Director: Sachin Pathak
Cast: Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Amit Sial, Priya Anand, Sushant Singh, Gopal Dutt
Streaming on: SonyLiv
It's never easy to pull off the black-comedy-of-errors template. By nature, it is supposed to defy our inherent perception of storytelling. It thrives on narrative chaos, on a crowded premise, on a complete lack of logic and convoluted cross connections. The lesser sense it makes, the more fun it promises. But the absurdity is very specific – it is designed to make the viewers shake their heads in disbelief before succumbing to the ride. The "plot" is actually a mockery of a plot – we are meant to sound stupid when we try to describe it. In some ways, it's a parody of darkness. But the balance of rhythm and self-awareness is crucial to its language.
As opposed to the concise framework of a feature-length film, a seven-episode series is simply not equipped to sustain this cinema of eccentricity. The self-awareness, when overcooked, morphs into a conscience. A Simple Murder is ample proof. It loses steam two episodes into its 300-minute-long drunken hike. And like most lingering comedies that don't know what to do with their time, this crime caper eventually commits the ultimate crime: it takes itself seriously. Suddenly, the deaths matter. Love matters. Grief matters. A Simple Murder tries to feign purpose, and that's sillier than being silly.
A Simple Murder features a truckload of tropes: a loser chancing upon a get-rich-quick opportunity, his devious wife, West Delhi, a couple of wronged assassins, incompetent cops, corrupt Godmen, shootouts at brothels and junkyards, horny bosses and, of course, a bag of money. Sometimes I wonder where Hindi cinema might have been without a bag of money. The series is centered upon an honour killing gone wrong – an "Indian National Party (INP)" minister wants to end his Hindu daughter for eloping with a Muslim boyfriend, but the people he hires set off a chain of idiocy – and perhaps that explains the show's sudden lapses into soulful seriousness. The burden of satirizing an honour killing seems to weigh heavily on the writers' moral cores, which in turn forces the protagonist Manish (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) to be a romantic tragic blinded by love for his fed-up wife (Priya Anand). It also leads to a track of another self-serious tragic – a retired hitman Santosh (Amit Sial) who sets out to avenge the "accidental" death of his own wife.
The cast is a selling point, but the narrative seems to be under constant pressure to justify the presence of good actors. It's bittersweet to see Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub play the sweaty captain of a sinking ship. He's finally a lead, but at what cost? Amit Sial has a quasi-casual Ravi Kishen thing going on, which can be entertaining at times. Sushant Singh is a hoot as the moustache-twirling assassin who speaks like a poet, which also goes to show how the Hindi film industry has failed his artistic integrity – in more ways than one – over the years. Priya Anand as Manish's wife is the weakest link, only because she's given way too many shades by a series that isn't sure of its own tone. I don't usually nitpick on minor technicalities, but the background score is a major downer: reminiscent of those cheap '90s casio-driven TV tracks, clearly a sign of rushed pandemic production. When the story needs to rely on leaps of imagination, it's jarring when the filmmaking stays stuck in a bygone era.
There's also a God's-eye-voiceover by Vijay Raaz, which feels like the makers' last-ditch attempt to remind viewers that A Simple Murder is merely Lootcase and Delhi Belly in long form. In a recent interview, one of the producers remarked that something like A Simple Murder represents a "little-explored space on the web". In one sense, he's right. But the real translation of his claim is troubling. The reason a crime caper is little-explored on the web is because it's over-explored outside of it. The fact is that A Simple Murder has existed for decades on the big screen – the multipronged black comedy is a Bollywood staple. It's nothing new to moviegoing audiences. But we've now reached a point where the ecosystem has come full circle. Makers on the web are now reimagining the safe commercialism of big-screen fare as novel "risks" on the small screen. Somewhere in between, though, it's the audiences that are being denied the last laugh. Or any laugh, at all.