The new Netflix series CAT has sprinklings of the fairy dust of Bollywood and the soil of its Punjab setting. To a familiar story of a police informant worming his way up the food chain of a drug operation, writer-creator Balwinder Singh Janjua brings rich local detail and a rootedness missing from outside productions.
The most familiar face in the cast is Randeep Hooda, in blistering form as a Sikh motor mechanic with a tragic past. Having lost his parents to a militant’s bullets at a young age, Gurnam become an informant in the Khalistani movement for police officer Sehtab Singh (Suvinder Vicky).
Years later, when Gurnam’s brother is arrested for drug-running, Gurnam turns to Sehtab for help. Sehtab wants a return gift: he tasks Gurnam with infiltrating a cocaine racket run by the politician grandly known as Madam Aulakh (Geeta Agrawal) and her associate Shamsher (Jaipreet Singh).
Aulakh’s source of income – moving the powder from Pakistan to Punjab – is an open secret that is ripe for exposure. But Sehtab is hardly a white knight who wants to rid Punjab of its rampant drug problem.
Gurnam and the lowly policewoman Babita (Hasleen Kaur) are convenient pawns in Sehtab’s great game. Much of the tension in Janjua’s screenplay, directed by him, Rupinder Chahal and Jimmy Singh, derives from Sehtab’s machinations. Aided by his lackey Chandan (Pramod Pathak), Sehtab provides the link between militancy and the drug trade as well as Gurnam’s past and present.
While the drug lords, who operate from lavish homes and all but run a parallel government, might be the obvious villains, they have more honour amongst themselves than Sehtab. Suvinder Vicky, who played a conflicted truck driver in Ivan Ayr’s independent film Milestone, is CAT’s big cat. When tempers rise, as they often do, and the contrivances overwhelm the narrative, as is often the case, Vicky holds steady and sallies forth with understated venality.
Janjua crams into eight episodes strands about Babita’s Dalit Christian identity, the patent fakery behind police executions of militants and the secondary role accorded to women. Aulakh is humanised by her back story, just as her enforcer Shamsher has a moral code missing even in the likes of Sehtab.
Slickly shot by Arvind Krishna, the show attempts to address the decision to leave behind the mustard fields and fertile earth of Punjab for greener pastures – in this case, Canada. That is Sehtab’s eventual destination as well the country where a secret linked to Gurnam’s past resides.
The classic melodramatic structure necessitates soldering Gurnam’s childhood with his adulthood. Coincidences abound in what turns out to be a very small patch of a large state. Even as CAT counts down to a series of stand-offs and a second season, Janjua and his team ensure that the predictable ride has memorable travellers.
CAT has been filmed in Punjabi and is also available in Hindi, but it is best viewed in its original language. The secondary roles are staffed by a memorable array of local actors who lend the series authenticity. These include a delightful pair of twin hawala handlers – props to the casting company Anti-Casting for finding these gents.
The standouts include the lame drug dealer Mukhtyar (Sukhwinder Chahal) and Laadi (Dakssh Ajit Singh), a former wrestler who now works for Aulakh. An encounter between Mukhtyar and his young mistress Sweety (Coral Bhamra) that revolves around a samosa might make us look at the snack in a new light.