Cast: Tanmay Dhanania, Satyadeep Misra, Roshni Walia, Tara D'Souza, Rupali Bhonsle, Vaibhavi Upadhyay, Naseeruddin Shah
Reviewing an Indian web series these days is a tough job. It's different from a bad movie, where you can just wallow in an air-conditioned hall and think of puns (kyun, Q?) for the next two hours. While watching a show, there is the temptation to give up after every episode. Who will know, after all, if I watch six or seven out of twelve episodes? If it isn't working anyway, no sane viewer will go past a few episodes – what will they know? The smarter writers can just use a generic tone of dismissiveness to disguise this "shortcut".
For me, though, it has become an exercise in sadomasochism. At times, as with Zero KMS, it takes all of ten minutes to realize that I might have to binge on the most tasteless, chewy, fishy and strangely cooked junk food in the name of entertainment. It will not be good for my health. Yet, I make sure I watch every second of every minute of every episode – more than 200 minutes in this case – so that I feel motivated and angry enough to write about it, hard. I call it "rage construction."
Zero KMS, helmed by Q (Qaushiq Mukherjee), only proves what I've long suspected: the provocative director can show but can't tell. It also proves that filmmakers, more than tourists, are the ones violating Goa. We've seen it all before in some variation of dark-John-Abraham-weds-sepia-Sanjay-Gupta hues – shady Russians, crooked cops, bad catholic wigs and accents, human trafficking ring, futile females, gory murders, ex-convict hero with minimalist expressions. Q designs a world so derivative and dastardly that it's impossible to look beyond its flashy edit patterns and pretentious posturing. In fact, it's mostly impossible to look at.
He infuses each of the twelve episodes with a tiresome brand of energy – each begins with a video recording some stage of trafficking (a surgery to cut off the girls' tongues, for example) preceded by "socially relevant" NCRB statistics to assure us that these are not entirely exploitative images, then there's the minute-long recap (which, often, looks like more of an episode than the actual episode), then there's the title credits, followed by the episode in which there are at least ten instances of stylistic cross-cutting and jarring flashbacks.
Q challenges us to blink an eye before a scene is loaded with psychological tomfoolery. The actual events, not unlike a saas-bahu serial, last for not more than ten solid minutes in between. Not to mention the schizophrenic background score, which not only changes tone midway through a scene but also thrives on drowning out the dialogues (for good reason, perhaps). This design suggests that Q has nothing original to say, which is why he is constantly finding the most disruptive ways to say it.
The plot is straightforward. A chap named Arjun (Tanmay Dhanania), after training under a desi Master Shifu (Naseeruddin Shah, as "Guru") in prison for ten years, returns home to find his policeman brother missing. His sister-in-law empathizes with him, but his niece doesn't trust him. You know, right then, that it'll all come down to Arjun having to save this teenaged girl from being recruited as a commercial slave. Arjun soon finds his brother dead in bed – the thoughtful man had enough time to leave clues across Goa about who might have killed him, as well as footage of the murky trafficking conspiracy he was in on, led by DCP Pinto (Satyadeep Misra). Just upload the footage, Arjun. But no, what is a kitschy noir thriller without such elaborate whataboutery?
Pinto is married to Arjun's childhood sweetheart, whose frizzy hair and funky shades now define her suppressed vamp-ness. Framed for his brother's death, Arjun, on the run again, finds a sexually charged Tomb-Raider-ish girl named Tommy – Guru's daughter – who drops everything to help him track down the truth. Arjun hasn't had sex for ten years, so you can only imagine the deep sheet he finds himself in. There are other ominously named characters like Dmitri, Hitler, Julius and Desmond – who, in a more vintage Goa, might have been eliminated from Shah Rukh Khan's Eagle gang in Josh for being offensive caricatures.
There is also a professional-looking lady in charge of Pinto's broad-daylight operation – her job is to look productive, stare at the slaves and bark terms like "consignments from Telangana and Assam," "Cambodia clients," "good product" and "online auction." Pinto, of course, answers to an unseen boss, whose mysterious presence (Guru, ho jaa shuru) has encouraged the platform to threaten us with a second season. The shifting you hear right now is Pradeep Sarkar's Mardaani – the bleak Rani Mukerji-starrer on child trafficking – turning over in its fresh grave.
One might get away with this in a 90-minute film by challenging the grammar of conventional narratives, but a 12-episode show compels storytellers to look beyond their "signatures" in order to retain the attention of viewers every twenty minutes
Speaking about stereotypes, you know it's a Bengali filmmaker when the villain hates football ("watch a little cricket, chump") and the heroes' universe is forcibly defined by it. Arjun's nickname is Diego, his brother's is Zizou (does that mean they're flawed geniuses?), and every digital clue is laced with some lofty metaphorical connotations of the Hand of God, head-butt and Columbian keeper Rene Higuita's scorpion kick. At one point, the brother's death is juxtaposed with that of Zidane forlornly walking past the trophy after being red-carded in the 2006 final. Given that the FIFA World Cup is a mere week away, at the very least Zero KMS manages to be topical in this sense.
I must also mention the voiceover playing in Arjun's head – where his thoughts ("I have to find the killer," "I have nothing left but clouds") and chaotic intellectualisms ("Am I a fighter? I am a fighter!") are conveyed to us in the deadpan tone of a man on his Sunday morning beach stroll. This is ironic, because the last thing Arjun or the makers seem to be doing is thinking.
Explicitly demonstrating an eye being gouged out or a throat being slit is pointless if the writing relies on visual shock tactics to keep us awake. One might get away with this in a 90-minute film by challenging the grammar of conventional narratives, but a 12-episode show compels storytellers to look beyond their "signatures" in order to retain the attention of viewers every twenty minutes.
To be fair, Q is an acquired taste of sorts. But with Zero KMS, he seems to have blurred that holy line between being accessed and being acquired. The result is a train wreck of a show that might work wonders to keep away the planeloads of North Indian and Gujarati tourists who enter the water in full attire, ogle at whiteness and treat the sand as their personal trashcans. Given that I'm half of each, I might have to visit Goa again to believe that the locals still believe in Susegad over savagery.