The underbelly of Mumbai – the crime, corruption and poverty that flourishes under the veneer of big-city life – has sparked the imagination of many storytellers. The latest work of fiction to shine a light on Mumbai’s dark side is Hankaar.

The 10-episode show, released on the Hungama Play app on July 27, was announced in 2015 as India’s first thriller web series. By the time it was launched, however, the show had many predecessors, including Netflix’s Sacred Games, Amazon Prime’s Breathe and Zee5’s Zero KMS.

The part-crowdfunded show, with many fresh faces, comes at a time when big stars and major production houses have thrown their hats into the digital content ring. Ironically, that relative anonymity is one of Hankaar’s few plus points – clearly a passion project, its existence somewhat democraticises an increasingly commercialised web space.

The show has been directed by Sanjay Bhatia, Ravi Iyer and Yogi Chopra.

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Hankaar (2018).

Hankaar purports to explore five ordinary people whose lives are thrown into disarray by one powerful man. However, the protagonists are hardly everyday men and women. There’s James (Sharda Nand Singh), a drug addict and dealer, Joy (Ram Menon), a coder and hacker, Mangesh (Prammod Sanghi), a security guard for an underworld kingpin, Nisha (Yogini Chouk Borhade), a social worker, and Pradeep (Rajesh Balwani), a broker. Of the lot, Pradeep, a real estate agent who gets conned into investing in a crime-tainted project, is the closest to ordinary. Nisha’s back story, of a former sex worker who devotes her life to rescuing others, is perhaps the most fully realised, but far from run-of-the-mill.

At the opposite ends of this ragtag bunch are a criminal and a cop – the dreaded gangster Zubair or “Z” (Ujjwal Chopra), whose paths the ill-fated protagonists cross, and Central Bureau of Investigation officer Sandesh (Sanjay Bhatia), who is dedicated to closing in on Z’s network even if he has to risk life and limb in the process.

Other recurring characters are thrown into the mix, some of them given much screen time that eventually comes to naught, thereby distracting from the plot.

Hankaar. Courtesy Hungama/via Facebook.
Hankaar. Courtesy Hungama/via Facebook.

The show begins with the kidnapping of the five protagonists and then goes back in time to examine how they got entangled in Z’s web. This storyline is crowded – there is a protracted investigation, an elaborate underworld network with its own inter-personal rivalries and family drama, and a nexus of drugs, human trafficking and real estate. Cyber crime and references to the dark web are also added in.

As a result, the show doesn’t really move ahead, even though there’s lots of action in its 10 episodes.

The non-linear narrative and the piecemeal structure – where things unravels bit by bit, leaving viewers confused for the most part – is ambitious, but perhaps better suited to a movie with a captive audience and a limited run-time. There’s a fine line between suspense and lack of clarity. While the former is essential to a thriller, the latter makes it hard to stay glued to the screen. The writing leaves much to be desired, the background music is sometimes jarring and the editing is patchy. The performances are uneven, with only a few of the newcomers hitting the mark.

Hankaar tries to add its own flavour to an overused plotline, but that might be its failing. It has been planned as a multi-season show, but to end the first installment with more questions than answers is a risky wager. Eventually, Hankaar, though watchable, is ultimately let down by its own ambition.