The Night Manager is yet another Hindi web series based on a book (the 1993 novel by John le Carre) and a popular Western TV show (Susanne Bier’s BBC adaptation from 2016). Which is to say it’s one more cog in the Disney+ Hotstar remake wheel. However, it is helmed by Sandeep Modi, the co-creator of arguably the only solid Indian adaptation on the streaming platform: Aarya. Two seasons down, the Sushmita Sen starrer is a rare show that has bettered its Dutch source material (Penoza) through the language of cultural translation alone. It’s all about remodeling a narrative to fit a different setting, even if it means updating the essence of the original. That flexibility is more or less absent in The Night Manager – so far. I say “so far” because the first chapter features only four episodes of a story about a brooding hotel manager who is recruited to infiltrate the inner circle of a dangerous arms dealer.
Four parts are not nearly enough to trigger an opinion these days, but I can safely say that The Night Manager is both shaped and restricted by its scale. Good-looking, globe-trotting stories tend to look alike, no matter where they’re remade. That’s because richness – luxury hotels, island resorts and the wealthy life of a billionaire criminal – is a universal language unbound by borders. The scenic locations and set pieces, the curated slickness and beautiful people don’t allow for a whole lot of translation. That’s not a bad thing per se. Most spy dramas thrive on it. But there’s a hollowness – a social anonymity – to the plottings that robs the narrative of any roots, which in turn makes its world hard to root for. For those who’ve seen the Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie-starrer – one I’m not a huge fan of, but the series is undeniably a stirring thirst-trap of a production – this version might come across as little more than a faithful Hindi dub. And for those who haven’t seen the original, The Night Manager offers a semi-intriguing setup that feels (both literally and spiritually) like it already exists. You can often tell that things happen because they’ve happened before. The interval-point energy also offers Bollywood enthusiasts a chance to summon a famous Shah Rukh Khan line to ring in their own heads: “Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost (The real picture is yet to unfold, my friend).” The series is far from over, of course, but I’m not holding my breath – which has as much to do with Mumbai’s polluted air as the generic beats of this story.
Aditya Roy Kapur plays Shaan Sengupta, an ex-Navy man who seems to have charmed his way into the hospitality industry. He is good with guests because it allows him to flee the agonies of being himself. The series opens with Shaan working at the Orient Pearl in Dhaka during the Rohingya refugee crisis. He encounters a 14-year-old girl named Safina Rahman, the child-bride of a notorious Bangladeshi gangster. For some reason, she seeks Shaan’s help to return to her home in Lucknow, India. Shaan contacts Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) intel agent Lipika Saikia (Tillotama Shome), who is attracted by the prospect of facilitating Safina’s safe passage in exchange for incriminating evidence on Safina’s husband whose superboss is Shailendra Rungta, a.k.a. Shelly (Anil Kapoor). Shelly is an Indian shipping tycoon whose philanthropy is a front for an illegal-arms empire. Lipika has long been on the trail of this “merchant of death”.
However, when the extraction goes wrong, Lipika is demoted and Shaan retreats to the Himalayas. Two years later, he is still haunted by Safina’s face in Shimla, where he works as a night manager at a plush resort. As luck would have it, the latest VIP guest at his hotel is Shelly himself. Once Lipika notices Shaan’s resourcefulness and inclination towards espionage, she recruits him – against the orders of her corrupt superiors – to infiltrate the criminal’s ‘family’. The four episodes track Shaan’s annoyingly elaborate journey into Shelly’s trust-circle via a young son, a gay henchman (a scene-stealing Saswata Chatterjee), an ex-model lover (Sobhita Dhulipala) and a lurid business partner (Ravi Behl).
