It is such a predictable choice, to begin a show with the most dramatic moment — a pummel in a restroom like Taish, or a furtive burial in Tabbar, or as in The Whistleblower: Truth Behind The Lies, an alleged suicide — before inviting the viewer into a flashback to explain how the characters got to this dramatic moment. It usually is the sign of under-confident, insecure storytelling; a desperation to capture the audience from the very first frame. Some streaming platforms insist on this insecurity. This desperation can, like Tabbar morph itself into an artful stream of events. But The Whistleblower is just not able to conjure that level of compelling craft. There is a terrible itch to just want the show to get to the point pronto, and once gotten, to resolve it just as quickly.
Written by Ajay Monga, Shivang Monga, and Chintan Gandhi, created by Ritesh Modi, and directed by Manoj Pillai, The Whistleblower is 9 episodes long, each spanning 50 minutes. The length is intimidating. The story — of corruption in medical college admissions, where you can pay for people to take your PMT (pre-medical tests) — is crackling.
The beats of a scam is ripe for storytelling, but has often been executed to middling effect in shows like Scam 1992, also on SonyLIV or underwhelming swagger in Jamtara on Netflix. The storytelling becomes important — to explain the cogs of the scam, the root of the rot in a clear, concise, and compelling manner. This is where most writing stumbles. The Whistleblower, loosely based on the Vyapam Scam, too, stumbles.
The number of characters floating in and out make this story not just diffuse but dense too. Often, I found myself lost. They will show a body dying or dead and it will take a scene for me to recall who exactly the dying or dead person is.
According to the narrator of the show, Sanket (Ritwik Bhowmik), there are three kinds of people in this world — the good, the bad, and Sanket himself. Of course there is the hubris of taking one third of humanity to himself. But the point is deeper — a machiavellian badness that isn't evil, a goodness that is incidental, all of this packaged with charm and appeal. He is the son of the head of Reliable (Sachin Khedekar) — a medical college and a hospital in Bhopal — who does heart-stopping drugs, and takes the PMTs for other students for thick wads of cash, all for the "kick". He isn't an addict. He isn't evil. He isn't in need of money. An adrenaline junkie who tires from the mundane, he cheats on his girlfriend Pragya (Ankita Sharma) with her younger sister Prachi (Ridhi Khakhar) with little remorse or regret.
This is until his father burns himself to death — the opening scene. The first half of the show takes us to this moment, and the latter half takes us from this moment, when Sanket, now suddenly flushed with conscience, becomes a whistleblower, and with the help of Pragya and a local journalist (Ashish Verma) tries to bring down the empire of illegal testing, helmed by Jairaj (Ravi Kishan).
The problem with the show is immediately apparent — Sanket's voice-over that underlines the proceedings with idioms and metaphors. It doesn't explain the story but its morality — which, really, needed no explaining. Bhowmik's mechanical voice doesn't help, for it sounds like he is reading from a script. The sub-plots, involving politicians and policemen, establish themselves with a feeble hand. The diffuse storytelling — where plot points are established with loose conviction, as if the writers were not convinced of its logic, and the director was not convinced of its importance — makes the duration feel like a chore. The number of characters floating in and out make this story not just diffuse but dense too. Often, I found myself lost. They will show a body dying or dead and it will take a scene for me to recall who exactly the dying or dead person is.
This is the thing about SonyLIV shows — even when they are spectacular failures, like Chutzpah or spectacular mediocrities like Maharani, they show promise, sparks of the greatness that could have been.
But as long as the show is with Sanket, it is relatively steady. This is not entirely because his story is well etched, but because Bhownik's charisma is so palpable, so obvious, gloating. Seeing Bhowmik I was reminded of Pratik Gandhi from Scam 1992 — how their bravado felt too much for their frames, almost as if they were reaching beyond the limits of charisma. But unlike the forceful punchlines of Scam 1992, his heroism here isn't verbal but entirely facial — the way he glances away casually, the way he presses his lips together, the way he rolls his eyes horizontally in pride when he complimented.
The show gets better and worse in the last few episodes. Better because finally things are at stake. Worse because the manner in which things escalate is so farcical, sudden, that they never feel at stake. In the very first episode you have medical interns taking life stopping drugs, and briefly dying, only to be resuscitated. The entire scene plays out like an aesthetic whiff, without any tension that life is ebbing and flowing across the shoreline of the body. Soon, the dead bodies start piling up with an alarming ease. Bhopal should be worried about what this is doing to their PR. Besides, these deaths are rarely referenced beyond that scene, as if forgotten, much like Sanket's voiceover is. Since things don't feel at stake, there is no tension or an emotionally compelling thread buoying the show.
But this does not mean the show has no craft. Take the scene where Jairaj is playing fidget-spinner with his mobile phone, and as he leaves, his acolyte does the same, sturdying his stance. You imagine Jairaj, too, learning that swag and swivel, engraving it into his muscle memory. There is also a stunningly staged scene where students are being lathi charged — the perfect mix of background score and silence, punctuated by the camera's hard focus. Take, also, the scene where Prachi tries to explain, sincerely, an English concept to a Hindi journalist who, just as cuttingly, tells her off in English — that he didn't become a Hindi journalist because he did not know English. These are signs of depth. If not signs, at least signals.
This is the thing about SonyLIV shows — even when they are spectacular failures, like Chutzpah or spectacular mediocrities like Maharani, they show promise, sparks of the greatness that could have been. Either it is the meticulous production design, or the ambitious cinematography — yes, the long takes or even the way, say, in Chutzpah, where a wallpaper on a toilet transitions to a landscape — or the attempts at creating character depth and diverse dialectes, like Bundelkhandi here. Even when the collective effect of the show is ennui, something still strikes.