Some movies should actually be long-format shows to better showcase their themes and characters. Dahaad is an eight-episode series that might have made more sense as a film.
The Prime Video show marks Sonakshi Sinha’s debut on a streaming platform. But its dark star is Vijay Varma, who has emerged as the go-to actor to play a certain type of shady-slimy man.
Dahaad plonks the conventions of the American serial killer drama in Mandawa, Rajasthan. A bunch of women have died miserable deaths in public toilets across the state. Mandawa’s police station chief Devi Singh (Gulshan Devaiah) and his officers Anjali (Sonakshi Sinha) and Kailash (Sohum Shah) come to suspect college lecturer Anand (Vijay Varma).
The police force is busy chasing an inter-faith romance when Anjali begins to connect the dots between apparently unconnected cases. Anand – mild-mannered, an assiduous professor of Hindi literature, a devoted father and husband – is nobody’s idea of a misogynistic maniac.
Dahaad, which means roar, has been created by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar and directed by Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi. The screenplay, by Kagti, Akhtar and Ritesh Shah, ticks off a list of social evils that serve as motivating factors for the crimes as well as the character arcs. The backward caste-Anjali must confront casteism, sexism and pressure to get married from her harried mother Devki (Jayati Bhatia). There are occasions where Anjali’s very presence is resented on account of her background.
Devi Singh and Kailash too are given dysfunctional families to make them more interesting. Anand’s wife Vandana (Zoa Morani) is growing increasingly distant from him, since he is preoccupied with social work rather than the family.
These layers are barely enough to boost Dahaad’s ambitions for being more than a routine crime thriller. With the exception of Vijay Varma and Sohum Shah, most of the actors are too urbane to be convincing as small-town denizens.
Anjali, who rides a mean-looking motorcycle, has a scowl designed to scare children and walks about with her hands on her hips or in her pockets, is barely plausible as a cop in a provincial town that dances to the dictates of men. A moment of peak unintended irony is when Devki tells Anjali, who has a perfectly smooth face and perfectly arched eyebrows, to get a facial.
The show’s setting in one of the most ruggedly beautiful parts of Rajasthan – shot in subdued hues by cinematographer Tanay Satam – yields few insights into its patriarchal culture beyond the obvious. Alongside being the base for a monster as well as the crucible of women-haters, Mandawa is safe enough for Anjali to go on midnight runs.
The terrible violence that drives the plot and is supposedly the source of Anjali’s mission is barely conveyed by the portrayal of the victims. None of them seems to be following increasingly alarmist news reports of the serial killer’s exploits.
Although Mandawa appears to be the kind of place where everybody is likely to know everybody else, the serial killer’s antecedents, or important links between characters, remain hidden, waiting to be unearthed by Anjali. Her insensitivity towards at least one of the murderer’s intended victims (played by Prashansa Sharma) is an opportunity for character shading. It’s ignored in a show where Anjali is the designated driver of events.
Stripped of its virtue signalling-scaffolding, Dahaad works best as a dispassionate game about hunters and the hunted. The show is most alive in the moments when Anjali and her posse get closer to the actual killer, or when the murderer manages to scalp yet another victim. One character towers over the rest – not the righteous Anjali, not her accommodating boss Devi Singh, not the conflicted Kailash.
Vijay Varma’s Anand has a sweet smile and the manner of Amol Palekar’s characters in Basu Chatterji’s films. (There’s even a fun reference to Palekar’s get-up in Baaton Baaton Mein). With his discreet clothing and pleasing countenance, this murder suspect, who is beguilingly played by Vijay Varma, occupies centre stage in a show that is supposedly about women who have died mercilessly and needlessly.