Created by: Parambrata Chatterjee
Director: Aritra Sen
Starring: Parambrata Chatterjee, Riddhi Sen, Kanchan Mullick, Soumya Sengupta, Bidipta Chakraborty, Payel Sarkar, Surangama Bandyopadhyay, Joydeep Mukherjee
Streaming On: ZEE5
A terror attack is foiled in the London Borough of Ealing and in its aftermath a group of Indian and Bangladeshi expats find themselves under the scanner. While the largely Hindu Indian community is denied permission to hold its upcoming Durga Puja celebrations given the security implications, the Muslim Bangladeshis are natural suspects in the eyes of ignorant authorities, for whom everyone, including Hindus, from the subcontinent is a potential ‘Paki terrorist’.
Though promoted as a thriller, Zee5’s new web series is more than only that – it’s an interesting mix of the expat experience in the continent, the victimization and radicalization of a community, global terrorism and character study.
Mahboob (Parambrata) is an assistant professor – though there is more than meets the eye about what he actually does as is evident from the furtive coded calls he makes from telephone booths – in Ealing, a locality that is increasingly restive in the aftermath of recent terror attacks in London and Paris. While Mahboob nurses his own ghosts – the death of his wife at childbirth, the suicide of a ‘colleague’ he holds himself responsible for – he has also to deal with his young, alienated brother-in-law Swapno (Riddhi Sen), who is increasingly drawn to Rahman (Joydeep Mukherjee), a radical Islamist looking to recruit disgruntled young men to his cause.
Cast against type, it’s Kanchan Mullick who stands out – as the Muslim owner of a general provision store – delivering a moving performance
Mahboob’s interactions with the local Indian community – the elderly and ailing Tridibesh (Soumya Sengupta), Ananya (Bidipta Chakraborty) who is at loggerheads with her husband Joy (Surajoy Bhowmick), Shahana (Payel Sarkar), a student from Viswa-Bharati – draw him not only into their trials in holding the Durga Puja, but also the nefarious designs of Rahman and his group, funded by a Saudi tycoon Aleem (Danny Daren), who plan to carry out a strike at the Town Hall during the pujas.
The stage is thus set for a thrilling cat-and-mouse game, but under the supervision of Parambrata, it goes beyond the slam-bang conventions of the thriller. So, you have Mahboob and Shahana discussing alienation and loneliness in the context of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which she is reading. Or mixing drinks after a heady fusion-music performance, Mahboob commenting, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Well, Tagore and Lalon, now that’s a dangerous mix.’ There are digs at Bengalis (‘Each Bengali here is a piece,’ says one character, while Rahman too, mulling over the challenges of recruiting young Bengalis to his fold, philosophizes, ‘All it takes is mangsho-bhaat (mutton rice).’ And ‘Aaj dhaaner khete’ has never sounded as exhilarating as it does here.
The performances are uniformly good, with Parambrata rock-solid as ever and Soumya Sengupta making a strong impact. Riddhi Sen, and I know I am being unfair to him here, will need a lot more to put Nagarkirtan behind him – here, he is largely one-note, dissatisfied, angry, though in one delectable sequence with Titir (Surangama Bandyopadhyay) he is at his impish best. Cast against type, it’s Kanchan Mullick who stands out – as the Muslim owner of a general provision store – delivering a moving performance.
For a ‘thriller’ that takes into its ambit global terrorism, mentions sleeper cells operating from Rajshahi and Bangalore, skirts with issues of radicalizing young, disgruntled and persecuted elements of the expat Muslim community, one would have loved a more detailed look at these aspects
But if the format of the web series allows the filmmakers the liberty of exploring these nuances, it also has a flip side – particularly given the ‘thriller’ aspect. For a thriller, there’s too much exposition at times, too many digressions into sentimentalism, and flab that could have been left at the editing console to make a tighter, edgier narrative.
The music band angle, for example, does not quite come off, in particular the sulk one of them, Arko, goes into at being sidelined by the Muslim Swapno at the cultural festivities associated with Durga Puja (and in an otherwise well-acted drama, the final ticking off that Shahana gives the bickering band members never quite rings true). Neither does the suddenness with which Joy comes around to his wife’s point of view, nor the sentimental plotting device that facilitates the holding of the pujas. For a ‘thriller’ that takes into its ambit global terrorism, mentions sleeper cells operating from Rajshahi and Bangalore, skirts with issues of radicalizing young, disgruntled and persecuted elements of the expat Muslim community, one would have loved a more detailed look at these aspects.
However, as Swapno tells Titir about his brother-in-law, “He is someone who loves plays, movies, characters.” He could well have been talking of Parambrata here, given the nuances to the characters and their interactions. There’s the delicious Hindu-sounding names of Mahboob’s wife and brother-in-law (Mithila and Swapno). The point here, important in the context of the narrative, is that these are not Hindu or Muslim names, they’re just Bangla names. That’s how people still name their children in Bangladesh, contrary to our misgivings about that land. Just as Hindu Bengalis have an usually Sanskrit name as bhalo naam and a separate daaknaam, Muslim Bengalis have an official Arabic name and a Bengali one as daaknaam.
There’s Titir telling Swapno off that he sounds as bigoted as Arko (after the latter has lashed out at Swapno, “Do I select the qawwali you will sing at Eid”), or the difference in the way Rahman and Tridibesh address the issue of the immigrant’s loneliness, or Swapno underlining to Titir that what is “Didi for you (Hindus/Indians) is Apa for us (Muslims/Bangladeshis)” – as if it makes any difference to the relationship at all. Or, in the film’s finest sequence where Tridibesh is reminiscing about his long journey from Barisal to Kolkata to London, and Mahboob, himself aware of the agony of the immigrant, the loneliness of the first winters in an alien land, raises a memorable toast to “a land called Bengal, a language called Bangla and a people called Bangali”.
That to me is what Sharate Aaj is about and it is in that the series scores more than it does as a thriller.