Creator: Siddharth Sengupta
Director: Siddharth Sengupta
Writers: Anahata Menon, Varun Badola, Siddharth Sengupta
Cast: Tahir Raj Bhasin, Shweta Tripathi Sharma, Anchal Singh, Saurabh Shukla, Surya Sharma, Brijendra Kala, Anantvijay Joshi
Streaming on: Netflix
Shah Rukh Khan looms large over Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, but not in the way you'd imagine. The 8-episode series is a romantic thriller named after the famous Baazigar dance number. The protagonist is Vikrant, nicknamed Vicky, another nod to the 1993 Abbas-Mustan hit. In the opening episode, the iconic Palat moment from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is played to sinister effect – the boy's fate is sealed the second the girl of his nightmares turns to smile at him. Not long later, the boy is chided for doing "Shahrukh-giri" when he climbs to his girlfriend's window to prove his devotion. The premise, keeping with the superstar's biggest blockbusters, is (sort of) a love triangle. Something on the lines of "Baazigar but if Ajay Sharma and Vicky Malhotra were not one man but two girls" meets "DDLJ but if Preeti's rowdy family intimidated Raj into wedlock". Last but not least, the show's Vicky is also a lanky young actor from Delhi who broke out by breaking bad on screen. Tahir Raj Bhasin has that early-SRK audacity about him, and it's only fitting that he returns with this title after years of post-Mardaani limbo.
None of this is for effect. Homages can be cutesy and tiring, but Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein makes a larger point. The 1990s was a decade of two Shah Rukh Khans – the vengeful psychopath and the romantic hero. But be it killing or wooing, he thrived as ordinary men doing extraordinary things. The central character of this series, Vikrant, is a man stuck between these two personas. When he isn't allowed to love like Raj, he can't get himself to hate like Vicky. He's the ordinary in the extraordinary and, at one point, concedes that "honest people exact revenge with utmost honesty too". This is what makes Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein so distinctly enjoyable. Just like a shaggy-haired Khan once did, the series consistently challenges our notions of movie masculinity. This Vicky is forced into an ominous household against his own wishes. It's the kind of lawless family that cuts his electricity, water supply and places him in bureaucratic hell – all as gentle reminders. He ends up vomiting his guts out when he watches their henchmen hack a body into pieces. He struggles to lash out like he's supposed to, and almost all his efforts to break free are tinged with farce.
This conceit of masculinity is built into the story. The show is centered on Vikrant, a small-town engineering graduate whose modest ambitions (a job in Bhilai) and dreams (a house with girlfriend Shikha) go for a toss when he becomes the object of desire for Purva, a menacing politician's daughter. His father is the politician's long-time accountant and, before he knows it, Vikrant is swallowed by a future he didn't account for. The more he resists, the deeper he sinks. The setting is further evidence of the show's subversive tone. The political party is called the "Bharatiya Suraksha Party" and the state is Uttar Pradesh, the land of Mirzapur and countless other sagas of wanton male violence. The fictional city is named Onkara, an aural riff on Omkara, Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespearean ode to misguided manhood. It's like the environment is taunting Vikrant, willing him to live up to its legacy.
Much of the show's Coens-style tragicomedy – where the audience is in on the joke but the characters are not – is rooted in Vikrant's inability to own the macho template. The treatment and performances are arrow-straight, too, almost like the screenplay is daring us to laugh at the vagaries of life. Vikrant Singh Chauhan – a name that evokes martyr-like courage – keeps fantasizing about being vindictive and slick because he's just not that guy. He dreams of effortlessly pumping bullets into the people who've hijacked his life. We keep expecting him to snap – or, in Baazigar speak, change those contact lenses. It seems just around the corner. But entire episodes pivot on decisions and acts that are often taken for granted in Bollywood potboilers. Entire scenes evoke the procedural nature of real-world drama.
For instance, deciding to kill is fine, but for that a simple everyman must: 1. Find a gun and 2. Learn how to use it. Deciding to have someone killed is fine, but for that a normal guy must: 1. Hire a hitman and 2. Find a hacker to access the dark web where hitmen can be hired. 3. Find money to pay them. Anticipating a death is fine, but for that a regular chap must also: 1. React to it authentically and 2. Fake his grief. Getting sidetracked – a strict no-no for long-form stories – defines the identity of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein. Youtube tutorials are used to ingenious effect. At first, like most thrillers, the cliffhangers at the end of every episode seem to send the plot in unplanned directions. But it soon becomes clear that this is by design, as if the writing consciously aims to humanize every twist. Even the concept of eloping is flipped: a girl goes on the run with…her parents.
It's hard to tell whether a scene is played for humour or emotion, or whether the makers are even aware of the role reversals. But in some whimsical way, this adds to the moral ambivalence of the protagonist. Vikrant is so desperate to escape his mess that he rarely notices the 'look' of his situation – at one point, he convinces his best friend Golden (a fluid Anantvijay Joshi) to fake a gay photoshoot with him so that his leaked pictures shame Purva's family into disowning him. It's silly in the moment, the lines (about sex positions) are amusing, but the high stakes always undercut the cat-and-mouse game with a wound-up tension. It reminded me of You, the black comedy about a lovelorn psychopath and his disdain for human civilization. The Joe of You was a smooth killer, but the Average Joe of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein can barely lie with a straight face.
The craft of the series is on point, except for some dubbing issues in the sixth episode. The "remixed" title song does wonders – it sounds like a smoky cabaret track from a Sriram Raghavan movie, locating Vicky's journey midway between domestic satire and marital noir. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Brijendra Kala as Vicky's greedy-but-good father and Saurabh Shukla as the casually savage politician. In the beginning, it doesn't seem like Anchal Singh can pull off Purva, who on paper is part Kangana-in-Kites and part Rose-in-Titanic. But her weirdly nonchalant performance lends Purva a girl-next-door cruelty that grew on me – though I suppose that says more about me than the acting. She doesn't play to the gallery, so when Purva says "I'm not crazy, I'm just possessive no," it's not a threat so much as a statement of oblivious privilege. This denial extends to the way she keeps offering Vicky a chance to explain his disappearances and mistakes; she is smart enough to suspect but not mature enough to confront his truth. The writing also teases our perception of Shweta Tripathi Sharma as Shikha. It leads us down the Masaan road – meet-cute small-town song, numbing twist – till it doesn't.
Most of all, Tahir Raj Bhasin is pitch-perfect as Vicky, a character who has no idea what it's like to be pitch-perfect. A man who is perpetually at odds with the exemptions of his gender. His urgency is both sad and funny, and it's his reading of a difficult arc that keeps us on the edge and Vicky on the brink. Even when the show lapses into TV melodrama – like when Vicky delivers a pained monologue to his uncaring parents – Bhasin, like Jeremy Strong in Succession, refuses to get the joke. His graveness wills the filmmaking into a sweet spot between pulp and fidelity. And the show is all the better for it.
His is the kind of performance that thrives on self-seriousness, making us imagine how Rahul from Darr might have resolved Schengen visa issues while following Kiran to her Swiss honeymoon. Or how Vicky in Baazigar might have secretly enrolled in dancing classes to surprise Priya with his 'impromptu jig' at the club. Or even how he might have had to blackmail company employees into not phoning their boss Madan Chopra while executing his "power of attorney" heist. It's these little roadblocks that genre tales don't hassle themselves with. Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein reaches a place where Bollywood heroism goes to die – and finds great joy in it. The result is a rare series whose strength lies in the grammar of human weakness. Subsequent seasons are likely to break the spell. But for now, one small step for (its) man is one delightfully awkward leap for manliness.