Director: Rajesh Mapuskar
Writers: Upen Chauhan, Jay Sheela Bansal
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Raashi Khanna, Atul Kulkarni, Esha Deol, Satyadeep Mishra, Ashwini Kalsekar
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
There are two ways to look at Rudra: The Edge of Darkness, the new six-part web series starring Ajay Devgn in his long-form debut. First, as a standalone Indian crime thriller, made for those who haven't seen the original source material, Luther. The British Idris Elba-starring show is leaving Amazon Prime Video in less than two weeks, so the timing of Rudra's release is uncanny. Directed by Rajesh Mapuskar (Ferrari ki Sawaari, Ventilator), Rudra follows the crime-per-episode template, centered on a super-cop named Rudraveer Singh who broods his way through the killer-infested streets of Mumbai. Like any self-respecting fictional detective, the man is tortured, revered within the police force, has an estranged wife and forms an unusual bond with a young female psychopath. Every episode presents a twisted new adversary: a child-stealing paedophile, a deranged Kasab-like shooter who only murders cops, an occult artist who drains the body of young mothers and paints in blood, a cuckolded serial killer who preys on single women, and so on.
DSP Rudraveer goes about tracking down these culprits with predestined ease. His brilliance is the one-stop answer to riddles that the writing cannot unlock. When there is no explanation, he just blurts out the solution because he's Rudra. The villains are campy if not entirely compelling. In terms of suspense and detailing, the series is middling at best. Mapuskar paints a Gotham-like portrait of Mumbai, even opening with a shot straight out of The Dark Knight, with Rudra resembling a chain-smoking crusader without his cape. Devgn inverts the Singham template to reveal a more intellectual and simmering version of the Bollywood action cop, as though his Vanraj from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were aiding a city instead of a heartbroken wife. Devgn is usually solid in these roles – as Gangubai Kathiawadi recently showed – but the problem with his Rudra turn is that he makes it impossible to tell inwardness from inertia. That dead tone stops feeling ponderous after the first episode. His violent bouts look woefully planted. Non-acting can often be confused as restrained acting, and naming the character after a Hindu deity of storms (Rudra=roarer) doesn't make the muted performance any smarter. Of the others, Esha Deol is the weakest link as Rudra's wife, Shaila; she struggles to speak, emote and generally exist amidst an otherwise-solid cast. A graying Atul Kulkarni deserves better than mediocre thrillers (after A Thursday and City of Dreams). And of the many villains, Raashi Khanna is intriguing as the red-haired psychopath/genius who gets obsessed with Rudra (not sure why), Hemant Kher (from Scam 1992) is terrific as the cuckolded cab driver, and K.C. Shankar continues his streaming hot streak as the occult blood-drinking artist.
The second way to look at Rudra, of course, is through its actual lens: as an Indian remake of a British series. Rudra, like several of its Disney+ Hotstar contemporaries (Criminal Justice, Out of Love, The Office, Hostages, The Great Indian Murder – everything except Aarya), profusely falters in this regard. The show is a moment-by-moment, character-by-character, line-by-line remake of Luther, right down to Ananya Birla's cosmetically bleak theme song. Which isn't a problem per se, but the lack of cultural translation – the lack of desire to "adapt" over copy+pasting – is frustrating. (A Hindi dub might have been just as rewarding). In other words, it traces the lines but refuses to fill them with colour. For those like myself who've watched and liked Luther, and therefore know all the twists and arcs, Rudra is bland in terms of narrative identity and texture. When you know what's going to happen, you start to notice other aspects of a show that's going through the motions. There seemed to be plenty of scope to craft a rooted urban noir thriller, breaking the clutter of convoluted small-town/hill-station whodunnits that have all but hijacked the Indian web landscape.
Yet, Rudra remains steadfastly derivative in its vision. It shoots Mumbai, too, like a cold and gloomy London. The setting has no character or geography of its own. One can still handle the stylized indoor spaces – Shaila's designer cottage, psychopath Aaliyah's posh penthouse, the Arabian sea view from every other shady location. It's the outdoor portions that really got my goat, though. I've said it before, too: Crime has a different language in Western thrillers, where the population is sparse and nights are secluded. Stories there can make murders – or at least lurking shadows – look plausible. But Rudra insists on retaining the original set pieces, with miniscule to no changes. The streets of Mumbai are almost always empty in Rudra: whether it's a cop being gunned down at an eerily deserted Kala Ghoda circle, a taxi picking up women in areas where there is miraculously not a soul for miles, a prostitute screaming for help in a dense slum area, or even Rudra and Aaliyah meeting "discretely" near the Gateway of India. Most of these scenes unfurl in the very heart of the city, not in its outskirts where an abandoned factory or two can pass off as cover. The density of people in Mumbai and other Indian metropolitans plays a huge role in the way crimes are committed and laws are broken. Rudra rarely acknowledges this detail, going ahead with the most elaborately staged sequences, where places look designed and controlled to enable a fear of isolation. It doesn't have the chutzpah of a Sherlock – which premiered a few months after the milder but culturally significant Luther – to distract us from the physicality of the plot either. Rudra is a legend but he's no freaky genius, so his haunted personality is supposed to humanize the mystery of these crimes.
As it turns out, Rudra is too generic for its form. The handful of times it does dare to deviate from Luther to add its own two bits are, incidentally, the worst scenes of the show. For instance, when Rudra tracks down one of the killers, the madman decides to injure himself to frame Rudra and win public sympathy. He breaks his own bones, smashes his own head into the walls, chuckles like a hyena and keeps provoking Rudra, who continues to passively smoke his cigarette. Rudra then points to a cellphone camera recording the whole thing, which is one of the laziest crime-resolving tricks in the book. A recorder does the same job in the finale. You'd think that people who go through the hassle of kidnapping and hiding bodies in the bustle of Mumbai would be wiser than such rookie mistakes. But Rudra needs its hero moments. As a result, it becomes the equivalent of a student copying its partner's exam paper and then adding fake strikeouts to make the answers look authentic and thought through. Or, keeping with the theme, a copycat killer who chops off an extra finger to personalize a conquest. Whether they get away depends on the supervisor – the audience – who must choose to approach this conflict as either a Rudra or a Luther. To paraphrase – or perhaps remake – an old saying: Fool us twice, shame on us.