The best crime stories are embedded in their very specific context: knowing the victim’s history helps you understand why he/she was murdered. Nor is it ever the only one who dies; very often those who are left behind also experience some sort of dying.
Both history and geography are important indicators in Sudip Sharma’s atmospheric, beautifully realized drama ‘Kohrra’ which is as much a murder mystery as it is a poignant reading of contemporary Punjab and the Punjabi psyche: an NRI returned home to get married is found dead in the fields; his best friend is missing. The investigation by two local police officers Balbir (Suvinder Vicky) and Garundi (Barun Sobti) sets in motion an inexorable unraveling of family politics, hidden shame, male ego, unresolved childhood trauma, unrequited passion, tarnished love, hidden sexual identities, intergenerational enmity, and, yes, too much weaned patriarchy. It’s a lot, but Sharma (“Pataal Lok”, “Udta Punjab”, “NH10”) and its two writers Gunjit Chopra and Diggi Sisodia keep a tight grip on everything and bring us one of the best web series of the year.
One of the most impressive elements of the six-part series is the way the village becomes the place from which everything flows. The names, a mix of desi and videshi, immediately speak of origin: Steve Dhillon (Manish Chaudhary) who lived in London for several years is now back in his ‘pind’; his estranged brother Manna (Varun Badola) never had to make a name change to blend in with the ‘goras’, as he has remained a son of the ground. Steve’s late son is called Paul, and his stepson Liam: you wouldn’t know who was British India, and who was purely British, until you saw them. Returning home for an “arranged marriage” after young men have supposedly sown their oats is so commonplace it doesn’t raise eyebrows, even as the groom’s brutal murder splits everything wide open.
Reclaiming roots, once abandoned, carries risks: the series asks us, without actually putting it into words, can you come back home? The answers blaze highways with trucks traveling at killer speeds, and curves shrouded in morning fog (the kohra of the title with a double r) leading to fatal accidents, leaving us with devastated families and general misery. What we also see is a once invincible, proud culture struggling to keep its “pug” in the air, fighting the push and pull of the endless temptation of foreign lands and the readily available drugs, and the sprouting of different subcultures – young people talking about ‘Insta’ are alive, making ringing music in homegrown studios, dreaming of fleeing to another country and wondering who they are and who they ultimately want to be.
A series like this, which strives for authenticity, can be helped by perfect casting: these faces, some familiar, some fresh, look like they were born and raised in that village. They are all excellent: Chaudhary as the conflicted father who is blind to his distinctly different progeny; Barun Sobti as the lecherous ‘chhada’ (singleton) in a complicated threesome with his brother and sister-in-law, lashing out at suspects with his fists as easily as his tongue; Varun Badola (happy to see this great actor in a worthy role) as the younger brother who is seething with resentment; Amaninder Singh as Happy, desperate for validation from his father. And above all, Suvinder Vicky, so good at ‘Meel Patthar’, as the senior police officer, who digs deep to discover his softer side. Vicky’s Balbir, a whimsical map of repressed desire that shows he wants to be a better man, is the beating heart of the series to me.
There are some sparkling women in this collection of incomplete men. Balbir’s daughter Nimrat (Harleen Sethi) trying to get out of an unwanted marriage is a heartthrob you are looking for. Garundi’s sister-in-law plays a difficult role of a woman who wants more without us judging her: the actor who plays her is perfect. His ‘would-be’, a stubborn little thing who works in a nail salon, with ideas about himself. And Rachel Shelley (remember her as Aamir Khan’s dream wife in ‘Lagaan’) pops up here as a woman who raised a young boy and kept his secret inside her, until one day she can’t anymore.
Crime and punishment isn’t always a neat equation that goes hand in hand. Sometimes the things we do have a big footprint and we have to walk that path in search of redemption, never knowing if we will find it. “Kohrra” is about a murder, and yet it affirms life by the way it mines the truth.
Kohrra makers: Gunjit Chopra, Diggi Sisodia, Sudip Sharma
Kohrra Cast: Suvinder Vicky, Barun Sobti, Harleen Sethi, Manish Chaudhary, Varun Badola, Amaninder Singh, Rachel Shelley
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