Dahaad’s opening credits unfold as an unsettling montage of haunted Rajasthan. Most of the shots only last a few seconds. A man’s hand pulls away from a woman’s outstretched one. No men are seen after this, but the women—laughing, running, sitting around a barren bush—aren’t quite there either. Their faces are covered, and they keep vanishing from the frame. There are glimpses of decaying havelis, dolls hanging from trees, love graffiti scratched onto walls, a noose at dusk. It’s the show in precis: the ghosts of disappeared women haunting the parched sands and dark alleys of patriarchal Rajasthan.
It’s been a week of Rajasthan-set crime stories. Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah, playing in theatres, is an angry letter to bigoted India, as well as being an absorbing (if blunt) thriller. It’s another example of Rajasthan Noir, a sub-subgenre that includes the sublime Manorama Six Feet Under, the cop western Thar, maybe a bit of Gulaal. Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s new series flirts with this category as well, but soon aligns with another, more in-demand genre: the police procedural.
Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha) is first seen in judo gear, flipping over an opponent and trapping him in a vise until he taps out. This is the show letting us know the sub-inspector can break stuff—though it mostly just calls upon Sinha to look convincing barging into rooms holding a gun. She could probably take Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma) in combat if it came to that. The schoolteacher, who is quickly revealed to be a serial killer, is a wispy sort, mild-voiced. He doesn’t need force; he isn’t present for any of his kills, which are made to look like suicides.
A made-up case of ‘love jihad’ in the small town of Mandawa—the first episode really is an echo of Afwaah—points Bhaati and SHO Devilal Singh (Gulshan Devaiah) to another disappearance: a woman who’s eloped with a man named Vijay. Not long after, the woman is dead, the latest victim of Anand, who, under a variety of aliases, charms young women, has sex with them once, and then murders them. As Bhaati and Singh start to join the dots—aided reluctantly by sub-inspector Parghi (Sohum Shah), who's jealous of Bhaati's rapport with the SHO—they realise that their killer is responsible for over two dozen deaths, spread across various districts in Rajasthan.
The initial focus on religious xenophobia—it's worrying when lynch mobs assume a depressing familiarity—gives way to the show’s twin targets: patriarchy and the caste system. That it takes an uncommonly dedicated officer to notice that a number of young brides are committing suicide tells us everything about the state of gender rights in Rajasthan. Nor is it only the police’s fault: several parents tell Bhaati they don’t care what happened to their daughters, who they feel ruined the family name. The outright misogyny of someone like Anand is enabled by the everyday sexism we see. Even the determined Bhaati is relentlessly pressured for marriage by her mother. It’s so bad that Devilal is handed a thoroughly unsubtle subplot where—as the only good man in Rajasthan—he must stand up for his daughter’s right to go on a school trip. (Another scene offers a smart gender reversal: Parghi, who has recently found out he’s having a child, throws up violently.)
Caste is just as entrenched. Everyone knows Bhaati used to be Anjali Meghwal (a scheduled caste), and several people mention it. She’s a rare backward caste Hindi film/series lead, but it’s only her bullheadedness that allows her to push past the caste prejudices of people she encounters (it’s possible she’d have a tougher time if her superior wasn’t as progressive as Devilal). Significantly, Anand is an upper-caste man preying on lower-caste women. It’s another reason the crime spree has stayed under the radar; as Bhaati tells the sceptical Parghi, “If there was an upper-caste girl in the list, someone would’ve raised hell by now.“
Bhaati, someone who’s trying to leave caste behind, is more intriguing in theory than in practice, mostly because of the performer. Sinha works hard and has some forceful moments, but never manages to convey the sort of interiority actors should be able to over eight long episodes. When her character is upset, she scowls; when she’s really upset, she scowls some more. Sinha’s playing is so blunt she can’t even sell a readymade gag like turning up on a motorcycle in khaki uniform and shades to meet a prospective groom and his mother and scare them off. Shah, though, is dependably strong support as the morally conflicted Parghi—his struggles are more interesting after a point than Bhaati’s bluster. And Devaiah is wonderful as the film’s moral centre. As well as Sumit Arora’s Rajasthani-accented Hindi dialogue sits on Varma and Shah, it’s Devaiah’s musical line readings that gave me the most pleasure.
Dahaad may not have a magnetic Clarice, but its Buffalo Bill is nightmarishly effective. The show focuses on Anand’s murderousness to a disturbing degree. Varma, seen last year as the brutish antagonist in Darlings, is chilling as the shape-shifting murderer, adopting different personae to seduce his victims. In contrast to Sinha’s stolidness, Varma is in constant flux, with subtle changes in accent, inflection, demeanour. Anand’s whole life is a maze of switched SIMs and specific lies in specific places. Varma makes his resourcefulness terrifying.
Anand is as scary as Hathoda Tyagi, but Dahaad doesn’t try to be Paatal Lok. Instead, it reminds me of Delhi Crime, especially the second season, which followed both cop and criminal. Like the Netflix series, Dahaad moves with the leanness of a procedural, whereas Paatal Lok had the digressions and ambition of a novelistic drama. Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi’s direction is efficient without being commanding; I’d have welcomed an Akhtar-directed episode or two. And there’s a sameness to the proceedings once Anand’s methods are made clear.
Dahaad’s limitations are self-imposed: a show with this much going for it should reach for greatness instead of settling for a job well done. But it does raise a delicious question: what other magnificent monsters does Vijay Varma have in store for us?
Dahaad is streaming on Amazon Prime.