Indian streaming shows came into their own this year. A list like this, for instance, was scarcely conceivable in previous years, with but one Sacred Games or one Made In Heaven. In 2020, Indian storytellers upped their game and threw up several worthy — and nearly worthy — contenders, giving audiences new heroes (and anti-heroes) to root for.
In a year without theatres, streaming shows and actors did better than movies and movie stars. These are encouraging signs. Local audiences are getting used to new kinds of storytelling, and as we binge more Indian content, creators will realise increasingly effective ways to slake our thirst. It is important also to note that while we have stepped forward, there is a long way to go. Every Indian series, for instance, can only play for second place in the subcontinent — the Pakistani drama Churails (on Zee5) is in a whole other league.
Pratik Gandhi (Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, Sony Liv)
The nation is smitten by stockbroker Harshad Mehta because of Gandhi, an immensely likeable leading man with an almighty smile. Scam 1992 eulogises Mehta, but Gandhi doesn’t hide his greed, unscrupulousness or hubris. As his worlds (and markets) crumble, Gandhi’s eyes narrow ever so slightly while trying to exude nonchalance. Only after all hope has faded does he raise his voice.
Sushmita Sen (Aarya, Disney+ Hotstar Premium)
Aarya Sareen’s life unravels with the assassination of her husband — cops and extortionists come calling, her house is ransacked, the puppy is slaughtered. Aarya is dumbstruck, but as de facto head of business and family, cannot show weakness. The show is about taking charge, and Sen does this with a gradual, leonine grace. Her silences are remarkable. From the way she embraces a laptop screen to the way she tries (and fails) to stifle her giggles at hearing about her son’s first kiss, Sen makes Aarya tender enough to feel real.
Best Supporting Actor
Ishaan Khatter (A Suitable Boy, Netflix)
Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s classic was the crushing letdown of the television year. Yet, through the mediocrity and the self-lampooning accents, one actor drew attention in ways both dashing and unexpected. Khatter’s Maan — a wastrel who falls too deeply for a courtesan — is both effortless and earnest, defined by his youthfulness. A natural actor, Khatter charms the screen and, crucially, conjures a roughness around the edges, making his character feel still-unformed.
Best Supporting Actress
Neena Gupta (Panchayat, Amazon Prime Video)
In Panchayat, Gupta plays a housewife who shouldn’t be one, an elected village leader who lets her husband govern instead. Her Manju Devi appears sporadically at first — as if willing to leave the screentime to the husband as well — but Gupta shines as she expresses her conflicts and concerns. The high point of the series is Gupta learning (and memorably tripping over) the words to the national anthem, but the actress even makes a moment out of her choice to sing.
Best Ensemble Cast
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story
Casting director Mukesh Chhabra was the true star of Scam 1992, cannily peopling the show with unfamiliar, interesting faces alongside experienced old hands in uncharacteristic roles. Shreya Dhanwanthary as journalist Sucheta Dalal, Rajat Kapoor as CBI investigator Madhavan, Mithilesh Chaturvedi as Ram Jethmalani, Raghav Raj Kakker as Dalal’s uncredited source… the actors bring Scam 1992 alive.
High (MX Player)
The idea is dynamite. Written by Nikhil Rao, Emil Thomas and Nishant Goyal, High is about an ‘anti-drug,’ a white powder that looks like cocaine — and can be consumed the same way — but brings about meditative clarity, thereby finishing off drug addiction. It is all very Indian, from hill-side plants to Naxalite scientists, and the idea feels thrillingly organic.
Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime Video)
Based on Tarun Tejpal’s novel The Story Of My Assassins, this intense series written by Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra offered a grim look at the crime and casteism thriving in India. The writing ambitions are grandiose — nine episodes seem to be built around Dante’s nine circles of hell — and Sharma and his team are uncompromising, even brutal in taking us to the edge of the damned.
Best Original Music
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story
Woof, that Achint Thakkar theme tune! Not only does this addictive, electrifying, vaguely sinister theme set the mood for the show but it dictates it, giving Harshad’s sinewy climb up the ranks a certain tempo. Super.
Aarya leaned heavily on classic film songs, starting with an ill-fated character’s fixation with Bade Achche Lagte Hain from the 1976 film Balika Badhu. The song becomes a motif, an emotional trigger for the series, while other vintage gems are all used beautifully: the playful Akele Akele Kahan Ja Rahe Ho from An Evening In Paris, for instance, plays when a young girl is abducted in the dead of the night.
Most of Paatal Lok is set in the shadows, and the cinematography — by Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami — is powerful and evocative, focussing on the monsters there are while strongly implying those monsters that can’t quite be seen. It is also special just how the camera gazes at every expressive wrinkle and scar on leading man Jaideep Ahlawat’s face.
A sensationalist TV reporter desperate to prove she’s a journalist. An assassin even better at talking than he is at killing. A small-time drug dealer who listens to local rappers and records his own hip-hop song. And finally, a former junkie trying to… break good. The characters and strands in High are peculiar, and director Nikhil Rao weaves them together well, creating an unpredictable narrative with several points of momentum, several parallel highs. This show tells more than one story.
Most of the top shows can only be recommended with caveats: Paatal Lok is superb (except for the bits in English), Scam 1992 is stirring (but repetitive, constantly positioning Harshad as underdog), High is the cleverest show of the year (but the first episode is a pain).
By contrast, Panchayat — about a city boy flung into a village, into the humblest of administrative positions — may initially appear too simple, but this show written by Chandan Kumar has a fair bit to say about masculinity, rivalry, the ambitions of the herd, and about an India most of us might not know well enough. With its unassuming, unimpressive hero (a delightfully insecure Jitendra Kumar) the show shines a light on many a home truth. Sometimes a chair isn’t just a chair.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.