By Uday Bhatia
Mohan Rawat (Lalit Parimoo) is a big Hindi film fan, to the extent that he offers Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh as alibi. The night of the murder of his brother, Brigadier Meherban Rawat (Gulshan Grover), he was in a movie hall, watching Teesri Manzil. But he hasn’t thought things through, and amateur sleuth Charlie Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi) soon has him mixing up Prem Nath and Prem Chopra. It’s very Vishal Bhardwaj to set an old Hindi film trap. But it’s also true that this six-episode series, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, falls into traps as easily as Mohan does.
The biggest of these traps is Charlie breaking the fourth wall. She does it seconds after we’re introduced to her, and in almost all her scenes after that. This is more fourth-wall-breaking than is good for one’s health, and it's particularly distracting in scenes where suspense is building. Though it's an old comic device, Charlie’s direct line to the viewer is almost certainly Fleabag-derived. It’s not that Gabbi does it badly (it’s especially smooth in the scene where she’s putting the moves on a fluttering Vivaan Shah), but the frequency is a problem. Fleabag made an old chestnut seem new; Charlie Chopra flogs it like a gimmick.
At a séance attended by Mohan, his wife, Janki (Neena Gupta), their ailing son, Varun (Pulkit Makol), Varun's cousins Saloni (Paoli Dam) and Billu (Imaad Shah), Saloni’s husband, pulp novelist Manas (Chandan Roy Sanyal), neighbour Ms Bharucha (Ratna Pathak Shah) and ghazal singer Begum (Lara Dutta), Brigadier Rawat’s death is foretold by a psychic (Naseeruddin Shah) via the suddenly manic Waseema (Bhagyasgree Tarke), Begum's daughter. His army buddy Colonel Barua (Baharul Islam) immediately sets off in a blizzard to his home to check on him. Sure enough, he’s dead, bludgeoned with a bottle. A suspect is soon arrested: Jimmy (Vivaan Shah), Billu and Saloni’s brother, the last person to see his uncle that night.
Enter Jimmy’s fiancé from Patiala, complete with her own theme song. Charlie knows Jimmy’s family well enough to call his uncle and aunt ‘mama’ and ‘mami’, but she nevertheless happily sets about poking holes in everyone’s stories. Like Vijay Varma’s inspector in Jaane Jaan—and unlike Vidya Balan’s jumpy sleuth in Neeyat—she visibly enjoys her work, sharing her deductions and revelations with the audience. As the various individual histories come to light, the brigadier is revealed as a charismatic but cruel man, with more than a few enemies and a fortune many felt they had a rightful claim to.
Charlie Chopra could easily have been a dysfunctional family drama instead of a murder mystery. There’s none of the breathless urgency of Sherlock or the Branagh Poirot films. The plot turns on cultural arcana—the ability to recognize if someone is a disciple of Begum Akhtar, for instance—rather than things like post-mortems or fingerprints. The atmosphere is cozy, with characters rolling joints, making tea, unwinding by the fireplace in old Solang Valley houses. It’s a gamble to do a Christie adaptation as a hangout show—minimal running or yelling or killing, just Charlie talking to everyone and to us until it’s all clear.
There’s some charm to this approach, but also an Ocean’s Twelve lassitude, a feeling that not everyone’s operating at full capacity. Ratna Pathak Shah is sharp as ever and the lilt in Baharul Islam’s voice is lovely. Priyanshu Painyuli, playing a muckraking journalist who teams up with Charlie, is a delight. But there are actors who seem to be phoning it in (an unhappy-looking Imaad Shah) or are awkwardly cast (Dutta). The fifth episode, with an interlude in Lucknow, just falls apart. Tassaduq Hussain has been a wonderful cinematographer for Bhardwaj, but the dour, flat look of some of the indoor scenes isn't easy on the eyes.
Bhardwaj and Gabbi have collaborated on a couple of short films, but this is their first extended project together. Their partnership makes sense—Bhardwaj loves performers who can add eccentric touches and Gabbi is all arched eyebrows and knowing glances as Charlie. It’s a confident comic turn in search of better writing and fewer imposed gimmicks (besides the fourth wall shenanigans, Charlie says ‘behen di lakkar’ once every episode). This is Bhardwaj’s first series as director; it has his imprint, but feels underdeveloped, thin. He has another thriller out next month, a film called Khufiya, with Tabu, Ali Fazal and Gabbi. Maybe that’ll be more of a painting. Charlie Chopra feels like a sketch.
‘Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley’ is on SonyLiv.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED27.09.2023 | 10:26 AM IST