict goes by where she doesn’t feel the need to remind him that “this is why we didn’t work out” – her version of schooling an ex who doesn’t share the same political ideologies. However, the series stops short of painting him as an unethical cog in the wheel – even though the camera keeps teasing the presence of a traitor in their midst. He’s just lazy and unprofessional, Mala insists, a lesser crime in a book of relative corruption. 

Poacher on Amazon Prime Video
Poacher on Amazon Prime Video

Trading Civic Angst for Moral Agency

You could argue that this amounts to the whitewashing of those responsible for security lapses, but Mehta somehow trades civic angst for moral agency. It’s a fine line, one that puts Poacher in the same bracket as Delhi Crime. A nod to the Emmy-winning show emerges, though, when the only Delhi constable who shares Mala’s intent is a female rookie – her allyship is pure, too, because she is driven by the margins of motherhood. It may not sound convincing in the moment, but it’s this adolescent lens that makes Mala and her probe more plausible. The flimsy suspension of an SHO (Kani Kusruti) further highlights Mala’s embattled status on the social ladder; when she does the same thing later on, using a suspect’s family as leverage to get information, the Gods are gentler to her. When a tumour-stricken officer briskly tells his colleague that they need to catch the poachers or his child will end up like him, it’s hard not to appreciate the big-picture nerves. (We don’t see the ‘fate’ of this officer in the end, because that would distract from the totality of the crisis). In short, they have the foresight to be pushed by the prospect of broader damage – to everybody and nobody – and not just the specific brutalities of smuggling. 

At a technical level, Poacher is a very implicit series. The craft doesn’t scream for attention, despite the vast scale and potential for aesthetics, yet it’s just about tangible enough to inform the themes. Its The Crown-like title sequence – centered on the creation of ivory idols – speaks volumes about the theocratic mess that follows. The cinematography is steeped in overcast hues, but it doesn’t lean into the atmospherics of a place. It’s almost like there’s a conscious distinction between the fog of Kerala and the smog of Delhi; between narrative and literal haze. Most of the conversations and walks feature long, unbroken takes, which amplifies the real-world identity of the show. The sound design is remarkable, too. Every space has its own distinct echo; Alan asking his NGO boss for permission to join the case is punctuated with familiar barks of stray dogs on the Delhi streets.  

Poacher on Amazon Prime Video
Poacher on Amazon Prime Video

A Few Good Men

The multilingual setting – Banerjee communicates with his South Indian subordinates in Hindi and English, while Mala and Arun speak in Malayalam – feels more seamlessly Indian than pan-Indian. ‘Pan-Indian’ implies that diversity is a visible entity. But unlike the Raj & DK long-form universe, the equations in Poacher are so organic that it barely registers. The language itself stops mattering, an illusion that goes hand in glove with the semantic silence of the ecosystem. There’s all of one North-South joke, when an irritated IPS officer from Delhi accuses Neel Banerjee of being like the “rest of the South cops,” only for him to wryly remark that he’s Bengali after hanging up. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Sooraj Pops as the haunted Aruku, an impoverished local at the bottom of the poaching food chain – but the only one with a conscience. 

The decision to begin every episode with successive stages of the cycle of death – from the killing of an elephant to the decomposition of the body – is an effective one. It sells the sentimentalism and continuity of this story without any finger-wagging contrivances. (The sight of a tiger chancing upon the corpse only to leave when he sees the ‘pugmarks’ of humans is damning). Every thrilling set piece – the arrests and the interrogations; the bypassing of jurisdictional politics; the transit warrants – is defined by the elasticity of red tape. Alan’s Family-Man-style marriage is hampered by his crime-fighting secret, but a scene that could’ve been terribly cheesy – an anniversary gift featuring glowing fireflies (“the planet will commit suicide,” he whispers) – acquires a sense of honesty because of Roshan Mathew. Alan’s scenes with his son are sweet, because they’re not staged to spell out the analyst’s love for the great outdoors. Neel, the gruff veteran, has the crowd-pleasing arc. Dibyendu Bhattacharya is almost Vijay-Sethupathi-esque in his languid anxiety; he flits between cautionary tale and last-ditch hero. The camera shadows him as if it were a documentary crew chronicling his efforts for posterity. The actor is amusing and poignant at once, turning something as strange as Neel’s requests for ‘turtle reports’ into a moving metaphor for life. 

All three characters have personal lives, but the writing affords them quiet and introspective moments. There’s a stillness that undercuts the narrative progression – not all moments further the story, some simply expand the journey. For instance, when Mala is waiting to be summoned by Neel, she stands near the bushes and looks into the dark wilderness. You know how this scene plays out in a horror film, but it’s like Mala counts on being watched so that she can be held accountable for what is to come. Nimisha Sajayan beautifully repurposes that same steely gaze across conditions – as if Mala is torn between being too visible and too invisible – and delivers the most layered turn since Rajshri Deshpande in Trial By Fire (2023). 

At one point, Mala breaks down after a near-death experience; she calls her mother in tears, apologizing for putting on a facade of detachment. Sajayan is heartbreaking here, for she makes Mala look like an actor who is consumed by the demands of a lifelong performance. It’s like she is tired of reacting to her past instead of protecting the future. She is tired of punishing herself for being human. But then the mask comes off. The sun rises. And in spite of having legal authority, the range officer hustles like a vigilante. The smokescreen of Poacher melts away – and the mist takes over. After all, some heroes obey traffic signals; others put the zebra in zebra crossings. 

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