Director: Bejoy Nambiar
Writers: Bejoy Nambiar, Shubha Swarup, Francis Thomas, Prayas Gupta, Mithila Hogle
Cast: Avinash Tiwary, Rohan Vinod Mehra, Nivetha Pethuraj, Jitin Gulati, Taher Shabbir, Elisha Mayor, Hiten Tejwani
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
To put it politely, Kaala is an artificial calamity. I say “artificial” because the eight-episode series is an accurate example of how technology – or the idea of technology – turns film-making into a hollow footnote. Most scenes aren’t in service of a story; they are in disservice of storytelling. Most characters don’t speak, they fill the air with empty sounds that are not music. This isn’t the first time I’m going with style-over-substance criticism for a Bejoy Nambiar-directed title, but this is certainly the first time the style is sillier than the substance. Why would the visual aesthetic look like a continuous computer glitch?
Why would a helmet-camera in a bikechase be trained inward, highlighting the pockmarked cheeks of the biker rather than the road he sees? Why would every flashback open with an editing pattern (rapid cut-to-black transitions) that fooled me into believing my laptop was faulty? Why are frames blurred at their corners like psychologically-inclined Instagram filters? Why does the camera rotate like a dizzy mosquito over two girls kissing in bed? Why does the frenzied tone make every five moments feel like they’re penned by five different writers without any connective tissue in mind? Why is gender identity confused with sexual orientation, and why is it used as a flashy plot twist in 2023?
Kaala uses its disorienting artifice to sex up (if one can call it that) a basic crime drama. The series revolves around Ritwik Mukherjee (Avinash Tiwary), a star Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer investigating a massive hawala operation run by a “new-age recycle king” named Naman Arya. Ritwik’s mission features, among other things, the Chief Minister of Bengal (Meeta Vashishtha doing an awkward Mamata Banerjee impression); a bunch of ethical hackers, anonymous informers (and informers of informers) in Darjeeling; a colleague-cum-girlfriend named Sitara (Nivetha Pethuraj); a team of accountants assembled to follow Naman’s paper trail; a tainted family legacy; a false implication; an on-the-run arc; a make-or-break consignment; and two hitmen (including filmmaker Q) taking selfies with the people they kill.
Ritwik’s 2018 timeline is intercut with an Eighties’ timeline, where a disgraced Border Defense Forces (BDF) soldier named Shubhendu (Rohan Vinod Mehra) rises from the dead and sets out to murder the three people who framed him. This period features, among other things, further flashbacks to the Seventies’ and flash-forwards to the Nineties; a tunnel created during the Bangladesh Liberation War that gets co-opted by smugglers; a new family; a journey of revenge; a queer love story; a transgender villain whose lips the camera fixates on in its (initial) efforts to hide her identity. I’m sure there’s more, but Kaala reduces it to a cocktail of manic cutting and neon-lit excesses.
The staging is irksome. When we first hear of Naman Arya in a CBI meeting, an actual photoshoot of this man disrupts the scene; it’s like the script takes the term ‘corruption model’ all too literally. At one point, an establishment shot of a teenager is supposed to suggest that she’s feisty, so it shows her beating up a perverse football coach. But I spent the over-staged scene assuming that she’s been kidnapped and this is her escape plan. At most points, the dubbing of the dialogue makes it sound like everyone is speaking in voice-overs (even to each other). This is also the sort of show where a queer person adopts effeminate mannerisms – the brief seems to be Poo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – only after a flashback discloses the queerness. Up until then, there is not a sign of inner turmoil. The accountants are reduced to comic relief (which confirms Tamil actor Bucks’ truisms in last year’s Monica, O My Darling), including a de-facto leader who randomly falls for an older colleague on the team. Or at least that’s what the writing suggests.
The pilot episode is an incoherent blur, unfolding like it’s the midway point of a series. It hits the ground sprinting, with one action scene collapsing into another, almost daring the viewer to guess the events that preceded it. As a viewer, it feels like climbing a moving train only to realize it’s on fire and there’s no driver. Despite the pace, the images look dull, and the events, familiar. Many characters get shot and almost die at some point, but the bullets never do their job. Even as someone who doesn’t speak Bengali, I can tell that a lot of the language spoken in the series is unconvincing at best. The background score is eclectic – switching between Eighties’ synth tracks, Western pop and Bangla hip-hop – but in a way that flaunts rather than integrates. The “Khoya Khoya Chand” shootout in Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011) feels like a lifetime away.
Coming back to the trans woman, the track is handled with the sort of tone-deafness that’s often mistaken for irreverence. An episode is dedicated to this character’s story – in the past, he had a reputation of cheating death – but the gender transition is presented as something that’s done to trick death into not being able to recognize him anymore. (I had to see it to believe it). When she later mentions that she was always a woman stuck in a man’s body, it sounds like damage control. It never helps that the character is filmed as if her identity was a choice she made or an illness she endures; the voice and the gait are fetishized to the point of discrimination. You don’t have to be woke to understand that – in a year where trans themes (Taali, Haddi, Made In Heaven 2, Guns & Gulaabs, Dream Girl 2, Ghoomer) have become more visible in mainstream Hindi cinema – broad stereotypes can no longer get away under the guise of retro-pulp.
Kaala shares three actors in common with the other series this week, Bambai Meri Jaan – and all three of them feel lesser here. Avinash Tiwary plays Ritwik Mukherjee with wooden urgency; it’s not a performance he will look back on with pride, though I’d like to blame the writing for reducing him to a human prop. The prolific Saurabh Sachdeva is wasted as an upright colonel who aids the resurrection of Shubhendu. But Jitin Gulati is the one who takes the biggest swing at the fences, as the only baddie across both timelines. I suspect that he’s a far better actor than this misguided role suggests; there are glimpses of potential, until the series morphs into that college kid who would do anything to get noticed. Without giving away spoilers, I can only conclude that Gulati’s character – like Prachi Desai’s in Forensic (2022) – won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Neither will Kaala. So what if it’s for all the wrong reasons? If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this post-truth age, it’s that trolling is a form of flattery. Or not. So when I say that Kaala is one of the most frustrating OTT misfires in recent memory, it’s the thought that counts.