Beginners Guides is a series on Chime that aims to introduce readers to content in other parts of the world that they may not explore otherwise.
It’s been almost a year since Chime published the first part of its Beginners Guide to Hindi web series, and since then there’s been an avalanche of new Hindi-language dramas from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the Indian streamers.
Thanks to Covid-19 keeping us all indoors, I’ve been able to catch up with many of them, but also due to the virus, only those on Netflix and Amazon. I hear there are some interesting shows on Disney+ Hotstar and Zee5, but I’m unable to access them from Hong Kong. I also haven’t seen Rashbhari and Bandish Bandits on Amazon, as I had to stop watching at some point, otherwise this update would never get written.
Below I’ve selected the four shows that stood out for me, two of which are crime dramas and two set in rural India, a current fascination for India’s middle-class urbanites. Some of the other shows I watched probably don’t have the potential to cross over as they were either overly patriotic, fell victim to Bollywood tropes or were unsuccessful in their attempts to tackle gender issues. Netflix’s Taj Majal 1989 showed promise in early episodes, but in the final analysis was too inconsistent in its writing and production values.
One issue that disturbed me was the amount of violence depicted against women, in shows both good and bad, ranging from casual slaps to rape. As a foreign viewer, I don’t know if this is a true depiction of Indian society, if the writers involved are challenging or unintentionally normalising this violence, and whether web series are the best forum to explore this issue. What I do find encouraging is that we’re seeing more intelligent treatment of gender, sexuality, caste and religious discrimination in at least some the writing to emerge from India over the past few years.
PAATAL LOK (AMAZON PRIME)
Directed by: Avinash Arun, Prosit Roy
Created by: Sudip Sharma
Written by: Sudip Sharma, Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta
Produced by: Clean Slate Films
Starring: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Ishwak Singh, Niharika Lyra Dutt
Easily the best crime thriller to come out of India so far, this Delhi-set procedural revolves around a world weary cop who spies his chance for career advancement when four suspects are arrested in an attempted hit on a famous journalist. Working with a younger and more ambitious colleague, his investigation leads him to dusty towns in the Indian hinterland and encounters with political corruption that go all the way to the top. In the opening scene, he explains the meaning of Paatal Lok (a seductive netherworld in Hindu scriptures) to his younger colleague, but there is no more spoon-feeding from this point on.
Produced by actress Anushka Sharma, the series reunites her with Sudip Sharma, the writer of critically-acclaimed feature NH10, which she produced and starred in, and is co-directed by Avinash Arun who won a Crystal Bear at the Berlinale for Killa (2014). Acclaimed film and theatre actor Neeraj Kabi gives a solid performance as the journalist, but the show belongs to Jaideep Ahlawat as the cop, proving that we only need great actors, not stars, to carry these series. It’s an ambitious show, tackling issues including corruption, caste inequalities, discrimination against Muslims and other minorities, and the disturbing interplay between politics, media and big corporations. Inevitably, it attracted a backlash from right-wing Hindi nationalists who waged a campaign against it online.
The series isn’t perfect – with the exception of the female journalist who eventually sees through the older colleague she has an affair with, the female characters were written to be weak – the cop’s wife is conned by her own brother and the journalist’s wife is tiresomely anxiety-ridden. There’s also a rape scene that felt unnecessary and upset the Sikh community. But on the whole this show gives us an appetite-whetting taste of the quality of drama we can expect to see coming out of India.
PANCHAYAT (AMAZON PRIME)
Directed by: Deepak Kumar Mishra
Written by: Chandan Kumar
Starring: Jitendra Kumar
Raghuvir Yadav, Chandan Roy, Neena Gupta
Produced by: The Viral Fever, Contagious Online Media Network
Hindi web series pioneers The Viral Fever (TVF) teamed with Amazon Prime on this likeable comedy drama set in a dusty village in Uttar Pradesh. TVF veteran Jitendra Kumar plays Abhishek, an engineering graduate who has fluffed his grades to get into a prestigious IIM college, so is forced to take a government job as secretary of a panchayat (village council). From the minute he arrives at the rural posting, only to discover the key to his new home-cum-office has mysteriously disappeared and must be searched for in a field, Abhishek finds himself navigating a series of mundane and illogical endurance tests, all with the help or hindrance of the villagers who are portrayed as simplistic at times, quite definitely stubborn, but thankfully never as stupid.