The primary casting makes sense on paper. As a protagonist with multiple pasts and no past – as someone whose blankness is supposed to be a mystery – Roy Kapur looks the part. The actor is almost distractingly dishy, and the show frames this as an advantage. He does a decent job of straight-batting the part of a troubled chap whose patriotism feels like a form of personal rebellion. I suspect the true test of his performance might arrive in the second chapter, in which Shaan is expected to be torn between morality and power. Shome as Lipika gives dissent a sense of personality, as a woman at odds with the male-dominated vagaries of the system she occupies. She is sick of jumping the procedural hoops, which is why she is prone to crossing the line in pursuit of Shelly. Anil Kapoor is predictably cool as a rich man wearing a mask; as a crook putting on a show of control and flamboyance. He has aced several variations of this role in the last decade and his Shelly is an effective cumulation of all those urban anti-heroes to reveal a global villain. Kapoor’s flair is useful in terms of how it papers over the cracks of Shelly’s strange trust in Shaan. Because of him, you don’t feel like questioning this alleged mastermind’s most basic lapses of judgement.
But it’s the emotional loopholes that outweigh the logical ones. You’re supposed to go with the flow of a show like The Night Manager, but that flow needs to be earned. A lot depends on the first episode, or more specifically, Shaan’s equation with Safina. Her fate is the reason he becomes a RAW mole against all odds, so the motivation better be strong. The change from the original is interesting – the hotel manager’s romantic involvement with the mistress of a murderer is adapted into Shaan’s brotherly affection for a 14-year-old girl. As an Indian man, he can’t handle the cultural oddities of a place where teenage girls are ‘sold’ to paedophiles under the garb of marriage. However, the problem is that Shaan’s sudden protectiveness of Safina feels inorganic and also blunts the edges of his character. It presents him as a male saviour rather than a complex crusader. If anything, the flashbacks he has almost feel creepy, because the two hadn’t spent nearly enough time to develop any sort of platonic bond with one another. The loss doesn’t seem numbing enough to set Shaan on the path of no return. It’s also a bit self-defeating when you consider how Shaan manipulates Shelly’s son – another innocent kid – to avenge the tragedy.
Another problem is the vague understanding between Shaan and Lipika. The series inherits the flaws of the original, especially in context of how easily the agent convinces the former lieutenant to lead an undercover life. It’s a hard-sell at best, and the plan of staging Shaan’s history – including a prison stint and a violent accident – feels like too much of a narrative formality. There’s no real sense of what he’s risking, the stakes, his suffering or his surreal commitment to what looks like a remote mom-and-pop mission. It happens too smoothly, pulling us out of the cosmetic sexiness of the series. By the time Shaan catches Shelly’s eye, you wonder if Lipika – who is driven by the humanity of nabbing a monster – has any empathy for the shapeless manager. It’s a conflict similar to that of the Netflix series She, a crime drama that doubles up as an indictment of the very law enforcement system that makes a woman constable go undercover only for her to cross over to the dark side. Shaan’s situation is not as loaded – he’s a man being milked by a seemingly smart female agent – but perhaps the second chapter has the potential to resolve it in greyer shades.
There are other optical issues, too. When Shaan is recuperating on Shelly’s private island, it never appears like Shelly’s arms-dealing legacy is a secret. It’s difficult to believe that his girlfriend is unaware, despite the obvious terrorists-in-their-lair vibe about the arrangement. Shaan hangs around for proof, biding his time as if he were being held hostage on the wanderlust sets of a Zoya Akhtar film. Then there’s the ‘entry shot’ of Shelly in Shimla, when Shaan finally sees him in the flesh after hearing of his role in Dhaka. The scene is designed to suggest that this is the first time we see Anil Kapoor strutting into the series with his trademark swag. But it’s not. The effect has already been diluted by Shelly’s clips on a news channel early on, and a sinister phone-call he makes to his man in Dhaka. As a result, the moment doesn’t land like it should. It’s a minor quibble, but these little things can go a long way in customizing the geopolitical identity of a handsome espionage thriller. Its universe need not be so lofty that the characters themselves become incidental to the story. Evidently, The Night Manager has a lot of managing – of expectations – left to do.