Filmmaker Vikas Bahl has emerged after being cleared of sexual assault allegations with a web series about excessive moralising, confirmation bias and pursuing the wrong man.
Sunflower, which is out on Zee5, is based on Bahl’s screenplay and has been directed by him and Rahul Sengupta. The thriller is named after a housing complex in suburban Mumbai. A murder via poisoning takes place within the opening minutes. The murderer’s face is revealed. The suspense in Sunflower revolves around whether the killer will manage to escape.
The police arrive, led by Digendra (Ranvir Shorey) and assisted by Tambe (Girish Kulkarni). The needle of suspicion points towards various characters, including the victim’s domestic worker and his neighbour Ahuja (Mukul Chadda), with whom he has waged a long war that began over a trifling disagreement about parking.
The most suspicious character is the eighth-floor resident Sonu (Sunil Grover). Sonu appears to be an adolescent trapped in the body of a 35-year-old man, the kind with whom women might hesitate to share an elevator. Sonu is diligent at work and something of a savant when it comes to chemical substances. But he completely lacks social skills.
Female specimens are all around Sonu – a colleague whom he secretly adores, an aspiring singer, and underclad social media influencer who announces her arrival at Sunflower by standing in the foyer and chugging on a cigarette. At least one of Sonu’s marks is severely turned on by his borderline psychotic behaviour. Risky is good and risky is sexy, she declares.
Even as Sonu navigates his tortured feelings towards people who don’t seem to understand him, the police bumble about, gazing at CCTV footage and photographs and attempting to make sense of conversations with the residents.
The murder weapon, which is hidden in plain sight, somehow never manages to leave the complex. Digendra has on a pair of very thick spectacles that don’t prevent him from seeing what needs to be seen. But even this razor-sharp officer misses the vital clues that would have wrapped up the proceedings much earlier than the allotted eight episodes.
Bias is the real culprit here, Sunflower suggests, blinding us to the truth. The over-zealous and bigoted building committee member Iyer (Ashish Vidhyarthi) tries to ensure that only people like him will be allowed to move into the complex. Muslims, divorcees, twice- and thrice-married couples, live-in partners, trans people – all of them are suspect in Iyer’s eyes.
The initial episodes balance the character sketches with the police investigation before losing focus halfway through. The later episodes are unevenly paced and frequently wander off-tangent, chasing after random characters when the focus should have been on wrapping up the case.
A handful of performances keeps Sunflower from wilting. Sunil Grover expertly handles Sonu’s ambiguities, balancing black humour with creeping creepiness. Mukul Chadda is impressive as Ahuja, a professor whose double PhDs and love for formal Hindi mask volcanic rage and contempt for his hapless wife (Radha Bhatt).
Ranvir Shorey deftly plays the stoic police officer for whom a routine murder probe becomes an obsession. Girish Kulkarni has a fun time as a ladies man who is easily distracted by non-clues.
None of the female characters makes an impression. Sexualised both by the characters and the screenplay, these women have their task cut out for them. At least they are better off than acting veteran Sameer Kakkar, who does himself no favours by accepting the role of a hypochondriac with a flatulence problem.
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