Like many TVF shows, this is light-hearted satirical comedy, not an attempt to reveal the social inequalities of rural India, but the set-ups are fun without being overly cliched and the characters are engaging, from the panchayat chief (Raghuvir Yadav), who spies a potential match for his daughter in Abhishek but is concerned he’s not bright enough; the panchayat chief’s wife (Neena Gupta), who actually won the village elections but has handed the reins to her husband while still ruling the roost at home; and Abhishek’s assistant (Chandan Roy), who manages to dole out some good-natured advice between patronising comments from his boss. In the final episode, Gupta’s character has a moment of female empowerment of sorts. Abhishek never tries to be a hero, and while he learns to adjust, he also remains mostly self-interested and frustrated with his village life, so thankfully avoids falling into sitcom or “saviour from the big city” tropes.
THE FAMILY MAN (AMAZON PRIME)
Directed by: Krishna DK, Raj Nidimoru
Written by: Sumit Arora, Krishna DK, Suman Kumar, Raj Nidimoru
Produced by: D2R Films
Starring: Manoj Bajpayee, Priyamani, Sharib Hashmi
Another crime thriller based on the fun, if not totally original, premise of a senior agent (Manoj Bajpayee) working at a fictional offshoot of India’s intelligence agency, whose wife and kids believe he’s just a pen-pusher with a badly-paid government job. Different in tone to Paatal Lok, this Mumbai-set show pulls off the feat of being a humorous spy thriller, without resorting to slapstick, and simultaneously tackles some serious themes.
Bajpayee, known to international audiences for Gangs Of Wasseypur, mostly plays it right with the character of agent Srikant Tiwari, balancing humour, cynicism and the search for validation. The comedy is mostly derived from his family’s ignorance of his true role, predictable maybe, but there are some genuinely funny moments – such as when he’s shopping for sanitary pads for his daughter and uses high-tech surveillance software to hack into her phone – as well as some meme-worthy one-liners (privacy is a myth, just like democracy, jibes Srikant’s colleague). The series also has some well-executed one-take action shots – one involving a road chase culminating in a shoot-out in an abandoned mill compound, and another involving a group of terrorists breaking into a hospital.
While it falls into familiar territory by portraying young Kashmiris and Pakistani jihadis as the bad guys, it also casts a critical eye on discrimination against Muslims – we see a Muslim student being beaten up in a cinema for not standing during the National Anthem and Muslim meat handlers being lynched by Hindu cow activists. So while it’s not perfect in its depiction of terrorism in the region, it’s not totally one-sided like some other shows. Srikant’s wife is not just a nag but has her own storyline, with pressures, dilemmas and some big decisions that she ends up making by herself.
And yet somehow there’s just not enough tension throughout the series to keep you on the edge of your seat. While the pacing picks up when Srikant heads to Balochistan, the 10×50-mins format feels stretched, which is perhaps inevitable as writers figure out the best way to spin a story across what is still a relatively new format in India.
JAMTARA – SABKA NUMBER AYEGA (NETFLIX)
Directed by: Soumendra Padhi
Written by: Trishant Srivastava, Nishank Verma
Produced by: Tipping Point Films
Starring: Amit Sial, Aksha Pardasany, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Sparsh Shrivastav,
Monika Panwar, Anshuman Pushkar
Another tale of rural India, this 10×30-mins series is set in Jamtara, a small town in Jharkhand, that became infamous as the phishing capital of India (the title means Jamtara – everybody’s number will come). The story revolves around two cousins and a female associate running a phishing racket that attracts the attention of both a local politician, who wants his piece of the action, and an idealistic young policewoman trying to shut down the scam. Amit Sial, who plays the gangster, is the only known actor in the ensemble cast, which is guilty of a fair bit of over-acting, while the director, Soumendra Padhi, won a National Award for best children’s film with Budhia Singh: Born To Run in 2016.
The writing is occasionally simplistic, and the story never really delves into the logistics of phone-based scams, but the direction is crisp and the story structured in a way that keeps you watching. Foreign viewers should appreciate this introduction to small town India and what makes it click, with its complicated caste politics, ‘eve-teasing’ (i.e. rapey) young men with their get rich quick schemes and adoring mothers, but also smart women either fighting corruption or hoping to get their share of the spoils. At least the series has two strong female characters, on opposite sides of the law and class divide, but both fighting patriarchy in their own way.
Final observation or maybe a question as a foreign viewer – do people in small town India really swear as much as they do in this series? If one of the reasons you’re watching is to learn Hindi, as I’m doing, you will be sure to make a few choice additions to your vocabulary.