It begins badly for Indian Administrative Service officer Avni, as it does for Dahan: Raakan Ka Rahasya. The Disney+ Hotstar series is a severely stretched yarn with a single skein: don’t dig too deep, for you never know what you might unearth.
Despite not having enough material for nine episodes – a full-length feature film would have worked just as well – Dahan overcomes its initial clumsiness to deliver an intermittently engrossing allegory about human greed.
Labouring under the twin shadows of a corruption allegation and her husband’s suicide, Avni (Tisca Chopra) requests a transfer to Shilaspura. A mining project in this village in Rajasthan has been stalled by protests. A section of the village, led by the messianic godman Pramukh (Saurabh Shukla), believes that the mine conceals the lair of a blood-thirsty demon.
Avni’s arrival in Shilaspura along with her sulky son Anay (Rohan Joshi), who blames her for his father’s death, quickly establishes two things. One is that the writ of the state doesn’t reach this lawless corner of India. Although the District Magistrate, Avni is treated with questionable contempt by the policeman Bhairon (Mukesh Tiwari) and a local heavy (Sidharth Bhardwaj).
The second revelation is that Avni has skipped the chapter in her IAS syllabus about winning the crowd. Imperious, abrasive and dismissive of local customs, Avni doesn’t exactly endear herself to Shilaspura.
Her only ally is the mine’s general manager (Jaimini Pathak), who can’t wait to start drilling. When the machines do finally burrow into the bowels of the earth, the sinister music that surrounds Avni only gets louder.
In the first of several meanwhiles, Anay gets involved with four other teenagers who are strangely unaffected by the pervasive chatter about a Moloch on the loose. Avni’s ornithologist friend Sandeep (Ankur Nayyar), who randomly happens to be around in Shilaspura at the same time as her, contributes his share to the action.
Vikranth Pawar has created and directed Dahan (The Burning). Pawar and writers Nisarg Mehta, Shiva Bajpai and Nikhil Nair mishmash a host of genres. There is plenty of occult behaviour, the suggestion of supernatural beings gambolling about, disorienting flashbacks to past events, warnings about unchecked ecological destruction, and chatter about the unforeseen effects of climate change.
It’s less complicated than the makers will have us believe. Despite hurtling from one conflagration to the next, Dahan is actually a simple story of rationality running into superstition that might have a basis in fact.
The mumbo-jumbo spouted by Swarup and his relative Parimal (Rajesh Tailang) is given far too much play over science, represented by Sandeep and the hospital doctor Kaushik (Naved Aslam). The series loses no opportunity to mine dramatic potential out of obscurantism, including bug-eyed exorcism rituals, characters who lose their bearings, and frightening visuals as Avni and Anay began to question their mental state.
If the ambition is to hold viewers in thrall, it is achieved not by the needlessly convoluted plotting but the impressive world-building. The evocative locations, convincing visual effects and Sunil Nigvekar’s rich production design do more to create an atmosphere of plausible dread than the writing.
Tisca Chopra, who is skilled at suggesting hidden depths beneath the surface, ably leads the sprawling cast. The memorable actors include Mukesh Tiwari, excellent as the double-dealing Bhairon, and Rohan Joshi, affecting as Avni’s accident-prone son.