Creator: Biswa Kalyan Rath
Director: Abhishek Sengupta
Cast: Shweta Tripathi Sharma, Sandeep Mehta, Suyash Joshi
Available On: Amazon Prime Video
You can't blame me for being wary of the "S" word. But the first two seasons of Biswa Kalyan Rath's Laakhon Mein Ek have redefined the term "social relevance" in a filmmaking culture that has fashioned an overzealous genre out of it. In a way, the show has merely restored the truth of the phrase in context of its surroundings.
"Laakhon Mein Ek," which translates to "One in a million," is a traditionally optimistic sound; its positive connotation has been employed by generations of storytellers to exaggerate the extraordinariness of an ordinary person. Mainstream writers have always designed this genre to inspire the masses; the overstated device of "beating" the system is, according to them, the only way to combine entertainment with awareness. But in a country of excesses and billions, being "one in a million" might actually amount to being just another citizen; it does not necessarily depict a sense of uniqueness. When adapted to the confines of cinematic parlance, Laakhon Mein Ek reveals that India's quintessential underdog story is in fact a raging tragedy…and not the rousing superhero narrative peddled by glossy studio interpretations over the years.
Biswa Kalyan Rath and co-writers Abhishek Sengupta and Hussain Haidry accomplish a remarkable feat through this modest but politically pragmatic 8-episode season. They remind us that the hero – just for the sake of accessibility and appeasement – is not synonymous with the winner. Much like Amit Masurkar's Newton, they deglamorize the "honest underdog" narrative by refusing to sugarcoat the deep-rooted inevitability of a broken system. The first season starred Ritwik Sahore as the young victim of India's opportunistic coaching-class business. Victim, not hero. I remember being a little perplexed by the way it ended: a student riot, followed by a shot of deflated protagonist Aakash on a bus to nowhere. The riot was a scene of plurality – students rampaging and wrecking the place, denoting the kind of tangible rebellion the movies have conditioned us to expect. But his "breaking free" was private and singular – quitting the education rat-race in search of an individualistic, intangible future. He chose to be the hero of his own life over being the hero of the people.
In the second season, we meet junior doctor Shreya Pathare (Tripathi), a student of integrity for whom both brands of heroism are inextricably linked. She is nominated by her district hospital CMO (Sandeep Mehta) to organize a cataract camp in the remote Maharashtrian village of Sitlapur. The stage is set for the mandatory culture-shock character arc. But this is not a show that thrives on a plasticky saviour complex. While Shreya struggles with the "Swades" syndrome of being an agent of change in land averse to it, a parallel track about the murky machinations of government healthcare and the medical black market prepares to collide with her seemingly straightforward underdog tale. You can sense the filmmakers reminding us that it is never as simple as a "hero in a village"; there is a before and an after ingrained into an age-old system, beyond the control of characters, that even the bravest of souls are forced to confront. You can almost hear them say: Here is the story you want to see, but here is the story that you – and she – cannot escape. The narrative dichotomy of this situation is hinted at in the show's main poster: A regular image of Shreya in her doctor's lab-coat throws a "mainstream" shadow – of a defiant long-haired girl with a fluttering cape – on the cracked wall of a hospital.
Shreya's predicament is also testament to the fact that if Aakash had somehow braved the corruption to reach his final year of graduation, the battle was never over; his faith might have been challenged even harder, no matter what stage of evolution and compromise he embraces. That this season begins with protesting villagers, the media uproar and an official probe interrogating a silenced Shreya only goes to show that the series offers no illusions; "Laakhon Mein Ek" – the adjective of the righteous – is more of a curse than an attribute in today's democracy. The way the title card is placed – at different points – across episodes also indicates the irony of the phrase. For instance, we first see it at the end of the first episode: When Shreya is nominated by her dean, she thinks it's a "Laakhon Mein Ek" opportunity, but unbeknownst to her, those are actually the chances of her succeeding. A few episodes later, the title appears wryly, after she spends a frustrating first week attempting to educate the cynical villagers.
At the same time, when the research is in place, it's easy to get carried away with the "journalistic" aspect of storytelling. To cram information into every frame, without focusing on the penetrative aspect of theatricality. Here's where director Abhishek Sengupta improves upon the limitations of Season 1; there were parts of Aakash's journey that tried to compensate for its inherently internal nature by obsessing over the texture and tropes of his sweaty environment. In Season 2, Sengupta mostly locates a balance between introspection and motion, between academics and art.
There are the little details: Shreya reminiscing about her lofty med-school promises every time she lights a cigarette; hungry hands inelegantly emptying a plate of pakoras the moment it lands on the canteen table; Shreya living on Maggi and biscuits throughout the camp, given her ingrained dependence on hostel food and hectic schedules; her late-night phone rants to anyone who cares to listen; veteran vendors discussing their woes in seedy quarter bars; the performative power-play between politicians, hospitals and vendors; the seamless integration of stock surgery footage into the cataract camp; the understated scepticism of Shreya's team even as she sets about winning them over with her wide-eyed gaze and unyielding ethics. Shweta Tripathi often chooses the right roles to highlight this gaze of hers. It's this commitment to efficiency, rather than excellence, that somewhat propels a show that relies on its lead character's inability to hijack the plot.
But there are also the broader details. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Laakhon Mein Ek's storytelling armoury is its use of the montage. It's hard enough trying to make the battles of a medical student in the Indian hinterlands look interesting, without resorting to death, gangsters and destruction. But the makers employ the montage to lend a sense of density to its staggered pace. Shreya is working towards a deadline; the story is structured in a way that makes it seem like she is a reluctant, unknowing participant in its rhythm. She is a cog in a wheel so large, so intricate, that the makers somehow manage to stake the fate of an election on her Sitlapur mission. Shots of her absent-mindedly cooking Maggi, buying groceries, observing her team and chasing supplies are stitched together over (the lighter) music of the region rather than the (heavier) score of her mind. They allow the viewer empathize with the protagonist by putting both her life, and life, at stake; the threat of lynch-mobs activated by the rural homeopathy mafia only galvanize her against-all-odds existence.
The bridge connecting the childlike brevity of her personal goals to the adult gravity of the universe is evident in one particular passage. Shreya, at this point, has lost faith in her own courage. The medical supplies have been delayed; the camp might not happen. The words of the ancient village baba narrating the Ramayana to his disciples play over visuals of a disheartened Shreya. The old man was one of the leading voices of dissent when she first entered the village. Yet, towards the end of the sequence, the camera pans to his audience; Shreya is now one of them. When all else fails, she has resorted to divinity and superstition – incidentally the very traits a young doctor is trained to dissolve. The hero goes from embodying the concept of God to searching for one. She is, in essence, an Indian underdog drama finally acknowledging its myth. The odds of this happening: One in a million.