The title of the first episode of Raktanchal is “The Bad Blood”, but it could easily have been “Love Me Tender”.

Government officials are going through the motions of opening up a lucrative project to public bids. The game has already been rigged in favour of gangster Waseem Khan (Nikitin Dheer). That is the way it has been for years, and this year is no different. Wads of money are handed out to the officers concerned, who have presciently come to work with extra bags.

But what do we have here? There is a spoke in the wheel who is going to ruin the well-oiled arrangement. Waseem Khan finally has competition in the form of Vijay Singh (Kranti Prakash Jha). Vijay wrests the contract from Waseem, kicking off a war of attrition that lasts nine episodes and has enough firepower left over for a second season.

The period is the 1980s, when access to government contracts made all the difference between power and poverty. The setting is Purvanchal, the region in eastern Uttar Pradesh that is, in the popular imagination, fertile ground for crime, corruption, crude guns and an even cruder vocabulary.

Nikitin Dheer in Raktanchal (2020). Courtesy MX Player.

Waseem has been running these badlands and controlling everything from brewing liquor and coal mining along with minister Pujari Singh (Ravi Khanvilkar). Business-like in his ruthlessness and ruthless when it comes to business, Waseem’s brutal ways have percolated down to his troops. One of them was responsible for murdering Vijay’s father. Vijay chucks a promising career in government service and devotes his life to hunting down Waseem.

It’s a flimsy excuse for a blood-fest, and it can be argued that Vijay is a tad too sensitive – after his first few scalps, he tends to blubber. Vijay eventually grows into his new role. Backed by his supportive uncle Bechan (Chittaranjan Tripathy) and cousin Chunnu (Basu Soni), Vijay begins to beat Waseem at his own game.

The story has been developed by Sanjeev K Rajat, Sarvesh Upadhyay and Shashak Raai. Ritam Srivastava has directed the carnage. The pace is fast and almost breathless as Vijay sets himself up. It helps to be speeding by overly familiar sights, including piles of maimed and murdered bodies and compromised politicians. The profanity-riddled dialogue quickly runs out of imaginative ways to insult ancestry, and settles for two over-used words that are used to denigrate women in shows of this type.

Unsurprisingly, the only female character of consequence is a honey trap. Surprisingly, she turns out to be one of the better-written characters. Seema (Ronjini Chakraborty) and her lover Katta (Krishna Bisht) become vital members of Vijay’s posse. Their romance is among the few genuinely tender spots in a narrative that is low on emotion and high on sensationalism.

The goal is simple and thus easily achieved – to pile on the shocks and hope that some awe is created in the bargain. Among the sights we could have been spared is a godman having his fill of earthly pleasures and a knifing at a religious site.

Raktanchal (2020).

The leads are well cast, with each playing to their strengths – Nikitin Dheer as the broad-chested and calculating strongman, and Kranti Prakash Jha as the soulful challenger. And yet, as is often the case in sagas about bitter rivalries, the secondary characters make a better impression. While Vijay gets a back story to justify his actions, Waseem isn’t extended the same courtesy. Neither character evolves from the moment we first see them, glowering in their respective corners and aching to land the first blow.

Ravi Khanvilkar is in good form as Waseem’s crooked government stooge. Raktanchal properly perks up with the entry of Seema and Katta. Also making a mark is Waseem’s hot-headed enforcer Sanki Pandey, played by Vikram Kochhar with gusto.

The series gains ground once the pretence at character shading has been shoved aside. Waseem proves that he is no pushover, coming up with inventive ways to corner his enemy. The series is too much in thrall to Vijay to acknowledge that he doesn’t always know what he is doing, but his bumbling allows the makers to ratchet up the tension. What price, vengeance? The makers have a second season to think about whether Vijay is indeed the hero that Purvanchal deserves or a damp squib.

Ronjini Chakraborty and Vikram Kochhar in Raktanchal (2020). Courtesy MX Player.