“Do you know what is the tragedy of our Punjab?” Sub-Inspector Balbir Singh drunkenly asks his rookie partner Garundi in one scene. The two cops, played by Suvinder Vicky and Barun Sobti, often get together for a series of soul-baring sessions over late night drinks in Netflix’s new crime drama, Kohrra. These are the best scenes of the show, devoted entirely to developing character and little else. When Singh laments the state of Punjab, he doesn’t wait for Garundi to reply. “It’s our ‘mitti pao’ attitude,” he says, finally expressing his guilt for serving a corrupt system for so many years.
We often complain about it how the crime genre is treated in mainstream Hindi-language cinema. Far too often the public is subjected to scenes of empty violence, or plot-heavy stories populated by cardboard cutouts and no real people. Singh’s sentiment is directed against corrupt superiors who, in his view, have left Punjab in a drug-fuelled, crime-ridden disarray. But it might as well apply to the angle-focused mindset that dominates our movie industry, where storytellers are more often than not more concerned with producing stuff than actually working on the material and making it better. Created by Gunjit Chopra, Diggi Sisodia and Sudip Sharma, Kohrra is the rare Indian crime drama crafted with clear thought, and one scene, more than any other, illustrates his willingness to face the truth and his eyes not to turn away from It.
In episode six – the last chapter of the first season – Garundi walks into the prison to inform a suspect that he is free to go. Garundi along with Singh have just solved a murder case they had doggedly investigated over the course of the season. An NRA man named Paul had been found with his throat slit in a field. The son of a wealthy businessman, he was days away from marrying a woman he had apparently only met once. Singh and Garundi were under immense pressure to solve the mystery lest the Punjab Police be mocked again for its inefficiency.
Their first job was to round up the usual suspects and ring the bell. Garundi gladly volunteered to do the dirty work. In the course of the investigation, they detained a local musician, a small-time drug peddler and a truck driver. While each of them was involved in the case in some way, none of them were responsible for Paul’s murder. And after our two protagonists finally got to the bottom of it, it was Garundi’s responsibility to release the suspects.
When he tells the musician Sakaar that he is free to go, he is met with tears of disbelief. Sakaar had not long ago been mistreated by Garundi, denied his rights and imprisoned despite being innocent. The camera pans slowly to the truck driver and then to the peddler, acknowledging how easily the crime could have been attributed to one of them. And no one would have questioned it. But then Garundi does something you never see in shows like this. With sincere regret, he apologizes to Sakaar.
“Sorry yaar,” he says, as director Randeep Jha lets the scene breathe and feel the emotion at its core. Sobti’s silent performance speaks volumes. Not only does he feel remorse for his careless actions, it’s almost as if he sees another life flash before his eyes, one where he was the junkie, thrown into the pen through no fault of his own, pleading for dignity. . Garundi, like so many others in Punjab, could have jumped ship and started a new life abroad. But for various reasons he had to stay behind. Much of what he does on the show, which elegantly explores the mass exodus of youth from a drug-ravaged state, stems from this frustration. How often do we see ‘issue based’ Indian films sacrificing their characters on the altar of politics, or let the issue itself take center stage? But Kohrra does not do this. In this era of ‘copaganda’ entertainment, it dares to ask the hard questions; questions that are not just limited to the realities of Punjab, but are characteristic of India as a whole. And it does this through its characters; we see the world through their eyes and experiences, not the other way around.
“Don’t go after respectable people, blame the junkies,” Singh says in disgust in that ‘mitti pao’ scene, before advising Garundi not to make the same mistakes he made in his life. “You only get three to four chances in your career, don’t miss them,” he says. It is one of the few moments when the otherwise reserved Singh verbally acknowledges his mental state. Normally, the filmmakers rely almost entirely on Vicky’s gray face to talk. They are not afraid of lingering close-ups and long moments of silence. And the actor, who was so magnificent in Meel Patthar, brings that same haunted hopelessness to Singh here.
He looks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; his eyes, it seems, have seen terrors unspeakable. Correctly solving this case and thereby mending his broken relationship with his daughter is his only chance for repentance and redemption. Unlike Garundi, who is only violent towards innocent prisoners, Singh has a history of domestic violence. His behavior, we are told, prompted his wife to commit suicide. The show doesn’t forgive him for past sins, but it certainly takes the time-bound approach to this storyline. However, there is a sense that Garundi can still be saved; he can avoid succumbing to the toxic masculinity and generational trauma that consumed his boss. Time passes, wounds heal, the ‘kohra’ seems to dissolve, so to speak.
Post-credits sceneis a column in which we dissect new releases each week, with a particular focus on context, craft and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate on when the dust settles.
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