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‘Poacher’ review: Methodical storytelling sold by a terrific ensemble

Nimisha Sajayan leads a stellar cast in this patiently built and ultimately rewarding series about elephant poaching in Kerala

Nimisha Sajayan in 'Poacher'
Nimisha Sajayan in 'Poacher'

The two most passionate members of the anti-poaching team in Richie Mehta’s new series have bird calls as their ringtones. With Mala (Nimisha Sajayan), a bird sanctuary official in Kerala, at least, it might be policy—natural sounds so as not to disturb nature. Alan (Roshan Mathew), though, is a computer engineer who moonlights as a snake doctor in Delhi. Yet, soft trills emanate from his phone too. 

The poachers carry their families into the jungle. One of them insists on taking along a photograph of his mother. Another’s actions are guided by the thought of his wife and son at home. Their brutal leader has his daughter’s smiling face pasted on the butt of his gun.   

Also read: ‘All India Rank’ review: The language of change

It’s details like these that make Poacher such an engrossing series. Of the major showrunners in India’s first wave of streaming, Mehta is the most modest in his approach. Delhi Crime, which he created and directed the first season of, was a new kind of Hindi procedural: patient, sober, with dozens of characters across cascading plot lines. Poacher is in the same vein, methodical, trusting of its audience, a triumph for casting director Mukesh Chhabra.

Neel Banerjee (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), an ex-RAW agent, is tasked with bringing a gang of ivory traders down after the death of 18 elephants comes to light. He pulls Mala out from the bird sanctuary; she brings in Alan. Babu (Ankith Madhav), a forest official, and tough, resourceful SHO Dina (Kani Kusruti) complete the core group, though others pitch in as the series slaloms from the forests of Kerala to the streets of Delhi, where a gallery owner named Poonam Verma (Sapna Sand) is suspected to be a major trader of ivory. 

The scope of the investigation is laid out in granular detail in the first half of the series. This is where it's useful to have a director who works hard to vary setting, tone and technique so all that plot goes down a little easier (the dance bar opening to one of the episodes of Scam 1992 is a great example). The first four episodes of Poacher are a series of strategy meetings followed by raids and interrogations followed by more meetings and raids. It’s done with care and skill, and the performances carry even the most exposition-heavy scenes, but I found myself wishing for a little variation. 

Happily, the show switches gears in the fifth episode with a funny, revealing passage. Alan, who’s kept his family in the dark about his involvement in a frankly dangerous investigation, is on his way to a wedding with his wife and son. He receives a typically brusque call from Mala telling him to drop everything and join a raid. Instead of risking another argument with his wife—whom he’s just made up with the previous episode—Alan sneaks out of the venue, bribes the driver, see the raid through to completion, and rushes back. A welcome spotlight on the sheepish charm of Mathew, and much more interesting than the stereotype of the crimefighter putting their family life and mental and physical health at risk for the job (as Mala and Neel do).

The next episode is even better, splitting into two timelines, one following the poachers on their hunt, the other the forest officials visiting the site some months later. They’re led there by Aruku (Sooraj Pops), whose confession kicks off the series. Pops is superb as the conflicted centre of both expeditions, a sympathetic character even before an unnecessary revelation about his son. So is Vinu Verghese, who has a single memorable scene as a gunsmith who coolly trades barbs with his dangerous clients. Mehta showed a knack for deft character sketches in Delhi Crime, and Poacher is full of them—a lazy SHO who snaps to attention with a phone call from his bosses; two supremely confident getaway drivers in Delhi; Neel’s superior, played by Denzil Smith, calmly dispensing uncomfortable truths, one being that “sustaining the market at low levels”—pruning tusks for a little ivory—might actually save elephant lives. 

All this deftness goes out of the window when the show is in Delhi. It’s mystifying, given Mehta’s familiarity with the city and his perceptive, if pitiless, portrayal of it in Delhi Crime. Everyone peppers their speech with random bhenchods. When a police captain complains about feminism ruining everything, the show is practically begging you to compare the backward north Indian and the enlightened Malayalis sitting across the table. Alan and Mala are called ameerjaat (rich kids) and told to order or get lost, something a Delhi waiter at a roadside dhaba would only say if they had a deathwish.  

The depth of the cast allows for pleasing matchups: the soft and harsh tones of Mathew and Bhattacharya meshing; Amal Rajdev’s menacing Morris stared down by the equally formidable Kani Kusruti. There isn’t a lazy turn in the entire series, but Poacher nevertheless benefits from the forcefulness of Nimisha Sajayan in the lead. Sajayan is unlike any other Indian actress I know, incapable of making overtures to the camera, always getting to the point. No matter the film or the part, there’s a fierceness to her playing, reflected in her flashing eyes. She rages at everyone in Poacher—colleagues, superiors, bystanders, strangers. But there’s no affect to her anger. She just doesn't have time for your bullshit. 

‘Poacher’ is on Amazon Prime.

Also read: Welcome to the jungle: Richie Mehta on ‘Poacher’

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