The Great Indian Murder review: Much ado about nothing

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The Great Indian Murder , #Tigmanshu Dhulia, #Vikas Swaroop Six Suspects

Pratik Gandhi delivers an even, assured performance as a compromised CBI officer in ‘The Great Indian Murder’. (Image: screen grab/Disney+Hotstar)

Towards the end of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s The Great Indian Murder, we see one of its stock characters—let’s call him The Bureaucrat (played by Raghubir Yadav)—in the rarefied arena of a Delhi art gallery, navigating gargantuan installations inspired by the Mahatma. The Bureaucrat is cardboard depraved by age-old Indian standards: Excessively fond of single malts, seducing women years younger than he, and money. Within seconds of his arriving at the gallery, a series of exhibits accidentally collide against each other and a heavy rod plonks on his head. The Bureaucrat thumps down, and before he realises it, he sinks headlong into a spilt personality—he is messianic Gandhi one second and his old unscrupulous self in the next.

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The series, loosely structured around a plethora of stock characters—besides The Bureaucrat, there’s The Tribal, The Politician, The Henchman, The Brat Villain, The Actress, The Thief, The Outsider, The Wounded Sister, among others—has, at this point, through the split-personality bureaucrat its most stinging embodiment of the loose-limbed satire inherent in the story, adapted from Vikas Swaroop’s novel Six Suspects.

Toggling between such satire and stylised melodrama, The Great Indian Murder, adapted from the book by Dhulia, Vijay Maurya and Puneet Sharma, closely hews the sprawling, playful canvas of Swarup’s novel. Perhaps a bit too closely. The dilated architecture of a novel, in this case a novel full of stock characters and zigzagging from settings as diverse as Delhi’s seedy underbelly and its farmhouse jet-set coiled like a labyrinth, to Chhattisgarh, Jaisalmer, a tribal hamlet in the Andamans and Kolkata, doesn’t sit well with the screen adaptation.

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The series is muddled and wearying despite its high energy and some flourishes of visual inventiveness—as if straining to meet heavy expectations. Also like the book, it errs more on the side of broad hi-jinks rather than loftiness or profundity; and yet, fun eludes most parts of it. The labour in the comic is too obvious. Think of it as a Bollywood-style board game, only an excessively cluttered one. Towards the end, I was more preoccupied with figuring out the plot twists and where they are leading to and coalescing in order to solve the central mystery, rather than going along for an enjoyable, immersive ride. 

The story in a nutshell: Almost all the stock characters attend a party at which The Brat Villain (Jatin Goswami), son of The Politician (Ashutosh Rana) who is the home minister of Chhattisgarh, is celebrating his acquittal in the case of the murder of two young girls inside a hotel suite booked in The Brat Villain’s name. Somebody shoots The Brat Villain and he dies on the spot in the middle of the open-air party. By the end of the first season of nine episodes, we realise that two of those stock characters had a gun at that gathering—and they had motives. Dhulia maps the clues leading to the possible shooter by exploring the backstory of the prime suspects and those in their specific universes, all of which links back to the politician family. 

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It is easy to get sucked into the claustrophobia and theatrics of it all. The characterisation is hyperbolic with some strokes of genius and sauciness in their grain, and the violence has some operatic notes. That’s expected of Tigmanshu Dhulia, a director seasoned in the gangster mould and North Indian bluster that is seamed in to most Indian gangster sagas. The narrative and visual schemes have a deliriousness and intriguing frissons of mystery seen earlier in some of Dhulia’s best works as a director—Haasil, Charas, Paan Singh Tomar and the three Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster films. 

Besides the emergence and ascendance of new acting talents, the OTT era has thankfully somewhat shattered the Indian filmmaker’s dependence on the good-and-evil, black-and-white characters to create hits. Like in most web series and films on streaming, characters in The Great Indian Murder derive their appeal from being morally bankrupt or ambiguous. As the series unfolds, the layers beneath the stock characters unfold. The actors have grist and graphs to work with. The cast has some impressive performances. Rana is competent as always as an ageing politician desperately holding on to his power. Richa Chadha as a resilient and tough-talking investigating police officer has some electric moments. Pratik Gandhi, who was so memorable in Scam ’92 as Harshad Mehta, delivers an even, assured performance as a compromised CBI officer. Shashank Arora as the wronged common man is equally impressive. 

Actor Mani plays The Tribal, the most loveable character in the story. While all the others have their venal motives, Eketi, an Andaman native in search of the statue of a god stolen from his indigenous Andaman island community, has an unsullied heart. He is the Other or the Outcast. He can love a woman whom nobody will look at because of her acid-burned face. Amid all the engrossing guile and intrigue, The Tribal, used as a pawn and projected as a criminal Naxalite to protect the high-profile mainland characters, is the emotional centre of The Great Indian Murder

While murders pile up, the powerful seem to get perilously close to their goals. The climax throws up another twist, which is possibly left to be solved for a second season. In the end, after meandering through the dizzying expanse of characters, milieus and settings, The Great Indian Murder feels more like much ado about nothing than the gratifying satire-meets-crime thriller it is meant to be.

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