In London, far away from her Adivasi origins and at a safe distance from her activist father, Priya Das (Faria Abdullah) is pursuing a career in financial technology. But when her father goes missing, Priya rushes back to Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Swatantra (Pavitra Sarkar) is presumed to have been captured by the Naxal rebel Kadey (Deipak Sampat), a theory Priya believes until she cannot.
A mining company managed by the sinister Srinivas (R Badree) has taken over Jengaburu, the Das family’s village. As a child, Priya was told an origin story about a dragon king who sleeps beneath the surface and must not be awakened at any cost. In the present, juddering machines and explosives are slowly destroying Jengaburu, extracting a commodity so mysterious and so cursed that we are left with a pile of corpses after seven episodes.
Nila Madhab Panda’s show for Sony LIV is based on his own story and written by Mayank Tewari. Panda lays on the conspiracy thick, unleashes Alokananda Dasgupta’s ominous score, and conjures up a scenario that lies somewhere between just-about-credible and are-you-serious outlandish.
You need to understand the difference between truth and narrative truth, Priya is told when she digs deeper into her father’s disappearance. Among the people Priya meets is Ravichandran (Nasser), who works for a non-profit and ensures police protection for Priya. Although this is actually a way to keep an eye on Priya by the corrupt cop Padhi (Shrikant Verma), she does find an ally in her personal security officer Ram Kumar (Sukumar Tudu).
Priya also runs into Panigrahi (Makarand Deshpande), a Binayak Sen-like doctor who runs a charitable clinic, and his wife Lata (Maninee De). Swatantra’s student Dhruv (Sudev Nair) is an Indian Administrative Service officer who flaps about ineffectively. Beatrice (Menalie Gray) is a foreigner hanging around in Bhubaneshwar for reasons that become clear later.
In terms of its treatment of Adivasi concerns as well as the issues that surround mining in India, The Jengaburu Curse is far ahead of Aar Ya Paar (2022), in which an Adivasi becomes a hitman for a mining corporation before turning into its nemesis. The Jengaburu Curse is far better attuned to the corruption, crushing of civil liberties, and destruction of Adivasi habitats that accompany the exploitation of lucrative natural resources.
Swatantra is labelled a trouble-maker for his efforts to oppose the mining operation. Panigrahi is similarly swatted away when he exercises his curiosity.
In one of the most effective sequences, Adivasis desperate for water raid a series of trucks, but find something far worse than the precious liquid. That something is teased out gradually, and not always elegantly.
Since the show is constructed as a thriller, it becomes a slave to the genre’s elements. Convenient plot turns, heightened drama and overly lengthy scenes characterise Priya’s transformation from clueless daughter to fearless truth-seeker. Events build up a crescendo that beggars belief.
The series under-delivers despite working far too hard. A cleaner narrative that dispensed with the need to deliver shocks every episode might have been far more effective.
Panda scores in his handling of his sprawling cast. A host of well-cast secondary actors, many of them strangers to the streaming universe, line up to boost the show’s credentials.
As Priya, Faria Abdullah puts on a spirited show. Some of the other actors are impressive too, from Makarand Deshpande as the community doctor to Sukumar Tudu as the only policeman with a conscience.