The new MX Player web series Samantar is just what we need as we self-quarantine while waiting for the coronavirus contagion to abate and the cinemas to re-open. Made in Marathi and dubbed in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, Samantar (Parallel) is the overwrought but watchable saga of a man who grapples with a self-fulfilling prophecy. It begins in a slum in Mumbai and continues onwards and then downwards into a rabbit hole that threatens to swallow its main subject. The first season lasts nine episodes, and ends on a cliffhanger that holds out the promise of further twists and more gainful employment for the cast and crew.
The series marks the streaming debut of Marathi star Swwapnil Joshi and hit-maker director Satish Rajwade (2013). One of their biggest money-spinning collaborations was the college drama Duniyadari (2013), based on popular writer Suhas Shirwalkar’s novel. Another of Shirwalkar’s tales is the basis of Samantar, in which a man realises that he is living a life that has already been led by another man.
Kumar (Joshi) is down on his luck, and can barely make ends meet (don’t let his perfectly coiffured hair fool you). Kumar’s friend and colleague Sharad (Ganesh Revadekar) drags him to an astrologer (Jayant Savarkar), who refuses to reveal his future. I have read this palm before, the astrologer says, causing the already-sceptical Kumar to lose his cool.
Kumar’s fate and future turn out to be linked to Sudarshan Chakrapani, a mystery man whose whereabouts are unknown. It takes a while for Kumar to get onto Chakrapani’s trail – the brief for screenplay writer Ambar Hadap seems to have been to ensure that events spill into a second season.
The series kicks into gear once Kumar gets onto Sudarshan’s trail, which takes him out of Mumbai to Panhala and elsewhere. Kumar’s hapless wife Neema (Tejasvini Pandit) is understandably befuddled by Kumar’s sudden movements, and begins to despair as he heads off into unknown territory.
Jittery hand-held camerawork and dramatic close-ups heighten Kumar’s plight, while ominous music and forays into scary-movie territory ratchet up the tension. Kumar’s escalating hysteria, conveyed by Swwapnil Joshi through a set of fixed expressions, peaks when he finally meets his older doppelganger. Sudarshan is played by an actor whose identity must remain concealed for the purposes of this review, even though eagle-eyed viewers who have the habit of scanning the credits will spot his name even before he comes into view.
The web series format has liberated the makers from the restrictions usually imposed by commercial releases. There is a judicious use of profanity, some intense lip-locking and no intrusive songs. Despite a fair amount of time-wasting behaviour in the first two episodes, Samantar gains some pace as it piles on the mysteries. The final episode ends just as it hints at the philosophical ramifications of a spiritual double and the ethical consequences of trying to alter destiny. Will Samantar explore Kumar’s the Mephistophelean strivings to know what the future holds and shape it in ways that will benefit him? Will it take jabs at the practice of astrology and superstition? We somehow doubt it, but as John Lennon memorably said, tomorrow never knows.