JL50 opens in the remote village of Lava in West Bengal. Some kids are playing football on what looks like the most elevated pitch in India. Two dogs watch them. It’s just another day in the hills. Suddenly, they hear something in the sky. Even the dogs crane their necks upward. The giant shadow of an airplane engulfs – and passes them. The children sprint to where the sound takes them. Moments later, from the highest vantage point of the village, they notice the smoking wreckage in the valley below. There is perhaps a story in how the sleepy life of Lava gets disrupted by the official chaos to follow, but this is not that story.
There’s nothing extraordinary about a web series opening with a plane-crash sequence. But it’s the visual design of this sequence that might nudge the viewer for three of the four episodes. Our perception of the plot – a real-world mystery about the identity of this airplane – plays a big role here. When a CBI officer (Abhay Deol, as Shantanu) from Kolkata reaches the crash site with his colleague (Rajesh Sharma, as Gauranga), he assumes the wreckage belongs to Flight AO26, a regular commercial flight – carrying some important politicians – that went missing a day ago. When news breaks that AO26 has been hijacked by militants from ABA (“Azaad Bengal Association”), Shantanu discovers that the crashed plane is JL50. The only problem: JL50 didn’t take off from Kolkata. It took off from “Calcutta” in 1984 and went missing. It makes no sense, and once the two survivors start to recover, Shantanu attempts to get to the bottom of this bizarre incident.
The premise is a riff on the infamous tale of Pan Am Flight 914 – a plane that apparently took off from New York City in 1955 and landed at Miami 37 years later. The story was later revealed to be a massive hoax; the tabloid that ran it was notorious for publishing fictional content. But the most popular conspiracy theories featured a Bermuda-Triangle-style time-travel portal. JL50, too, initially alludes to the far-fetched possibility of time travel. All the elements – a shady Quantum Physics professor (Pankaj Kapur), survivors from 1984 who haven’t aged, personal items from the Indira Gandhi era – point towards the mystical. But the design is clever: the writer knows that the viewer is inherently inclined to look for reasons that debunk a time-travel device in 2020. The series also knows that the “staging” of a time-travel setup is an equally attractive premise.
As a result, there are clues that tease the pragmatism of human nature. For instance, we suspect the authenticity of that opening scene because of the way it’s edited – nobody actually sees the plane crash, they only see the wreckage (which could have been staged). When Shantanu interrogates the connected characters, the camera purposely lingers on their faces for a split-second after he leaves, as if they might be closet conspirators. The ABA, a communist outfit that demands the release of their leader from prison in exchange for the AO26 hostages, looks entirely capable of executing such an elaborate staging – perhaps as a symbol of the bygone time they represent. A JL50 survivor’s reaction to a cellphone in the hospital, too, feels like the person is pretending to look surprised. (Or maybe it’s a happy accident that the performer, who is also the producer, is not a very good actress).
That’s also why the protagonist, Shantanu, is a brooding but level-headed young man in a narrative of kooky older people. We are encouraged to view the world through his cynical eyes, constantly looking and doubting the fantastical, determined to find logical answers. He questions everything, and always has a wry grin on his face – an expression that Abhay Deol has proven to be adept at – while listening to witnesses. When his superstitious colleague suggests time travel, he rolls his eyes. When the pilot recovers and narrates her story from 1984, he sighs. You’d think Shantanu was more of a Science guy. But at one point during the investigation, he says “Scientists are artists too”: a clear allusion to Science Fiction, the genre we refuse to associate JL50 with. Eventually, Shantanu’s personal arc is crucial to the leap of faith that JL50 takes. The resolution is cheesy but, dare I say, quite moving.
The detailing of the series helps. Kolkata is a good choice of setting. The cultural stillness of a city that seems to be stuck in time – other than the clothes, it’d be impossible to tell 1984 from 2020 – adds to the two-faced tone of the story. Getting Hindi film actors like Abhay Deol, Piyush Mishra, Rajesh Sharma and Pankaj Kapur to play people of different degrees of Bengali-ness is a performative sleight-of-hand trick. Mishra’s hamming offsets Kapur’s uncanny local gait, while Sharma’s eagerness offsets Deol’s artistic calm. The little things matter: Shantanu hurrying through a makeshift breakfast of limp toast and then forgetting his wallet is a sign that he was once married; he isn’t used to being single again. A chase takes place in the narrow bylanes of an idol-sculpting area, an allegory for the God Complex of the person being chased. When a character breaks into a passionate monologue about why Indians tend to worship rather than question the fantastical, it also feels like the filmmaker is asking his audience to demystify the premise and look deeper.
The exposition in the final episode has wonky dialogue, but it’s a necessary evil to sell an ambitious story. After all, so much of JL50 second-guesses how we, the viewers, are conditioned to think. It waters the seeds of doubt in our heads. Magic is false until proven true. A work of art is mediocre until proven competent. And JL50 is all about proof – of the past, of the future, and of a step in the right direction.