The thriller is becoming a hot favourite genre for web series makers – and it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell the resultant offerings apart. The latest series in that space, Eros Motion Pictures and Humari Film Company’s Smoke, is cast in the same mould as some of its predecessors including Zero Kms and Hankaar, which shine a light on an underbelly of drugs, crime and corruption.
Set in Goa, the show follows the activities of a Russian drug lord whose turf is threatened by enemies outside and within. Starring Kalki Koechlin, Amit Sial, Gulshan Devaiah, Mandira Bedi, Jim Sarbh and Tom Alter, the series, directed by Neel Guha, was released on the video-on-demand platform Eros Now on October 26.
Despite a host of well-known actors who are also associated with edgy cinema, the show fails to live up to its credentials, offering nothing particularly new or interesting. Spread over 11 overlong episodes, Smoke examines the chaos that ensues after two members of Moshe Barak’s cartel are murdered in what is taken to be an open declaration of war by a rival gang. Instead of fighting back, the ruthless Barak (Alter) says he will strike a deal with the rival Duman network, so that they can split profits and avoid more bloodshed.
However, it turns out that there are far too many players clamouring for a piece of Goa’s drug pie. The Russian gangster has to contend with rivals from across India and the world – including Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Kashmir – and even his own aides. To complicate matters, Barak’s gang is also being closely watched by the police force, led by the no-nonsense Pereira (Satyadeep Mishra). Other recurring characters include Neil Bhoopalam’s deaf-and-mute chef Savio, and Luke Kenny in a mysterious role.
The show groans under the weight of a cluttered plot and has more characters than it can do justice to. It also doesn’t help that some of its actors have played similar roles in earlier web series. Mishra, who played a corrupt cop in Zero Kms – which too centres on drugs and crime in Goa – looks like he walked out of one set and on to another, shifting his moral compass along the way. Girish Kulkarni, who played sinister minister Bipin Bhonsle in Sacred Games, dons the politician’s hat once again in Smoke, this time as the tough-talking chief minister of Goa who intends to clean up his state.
The darkness of the series is also unrelenting, with the body count of the first episode alone clocking in at five. The palate is almost always gloomy and the background score alternates between sinister and psychedelic. The show also lacks heart, a character or a sub-plot that could provide intermittent respite from the macabre and raise the emotional stakes for the viewer.
Things brighten up somewhat when Gulshan Devaiah’s Jairam Jha or JJ, a hitman from Bihar, enters the fray. Devaiah is the only actor who fully commits to his role and adds a dash of humour to his guileless mercenary, bringing some much-needed levity to the show. He is well matched by Amit Sial’s Pushkar, a mercurial gangster and the son of Barak’s business partner, Bhau (Prakash Belawadi).
Koechlin, who plays Tara, a DJ and Barak’s mistress, seems lost in the plot. Most other actors do a passable job, but they are unable to elevate the sagging plot. Smoke does take more coherent shape sometime halfway through, but it never becomes edge-of-the seat thrilling or nail-bitingly suspenseful. It chugs along from one deception and plot twist to another, becoming mildly engaging and mildly intriguing, but never adequately fulfilling. A glimmer of a pay-off is offered in the 90-minute-long season finale, however – if one manages to stick around that long.