Doubts smell. People who are lied to in Tabbar — a Punjabi crime drama streaming on SonyLiv — don’t accept statements at face value. A man assures his neighbour the gunshot he heard was just the sound of a too-full washing machine, but the neighbour isn’t convinced. A kid brother is certain his elder brother must be fibbing about not bringing him a new phone. A friendly policeman asks more follow-up questions than is convenient. Doubt hangs in the air like a faint but persistent stench, and everyone looks to be sniffing. Something is rotten in this story from Punjab.
Set in the bylanes of Jalandhar, Tabbar tells the story of Omkar Singh, a retired policeman living in modest comfort with his wife Sargun and sons Happy and Tegi. Happy, the apple of his parents’ eyes — their house is named ‘Happy House’ — is on his way to becoming an IPS officer. All appears peachy. Till one night, a boy in an imported tracksuit rings the doorbell.
We haven’t seen a series like this. A profoundly detailed Punjabi series, Tabbar lets us into the minds and motives of its characters. Created by Harman Wadala, every episode opens — and is thematically constructed around — a doha by mystic and poet Baba Farid. This is the tale of a descent into darkness, and of drugs. A tale of the impossibility of a cover-up.
Tabbar is a triumph of atmospherics and filmmaking. Director Ajitpal Singh highlights textures not only of the region but of wrinkled brows stretched back by tight pagris, of parathas rolled into son-sized bites. The treatment is desaturated and washed out, creating a fly-on-the-wall authenticity. No bright colours, and — when it comes to these characters — even fewer bright ideas. All is scratched, used, yellowed. Heat and dust. Turbans and tribulations.
The characters are superb. Here stands Sargun, teaching neighbourhood kids, hoping her own sons will learn to tidy up their messes, telling herself a new coat of paint — and prayers — can whitewash all. There trembles Omkar, a former cop who finds himself on the other side of the law and realises that’s where his groove may have been all along. Here is Ajeet Sodhi, a ruthless politician whose wrath feels righteous. There is Sunil Mahajan, keen to blackmail a friend to provide a dowry for his daughter, and here is his daughter Palak, refusing to believe her boyfriend Happy could do anything wrong.
Happy is widely considered an achiever. “Woh hai great,” his brother Tegi says grudgingly, as if its an inevitable statement of fact, even as the “he is great” elder-son expectations drag Happy down. Tegi happens to be wearing a shirt saying “Tu Mera Bhai Nahin Hai,” renouncing his brother even subconsciously. Nobody is named as ironically as their cousin Lucky, a bright-eyed cop whose ambitions are thwarted by his assignments: asked to bring achaar for his senior’s lunch, he shows up instead with ideas and theories. When a seniors acknowledges his smartness — “munde da dimaag hai” — you can almost see Lucky’s tail wag.
Paramvir Cheema plays Lucky with a winning smile and gorgeous guilelessness, and despite mammoth performers relishing these meaty, telling parts, he steals the show. As the de facto hero in a series made up of troubled characters, he wears honour neatly, like a fitted brown shirt that could belong to a police uniform even when it doesn’t. Supriya Pathak’s Sargun is the first point of relatable entry for the audience, wide-eyed and warm, by turns wishful and guilty. Ranvir Shorey is frightening as Ajeet Sodhi, while Ali Mughal is magnetically intense as his enforcer Multaan. Gagan Arora makes Happy always seem pale and panicked, and Sahil Mehta’s Tegi finds the right blend of slack-jawed and exasperated.
Omkar Singh is played by the great Pavan Malhotra — that marvel from radical films Bagh Bahadur and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, but also the sitcom Nukkad — and the hungry actor sinks his teeth into this series-shouldering part. Omkar has a history with hesitation, but while we do (momentarily) see his fist pause as it hovers over an onion, deceit suits him. He takes to crime with gusto, breaking into a dane when he finds himself. He isn’t covering up, he’s showing off.
Despite craft, this eight-episode series eventually convulses under the weight of poor plotting, and the finale is too prosaic. A show this well made deserved a more elegant story. It should either have been elaborately intricate with a brilliant plot, or far straighter and unburdened by contrived twists. Tabbar borrows the pacing and messiness of the Coen brothers’ brilliant debut Blood Simple, a film about the many complications of murder, but loses itself in weak plotting, sometimes illogical and often convenient. It gets the Blood part right but misses out on keeping it Simple.
Yet while I was frustrated by the end — particularly the simplification of Omkar Singh’s character and all avoidance of his own inner demons — Tabbar stayed with me. A man who washes his feet but can’t bring himself to enter a Gurudwara, a man who sets an alarm on his wristwatch to give his wife her insulin shots, a Sikh shopkeeper accused of turning into a baniya, and a father looking at his son and just saying “Sorry, yaar.” They are all one, and we are all multitudes.
There is poetry in details. A boy meeting a drug-dealer gets a phone call from his father and asks the dealer for gum to cover his breath. The dealer offers him a clove instead. This is Jalandhar, and boys — including ones dealing smuggled drugs — know when they go to touch their elders feet, they should smell right. Right enough, at least, for both boy and elder to pretend things are fine.
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Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.