Vishal Bhardwaj’s career-long pursuit of cool takes him to a cold place in his latest outing. Himachal Pradesh is the setting for Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley, in which a young woman with little experience in detecting discovers her inner Hercule Poirot while attempting to rescue her boyfriend.
The cigar-puffing, insouciant Charlie is heralded by the show’s title song, sung with cranked-up gusto by Sunidhi Chauhan. The song gives out Charlie’s address, suggesting that this freshly minted sleuth is here to stay.
Charlie arrives in Manali following the arrest of her boyfriend Jimmy (Vivaan Shah) for the murder of his uncle Meherban (Gulshan Grover). Meherban’s will shuts out his family in favour of his fiancee Nicole (Emily Ackland). It’s an open-and-shut case for policeman Narayan (Ghanshaym Garg), but Charlie has her doubts.
Charlie’s suspects include Meherban’s brother Mohan (Lalit Parimoo) and sister-in-law Janki (Neena Gupta). There is Jimmy’s kin to consider, such as Manas (Chandan Roy Sanyal), Billu (Imaad Shah) and Saloni (Paoli Dam).
The wheelchair-bound gossip Bharucha (Ratna Pathak Shah) can’t be ruled out either. Are the ghazal singer Begum (Lara Dutta) and her daughter Wasima (Bhagyashree Tarke) really who they say they are?
Charlie’s rambling investigation gets a sounding board in the form of Meherban’s Army buddy Barua (Baharul Islam). Rabblerousing journalist Sitaram (Priyanshu Painyuli) initially annoys and then impresses Charlie.
Bhardwaj’s six-episode series for Sony LIV is based on Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, a skillfully plotted study of monumental pettiness. The show has every intention of paying fulsome tribute to Christie, but gets waylaid by its inability to create tension or even a basic sense of anticipation.
Bhardwaj has previously retooled the works of William Shakespeare and Ruskin Bond or written scripts based on actual incidents (Talvar, directed by Meghna Gulzar). His upcoming movie for Netflix, Khufiya, is also based on a spy novel.
The composer-filmmaker is happiest when working with previously published material. He is also a consummate director of actors, apart from being a devotee of drollery. Charlie Chopra has a fine ensemble cast (including the entire Shah family) that revels in the deft character shading provided by Bhardwaj and co-writers Anjum Rajabali and Jyotsna Hariharan.
When everybody is having so much flippant fun, who cares if a murderer is on the loose and the plot is dragging? Irreverence abounds in this corner of India, where money is short and memories of previous slights are long.
Much of what passes for suspense is supplied by cinematographer Tasaaduq Hussain’s desaturated, wintry tones. If the hanging out with interesting people trumps the actual investigation itself, it’s surely intentional.
Charlie frequently breaks the fourth wall, Fleabag-style, to address her thoughts directly to viewers. One of the most inventive uses of this device finds Charlie inserted into a well-known Hindi movie that is also set in a cold place.
Casually modish with distinctive tics, oozing preternatural wisdom and manly control at all times, Charlie is so fully formed that her delay in finding the killer is a separate mystery. Confidently played by Wamiqa Gabbi, Charlie has the lion’s share of scenes.
Gabbi doesn’t overstay her welcome, but there are times when Charlie’s nonchalance pickles into smugness. Charlie’s identification of the culprit is based as what comes off as guesswork, rather than any rigorous sleuthing.
Among the other actors who turn out impressive performances whenever permitted are Chandan Roy Sanyal as a sleazy writer, Neena Gupta as a careworn spouse, and Baharul Islam as the victim’s loyal friend. Ratna Pathak Shah has a couple of hilarious scenes in which she puts on a Parsi accent. Priyanshu Painyuli is excellent as Charlie’s charming factotum.