Good soup is about more than its ingredients. In Killer Soup — a new Netflix series directed by Abhishek Chaubey — Konkona Sensharma stars as Swati Shetty, an aspiring chef who toils throughout the show’s eight episodes over just one dish, a mutton paya soup. She has the ingredients but she doesn’t have the balance, and this may also be said for this series. On paper, Killer Soup has a sharp director, a smashing premise ripped from the headlines, a superlative ensemble cast playing off each other, a riot of flavourful accents and whimsical twists, and yet…
In 2017, a woman in Telangana killed her husband, then poured acid on her lover’s face in an attempt to pass him off as the husband. This is a news story wild enough to justify a true-crime thriller, but Chaubey — along with co-writers Anant Tripathi, Harshad Nalawade and Unaiza Merchant — went wackier not only by adding a soup-maker to their cauldron, but by casting the same man — Manoj Bajpayee — as the husband and the lover, the victim and the imposter. Add to that an obnoxious elder brother, a principled young policeman, an ambitious niece, and an old cop tripping out over a book of poetry.
That weatherbeaten cop is super. Played by the legendary Tamil actor Nassar, Inspector Hassan is a curmudgeonly veteran who likes his ice cream soft and his liquor local. Weeks away from retirement, he’s wondering what to make of this strange case where bodies keep piling up. Valiantly barrelling forth with his mulligatawny-accented English and Hindi, the Inspector attempts to make sense of plot and poems. It’s the part of a bumbler, but Nassar — so natural when grimacing to hold his breath around a corpse, so delightful when saying the word “khansama,” meaning ‘chef’ — gives it a clumsy gravitas.
Bajpayee is less fortunate. He plays the overbearing Prabhakar Shetty, all burping and bravado, as well as the passive Umesh Mahto, a masseuse with a squint in his eye, but the actor doesn’t get much besides reaction shots: he looks awestruck, he looks shocked, he looks nervous. Whenever allowed to actually do something — like when Umesh quickly and slyly massages the arm of a bouncer trying to beat him up — Bajpayee does well but the script doesn’t give him enough. As an actor, he seems limited by passivity… some actors make a meal out of reactions. Bajpayee merely bides his time.
Sensharma, on the other hand, gets everything. Her fiery eyes flashing with improvised determination, the actor makes Swati Shetty intriguing right from the start. She wants to cook, she wants to love, she wants to succeed. We accompany Swati as she dons a burkha, calls herself ‘Manisha Koirala’ and proceeds to put on a variety of brave faces. Despite such a meaty part — and a characteristically faultless performance — the character feels like a misfit. Like someone from a sadder genre who accidentally fell into this comedy.
The most memorable performance comes from Lal, the Malayalam cinema veteran, playing a heavy called Lucas. Sayaji Shinde plays his colourful boss, Arvind, and has a blast throwing his weight around, but Lucas is the real lion, with his basso profundo voice and his disconcertingly magnetic eyes. Other hard to forget performers are Vaishali Bisht as Mehrunissa, the wizened old cook, and Anbuthasan as the rookie policeman Thupalli, all earnestness and Robert Frost.
There are a few intriguing ideas — like a Hindu woman on the run causing a witch-hunt for a ‘mysterious’ woman in a burkha — but they aren’t really taken anywhere. A vaguely incestuous relationship seems so forbidden even by the writers that they quickly write a way out by telegraphing an upcoming familial twist. Instead, we get characters saying anachronistic lines like “Tera yeh ponzi scheme nahin jamta,” and clichés like coroners eating while standing over corpses.
Perhaps aware that Killer Soup is hard to swallow, Chaubey — a subtle director with a deftness of touch — this time spoon-feeds his audience. This is a mad and freewheeling series, and should have been a densely-plotted dark comedy on the lines of Carl Hiaasen’s novels. Alas, plot machinations get bogged down by repetition, by over-explaining and by relentlessly underlining hints that would be better hidden in plain sight. This is quite a watchable show primarily because of its performances, but it hurts because it could have been great. Maybe if it was boiled down to 4 or 6 episodes instead of 8?
The plot mostly works, and the outrageous twists and convenient coincidences are par for the course. Unfortunately the show never gets the tone right. With sentiment, as with sea-salt, a little goes a long way, but Killer Soup, not content to throw its characters on the boil, feels obligated to show them crying and defeated and beaten, heading into prolonged emotional and even melodramatic sequences just when the plot needs to get a move on. Thus the episodes feel overlong and there is a sense of inevitability to the proceedings. That doesn’t feel like Chaubey, who made us read between the lines in Dedh Ishqiya or Sonchiriya—it feels more like someone reheated a bowl of Sriram Raghavan soup in a microwave.
The show is beautifully shot and art-directed, with cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan making a fictitious village town come alive. It also features fireflies, the collective noun for whom is a sparkle. There are very many bright and shiny moving parts in this Killer Soup, but the show rarely sparkles. The issue may be one of over-seasoning. Too many kooks may have spoiled this broth. One would do well to remember that having a fly — or a firefly — in the soup isn’t a feature. It’s a bug.