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Farzi review: A well-mounted but protracted series

Raj & DK's new series is about a pair of upstart counterfeiters trying to move up in the world

Shahid Kapoor in 'Farzi'
Shahid Kapoor in 'Farzi'

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An artist who survives by selling cheap replica paintings of the old masters, decides to apply his talent to counterfeiting money. It’s a great benefit to Sunny (Shahid Kapoor) that his doting and idealistic grandfather Madhav (Amol Palekar) owns a printing press that publishes ‘Kranti’, a struggling, independent magazine that largely goes unread.

Madhav symbolizes the old guard, clutching onto the last vestiges of socialism in a rapidly transforming materialistic modern world. Sunny is also lucky to have childhood friend Firoz (Bhuvan Arora) in his corner. Firoz is skilled at hustling and also skilled at the art of printing. The first episode of the eight-part series (Prime Video) flits back and forth in time to give us Sunny’s back story and to the present and a little ahead to when he has a gun pointing at his forehead. But the narrative is not frenzied. There are long passages when we see Sunny’s struggles and his sudden decision that the best way to make money is by, quite literally, making the money.

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A meticulous and patient artist, it’s not long before Sunny’s impeccable masterpieces are noticed by counterfeiting kingpin Mansoor Dalal. Kay Kay Menon clearly enjoyed playing the wicked Mansoor, with his linguistic foibles and wardrobe that suggests he’s always dressed ready for a round of golf.

While Dalal is managing Sunny from Jordan, in Mumbai special investigator Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) is working with a special task force to bust the international counterfeiting racket. Michael operates by his own rules -- often bending them to suit his circumstance. He's duty-bound but not righteous, he’s abusive, often drunk but he’s also a hustler. He’s the best written, most interesting character of the show. Sethupathi expertly blends unflappability with mischief and doggedness, while also owning his physicality.

This protracted series, directed by Raj and DK, interweaves stories and timelines, but at times wobbles under the load of its lengthened screenplay (Raj, DK, Sita Menon and Suman Kumar). Some story threads feel dispensable—like Michael’s divorce proceedings, and the parody of a lawyer he hires.

Each episode is almost an hour long. The challenging narrative flow makes the first couple of episodes a slog. There's a detailed set up of worlds, characters and their motivations. There’s also a detailing of techniques of creating fake banknotes, a sort of step-by-step dummies guide to counterfeiting. Surprisingly, the counterfeiters don’t check the authenticity of the banknotes they receive as payment for their services.

The show gets a much-needed shot of energy infusion once Sethupathi strides into frame, in particular his banter with minister Gehlot (Zakir Hussain). Scenes with Hussain and Sethupathi bristle with repartee and abuse as they commit to a kind of marriage of convenience, unlike Michael’s real marriage which is falling apart.

Bringing in an additional front is RBI analyst Megha, a single working woman trying to make a mark and a home in Mumbai. Raashii Khanna gives Megha many shades yet, for a modern woman, she too easily accepts information and connections coming her way. In the age of social media, why doesn’t she deploy her stalking and researching skills? 

Over time, greed becomes a need. Sunny falls prey to his hubris. As Megha explains, “It’s not about perfection. When the counterfeiter starts thinking of himself as an artist, he wants to break the rules, he wants to leave his mark like a signature, and that obsession becomes his Achilles heel.”

As the lead, Kapoor is burdened by Sunny’s baggage. He lets loose rarely and reveals his vulnerable side selectively—mainly in scenes with his doting grandfather. He is on point in moments when Sunny is drunk on power and praise, but gets overshadowed by towering performances by Sethupathi, Palekar, Menon and a finely developed Firoz (note how his wardrobe and bling changes with every successful transaction). Arora deserved his moment in the spotlight, not performing merely in Kapoor’s shadow, while taking every cue from Sunny. 

Sly humour, drawn from observations of life are peppered through, including a hilarious chase through Mumbai’s bumper-bumper traffic and Dalal getting schooled about Vincent van Gogh’s work. These asides (Michael’s special unit it dubbed ‘Counterfeiting and Currency Fraud Analysis and Research Team or CCFART) are a refreshing break from upcycled tropes and bromidic storylines, such as the protagonist’s childhood pain and trauma, a get-rich-quick scam, doing something bad for a noble result, a cop who sacrifices his personal life for public etc. Besides the everyday cheeky jibes, the creators sparkle in the action and chase scenes, compositing camera, locations and music to thrilling effect. A few shots, like a car parked on an empty road against a barren landscape, and Sunny’s motivation, hark back to Breaking Bad, without that show's texture and craziness.

In all, Farzi is a well-mounted show that deep dives into the backrooms of counterfeiting crime and the pursuit of those criminals without providing adequate societal context or depth. The human relationships are mere placeholders, devoid of emotional heft, pivoting on characters who boomerang off situations.

After almost eight hours of viewing, padded with repetition, the climax is quick, bloody and abrupt, suggesting a second season. If there is a complex and surprising character who we may care to follow, it’s the mercurial Michael whose next move is genuinely unpredictable. Besides, with characters from The Family Man popping up and references to ‘Tiwari’, one assumes that the showrunners are teasing a universe of investigators/special agents.

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