Directors: Sandeep Modi, Priyanka Ghose
Writers: Shridhar Raghavan, Sandeep Modi
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Aditya Roy Kapur, Tillotama Shome, Sobhita Dhulipala
There’s a prevailing belief that if you repeat something enough times, it becomes the truth. Perhaps that’s what the writers of The Night Manager had in mind when they made Anil Kapoor, playing Shailendra “Shelly” Rungta, repeatedly say to his new-found acolyte, “You’re my lead actor, my star!” Despite these efforts at manifesting, the stars of this show remain Kapoor’s villainous Shelly and Tillotama Shome as the irrepressible Indian intelligence agent who is determined to bring Shelly down. While this is patently obvious to anyone who survives the dreary, overlong last three episodes of The Night Manager, clearly the show’s makers didn’t see the light and their efforts to push Shaan, aka Captain Abhimanyu Mathur (played by Aditya Roy Kapur) as the protagonist weaken a story that was already tissue-thin in its Indian adaptation.
In its first part, The Night Manager did a neat job of presenting us with a glossy, engaging action drama that’s dismissive of realism and focused on moving the story forward. It was fast-paced enough for the audience to set aside how unbelievable it is that a regular dude would go through the hell that Shaan does for a girl he has had just two meetings with — that too because he felt sorry for her. While it’s credible that Shaan would feel guilty when the girl is suddenly murdered, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept he’d become a drug addict, get thrown into jail and be beaten within an edge of his life just so he can avenge a chance acquaintance’s untimely death. To its credit, the first part of The Night Manager didn’t give the audience time to ponder on these details as it swept Shaan into Shelly’s lair, making him a pawn that both Shelly and the Indian intelligence services want on their side.
The fifth episode returns us to Shelly’s private island, where he tells Shaan, “Congratulations. You’re an entrepreneur now.” Along with his new name and new identity, Shaan is now the head honcho of a shell company that will be the front for a massive arms deal that Shelly is planning. (Yes, the villainous mastermind whose real business is done through shell companies is nicknamed …. Shelly.) The episode ends with an Indian intelligence officer wailing, after Shaan has fled the scene with Shelly, to his boss Lipika Saikia Rao (Tillotama Shome), “He’s gone rogue, ma’am!” Except no one watching the show would have even a shadow of doubt that Shaan has switched to the dark side because we’re reminded of his goodness (and patriotism) at regular intervals.
Had The Night Manager taken notes from the reception to the first part and tilted the pivot of its show to make it less about Shaan and more about Shelly and Lipika playing a chess game using real people, the show would have fared better. Shome’s was the standout performance in the first part and her Lipika remains witty, determined and merciless as she goes around demolishing stereotypes surrounding women characters. She has relatively little to do in the second part, but her scenes remain among the best and most enjoyable in The Night Manager.
Lipika is a worthy adversary to Kapoor’s Shelly because he’s as ruthless and sharp as her. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t let these two characters face-off against one another. Instead, it throws various kinds of thrills and spectacle at the audience — a bland lovemaking scene, a lot of violence, three murders, great balls of fire — in the hope that it will distract us from the fact that the fifth and sixth episodes are largely unnecessary. Most of these attempts to grab eyeballs lack any sense of adrenaline and are instead riddled with awkward clichés. For instance, in the sixth episode, we’re shown a grand exhibition of the weapons Shelly is selling, which eventually transforms a corner of the desert in the Middle East into a giant wall of fire. Meanwhile, in the corner, a group of women belly dance away, apparently unperturbed by the exploding helicopters, jeeps and landmines.
The Night Manager pits Shaan as Shelly’s real adversary, but Roy Kapur is comprehensively overshadowed by Kapoor’s performance as the arch villain. Kapoor dominates all the scenes he’s in and as a result, the final showdown feels unconvincing because it’s hard to believe Shelly could be outwitted, that too by Shaan. In an effort to add to Shaan’s charisma and grandeur, The Night Manager has him commit multiple murders and come up with a plan that will leave Shelly in a corner. It’s an author-backed role, but none of it makes much of an impact with Roy Kapur’s chiselled features betraying nary an expression. The inscrutable beauty worked well and suggested itself as a mask for Shaan in the early episodes but now, when the mask has to drop in the second part, it feels more empty of intention than deliberate.
The four-month gap between the first and second parts of The Night Manager was a mystifying choice for a show that was running on momentum. The pause only serves to highlight the show’s weaknesses and leave you wishing the show had been more about the pregnant and unstoppable Lipika. Still, at least Shome has the comfort of knowing she had a significant role in the show. Spare a thought for Sobhita Dhulipala whose character was reduced to seeming like an extra in the Ponniyin Selvan films and now in The Night Manager, she’s playing a woman who only gets to step out of the margins to either be displayed as a sex object or victimised. On the plus side, the second season of Made in Heaven is expected soon.