Hotstar Special’s latest web series City of Dreams establishes its broad themes within the first few minutes. The series opens with a sprawling view of Mumbai’s Marine Drive, but the focus soon shifts from the beauty of the promenade to the violence on the city’s streets. Three shots are fired, blood is spilled – and the troubles are just beginning.

The series, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, explores the fallout after a prominent Mumbai politician is attacked days before a major political rally. The assassination attempt on Ameya Rao Gaikwad (Atul Kulkarni) triggers a bitter war between his children: son Ashish (Siddharth Chandekar) and daughter Poonam (Priya Bapat). As blood ties are tested, a lot more blood is spilled.

City of Dreams, produced by Kukunoor Movies and presented by Applause Entertainment, was released on Hotstar on May 3, in the midst of a particularly heated election season in India. In the real world, politicians swat away scam allegations with ease, but in the fictionalised representations of the Indian polity, power and corruption openly go hand-in-hand. City of Dreams too offers a take on politics that is largely familiar – as a ruthless world where each character can outdo the other in the dirty tricks department and friends turn foes in a matter of minutes. The show has been written by Kukunoor and Rohit G Banawlikar.

The protagonists are iterations of characters that have been seen often on the screen. There’s Ashish, Ameya Gaikwad’s mercurial son and designated heir. With his father battling for life, Ashish steps up to fill the resultant political vacuum, but his trigger-happy ways threaten to undo Ameya’s years of hard work. The stakes are high – Ameya was set to transition from Mumbai politics to the national capital – so his aide, Jatin (Uday Tikekar), decides to prop Poonam up for the throne.

The daughter, who had been wrenched away from politics by Ameya and forced into domesticity, taps into her suppressed ambitions. Ashish, meanwhile, gets support from Chief Minister Jagdish Gurav (Sachin Pilgaonkar), and the tussle between bother and sister devolves into a proxy war between major political players.

This sibling rivalry has been at the centre of the show’s promotional material, but it takes a long time to come into view. The initial focus, instead, is on the investigation into the attack on Ameya. That plot is headlined by Eijaz Khan’s Wasim Khan, a tough-as-nails but hard-on-times police officer. Wasim Khan, once a renowned encounter specialist, has been sidelined over the years for reasons unknown and finally finds a case to match his talent.

As Wasim pokes relentlessly at multiple threads to get to the real culprit, he has to contend with several stand-in villains till the mastermind emerges. As the messy worlds of crime solving and politicking combine to create double the muck, a ray of light is offered in a sub-plot involving a prostitute, Katrina (Amrita Bagchi), and call-centre employee Gautam (Vishwas Kini). Their romance doesn’t contribute much to the story, but becomes a lens through which to view Mumbai as a city of both opportunity and oppression and offers some respite from the bleak moral universe of the show.

The number of supporting players and diversionary sub-plots leave little room for individual performances to shine, but Bapat and Pilgaonkar bring a strong screen presence to their roles. Chandekar has some strong moments as the hot-headed Ashish.

The attempts to weave in larger socio-political concerns – references are made to Ameya’s anti-Muslim views and Wasim’s quasi-demotion in the police force because of his religion – remain under-explored. The whodunnit factor musters marginal levels of investment, but City of Dreams works best when it sticks to the political intrigue, a strand that achieves lift-off a little too late in the game.

Eijaz Khan and Sachin Pilgaonkar in City of Dreams. Courtesy Hotstar
Eijaz Khan and Sachin Pilgaonkar in City of Dreams. Courtesy Hotstar