In the new SonyLIV web series Tabbar, Punjab’s drug problem plays a double role. The trade in cocaine irreversibly changes the fortunes of a close-knit clan, while the notion of the family as an incurable narcotic nudges the show towards Shakespearean tragedy.

Aarya, the web series from 2020, similarly revolved around the extreme measures taken by a drug dealer’s widow to save her family from her adversaries. While Aarya came off as a heroine, Tabbar plays the idea in reverse. Among the strongest ideas in the eight-episode series is that family values – supposedly the bedrock of social order and civilisation itself – can themselves be the root of villainy and cruelty.

The mostly Punjabi-language series is set in Jalandhar on the eve of an election that pits Ahuja (Rohit Khurana) against Sodhi (Ranvir Shorey). Sodhi is fighting on an anti-drug plank, which is most inconvenient considering his brother Maheep (Rachit Bahal) is going to land up in Jalandhar with a consignment of cocaine.

The stash gets mixed up with fellow traveller Happy’s luggage. Happy (Gagan Arora) is enjoying a reunion with his father Omkar (Pavan Malhotra), mother Sargun (Supriya Pathak Kapur) and younger brother Tegi (Sahil Mehta) when Maheep barges in with a gun.

It’s the first in a series of unforeseen and unfortunate events. Sodhi’s bodyguard Multan (Ali Mughal) is on the prowl for Maheep. Ahuja wants to play the situation to his advantage. Meanwhile, Omar’s nephew Lucky (Paramvir Singh Cheema), possibly one of the last principled police officers in this corner of Punjab, begins to join the dots between Maheep’s disappearance and his uncle’s suddenly suspicious behaviour.

Ranvir Shorey in Tabbar (2021). Courtesy Jar Pictures/SonyLIV.

A sharp observer might sense that something is not quite right in the Omkar household. Sargun walks around like she has seen a ghost, while Omkar stammers and stutters while fending off queries. Indeed, Omkar’s nosy neighbour Mahajan (Babla Kochhar), whose daughter is Happy’s sweetheart, gets his hands on a crucial piece of evidence that can ruin everything.

Although Omkar uses his experience as a former police officer to shield his sons from arrest, there are numerous occasions to suggest that Omkar’s policing instincts have been blunted. Omkar forgets to conceal vital clues, and somehow bumbles along, guided by his love for his wife and sons.

Tabbar, meaning family in Punjabi, is based on an idea by Harman Wadala and has been written by him, Sandeep Jain and one “Mr Roy”. Series director Ajitpal Singh (Rammat Gammat, Fire in the Mountains) steers the tragedy of errors past crater-sized loopholes and increasingly preposterous twists by focusing on the characters and the ties that bind and throttle them.

Blessed with a gallery of well-chosen actors and relatively new faces and (the sharp casting is by Mukesh Chhabra), Singh devotes his attention to smaller moments and individual sequences rather than the messy big picture.

(L-R): Sahil Mehta, Supriya Pathak Kapur and Gagan Arora in Tabbar (2021). Courtesy Jar Pictures/SonyLIV.

The most compelling scenes are between Omkar and his family. Omkar and Sargun have several affecting moments between them. Sargun’s guilt threatens her equilibrium, while the danger of being caught out transforms Omkar from mild-mannered grocer to consummate criminal. Pavan Malhotra deftly carries off a tough balancing act between underplayed emotion and outright melodrama.

Gagan Arora and Sahil Mehta, as Omkar’s sons, also turn out strong performances. Arora is especially good at portraying the hapless Happy’s anxiety over being exposed. Paramvir Singh Cheema, as Happy’s cousin Lucky, makes the most of being burdened with the weakest track in the series. Nupur Nagpal, as Happy’s girlfriend Palak, also deserves a shout-out.

Ranvir Shorey is under-utilised as the supposedly all-pervasive Sodhi. Despite having vast resources and endless criminality at his disposal, Sodhi’s bark isn’t as powerful as his bite. Shorey is nevertheless superb in the handful of scenes that showcase his versatility.

Kanwaljeet Singh, the original ageless actor before Anil Kapoor was bestowed with the honour, has a lovely cameo as Sodhi’s coldly pragmatic mentor. Singh’s Inderji claims that he is supporting Sodhi’s candidacy because he is too old to contest the election – as if.

The series aims high even as it wallows in a cesspool of lies and betrayals. Each episode starts with a lofty quote by the 12th-century mystic Baba Farid. The novelistic writing has many solid scenes, which stand out on their own when plucked out of the narrative.

On the whole, though, Tabbar is far too overplotted to maintain coherence. The steadiness lies beyond the writing – in the heartfelt performances, in Arun Kumar’s Pandey’s desaturated and brown-dusted colour palette, and in the question that haunts Omkar’s morality-bending quest. Is the family worth saving? Too much blood has needlessly and inorganically flown by then to make the answer satisfying.

Tabbar (2021).