Bejoy Nambiar perfectly captured “millennial teen angst” with his debut feature film, Shaitan, and it feels like he has been chasing the ghost of its success ever since that movie’s release. Given the success of Shaitan, everyone was looking forward to David, but that turned out to be a total mess. Wazir was somewhat okay, but it continued Bollywood’s long-standing misrepresentation of Kashmir. Solo suffered from the same issues as David. And then Nambiar entered the small screen with Taish, which was released as a movie and a web series, and both of them were equally bad. His segment in Navarasa was fine. The Fame Game had the potential to be amazing, but Nambiar didn’t capitalize on it. Since Sweet Kaaram Coffee didn’t interest me and I haven’t watched it, I’ll reserve my opinions about it. That said, I’ve watched Kaala, and I am here to talk all about it.
Kaala follows IB officer Ritwik Mukherjee in the late 2010s as he tries to connect a case of “reverse hawala” (when white money is turned into black money) to a wealthy businessman operating from West Bengal called Naman Arya. He and his partner (Soma) are attacked, and while Ritwik manages to survive due to some timely intervention by his team (Tara, Lobo, Himanshu, and CBI’s Danish), Soma perishes. Ritwik is in touch with his informant, who is actually the defamed soldier Shubendhu Mukherjee, who lives in Darjeeling with his daughter, Aloka, and his physically challenged wife. The reason behind Shubendhu’s defamation is that back in the late 80s, he and his battalion were tasked with putting an end to illegal immigration and smuggling activities between Bangladesh and India by closing a tunnel between the two countries. The operation went sideways and led to the deaths of two people. Three members of India’s border defense forces, Pradeep Sharma, Shashwat Roy, and Balwant Bir Rana, were benefiting from the Indo-Bangladesh relationship. So, they decided to take out the soldiers who put a stop to the illegal border activities. One of the immigrants, Bismil, decided to be kind that day because Shubendhu tried to save his brother, who was stuck in that tunnel, and that’s why Shubendhu survived the mutiny. Then, he began his quest for revenge against those who had killed his battalion.
The writers of Kaala—Nambiar, Francis Thomas, Pryas Gupta, Mithila Hegde, and Shubhra Swarup—clearly try to do a little bit of everything, and they end up doing a whole lot of nothing. Just looking at the politics of the show, sometimes they are aggressively pro-establishment as they hail the work done by the Investigation Bureau, the CBI, and the armed forces. Then, they suddenly become anti-establishment by showing some of the armed forces partaking in illegal activities. They try to portray immigrants with some form of empathy, and then they resort to the worst cliches imaginable. And that makes you wonder what exactly they are trying to comment on. Is there any point in this mess? My best guess is that the web series wants to highlight the problematic relationship between the two countries and how they help each other under the table while pretending to be against all forms of corruption on the surface. Are the writers critiquing this hypocrisy, though? I don’t know, and I don’t think that the writers are very sure either, as they keep oscillating between themes of international brotherhood, overt nationalism, anti-capitalism, using capitalism as revenge (?), and using the state machinery in good and bad ways.
I would’ve been okay with the messy politics of Kaala if it weren’t for the weird character writing. Its protagonist, Ritwik, just doesn’t have anything to latch onto. Since the web series is heavily inspired by Sacred Games, Ritwik is clearly supposed to be like Sartaj Singh. Now, Sartaj had a lot of moments where he thought about the state of the city, the nature of his job, and his relationship with Constable Katekar. In Ritwik’s case, everything that he gets to do is either wooden or expository in nature. He is clearly supposed to generate intrigue, but his angst and dedication have no depth. The same goes for Shubendhu. Throughout the course of the show, he goes through a convoluted journey. But the moment the writers need to add some complexity to the character, they shy away from it and return to twisting the narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, one of the antagonists of the show propagates the age-old “violent transvestite” trope that we’ve been seeing since Psycho. Bollywood has actually committed this crime three times this year: with Guns & Gulaabs, Haddi, and now Kaala. If you count Taali, all of these projects also feature cisgender actors pretending to be transgender characters. It’s a shame that this is still happening when Made in Heaven and Ghoomer, with the casting and writing around Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju and Ivanka Das, respectively, have proven that you don’t need to depend on such stereotypes for the sake of “entertainment.”
Much like anything that Bejoy Nambiar has made, Kaala is heavy on style. There is a lot of back-and-forth between timelines. There’s a lot of action, which involves car flips, hand-to-hand combat, hand-to-hand combat during a car chase, gun fights, mini-war sequences, and more. Everything is lit properly. The production design, the costume design, the hair and makeup design, the pacing of each episode—all of it is technically perfect. But does it elicit an emotional response? Unfortunately, in my case, no. As a person who constantly criticizes the washed-out look of web series, both national and international, I wholeheartedly acknowledge the care and effort that have been put into making Kaala look good. And I hope that every web series that is currently in production uses it as an example and actually injects some contrast, color, and dynamic camerawork into their stories. However, they should also take pointers from Kaala on what not to do while choosing between style and substance. There needs to be a balance, and that has never been Nambiar’s forte. And given how some of the music cues sound a lot like David, I don’t think he’s in the mood to evolve and mature. It looks like he’s still stuck in 2013.
Almost all the performances in Kaala are worthy of appreciation. Everyone in the cast is trying their best to portray their character as authentically as possible. Avinash Tiwary is one of the best actors in the business. He truly commits to any role that he’s in. He is quite convincing in his action sequences. Nivetha Pethuraj is good. Despite his limited screen time, Taher Shabbir manages to illustrate Naman’s arrogance. Elisha Mayor is the one who ends up being quite memorable. Maybe it’s because we get to see a major chunk of her character transformation happen in real-time instead of in flashbacks. Talking about flashbacks, Rohan Vinod Mehra gets the most screen time, and he tries to make an impression despite the hollow character writing around Shubhendu. Mita Vashisht, who is clearly playing a fictional version of a real-life Chief Minister, is there with a weird Bengali accent. The show has Mini Mathur and Shruti Seth, and they just come and go in the blink of an eye. Anil Charanjeet is all alright, as always. Danish Aslam is effortlessly great. Hiten Tejwani is okay. Saurabh Sachdeva is underutilized. Tanika Basu is pretty good. And the less I say about Jitin Gulati, the better. There are many, many more names, and trust me, they are all amazing.
In conclusion, Kaala could’ve been a good-to-average show about international espionage and corruption with a healthy dose of drama and action. But the harmful stereotyping ruins it all. So, I cannot recommend this show. All I can do is appreciate all the good stuff that’s in it and request that the showrunners do better in the future. If they want to represent any aspect of the LGBTQ+ community, they should act responsibly. If they don’t want to put in the work by casting transgender actors or at least by hiring consultants who can help them with representation, they should simply stick to cis-gendered characters and actors. This can sound like an excuse for them to regress under the garb of ineptitude. However, it’ll be better if they simply educate themselves before putting pen to paper.