An investigative thriller that happens to be a period drama may bring positive results if the narrative is written and executed well enough. Sacred Games, in the recent past, was the only web series that dealt with both genres effectively. Even though the first season lived up to expectations, the second season was kind of a letdown. Kaala, created and directed by Bejoy Nambiar and Shubhra Swarup, presents this crime investigative saga that spans over three decades. The show is a Disney+ Hotstar Special that was released on September 15, 2023. Kaala is the story of a massive money laundering ring and the cat and mouse chase between law enforcement agencies and the businessman running this racket. In that process an IB officer comes across a cold secret that might change his perception of things around him.
Ritwik Mukherjee, an officer with IB Kolkata plans to arrest Naman Arya, the waste recycling king of the city. Business and charity work are just the front end, while his actual line of work involves carrying out reverse hawala. Naman Arya is arrested and questioned for sending truckloads of black money to Bangladeshi rebel forces illegally through the border. As the case intensifies, Ritwik is thrown into the dark when he learns about the identity of the informer who was feeding him intel about Naman Arya and the syndicate he was involved in. The story is partly a period drama spanning the 1960s and 1980s, when Major Subhendu Mukherjee was accused of being a deserter and traitor. Subhendu was allegedly involved in the deaths of his battalion, which was a part of Operation Ricochet. Subhendu’s life ever since has been difficult. The connection he makes with Ritwik after thirty years forms the crux of the show.
The trailer for this seven-part series never hinted at Kaala being a period drama. This show begins on a sour note because the characters are introduced in a subpar manner. This affects the viewing experience and the overall engagement factor. The screenplay of the show is messy, and it only gets worse as the show reaches its climax. Many subplots were introduced as the show progressed, but most of them remained inconclusive. The same subplots have many loopholes that were not addressed by the writers of the show. The setup of the show feels tacky in many places, it is hard to ignore how little to no effort was put into a decent execution of an already sloppy screenplay.
The writing of the show was all over the place, and it was hard to understand what the makers were trying to convey. The writers of the show try to showcase the armed forces in a gray light, but beyond a certain point, nothing is added to amplify this subject matter. Certain characters were introduced, but halfway through, there was no clarity on their arc.
Ritwik’s relationship with his mother is explored only in bits and pieces. There is no proper explanation or reasoning behind this relationship getting complicated. The same could be said about Ritwik’s anger towards his deceased father. The man was absent for most of his formative years, and his frustration post a big revelation is not explored with enough depth and emotion. Somehow, his reasons for being angry couldn’t be justified.
Shakthi Arya’s character, at one point, speaks about struggles and hurdles to becoming a powerful money launderer. She confidently speaks about her strenuous journey to be accepted as a transwoman. But her struggles cannot be used to justify the crimes she committed in the past and in the current timeline of the show. Shakthi Arya was known as Balwant before transitioning, and she is the only character in the show who has any degree of complexity. She went from following orders to becoming one of the most powerful ladies in a huge crime syndicate.
The writers again let the viewers down by not exploring the sibling dynamics between Ritwik and Aaloka. The relationship was not delved into beyond certain scenes and dialogues. We had hoped a subplot would be introduced to allow Ritwik and Aaloka to see their father in a different light. This narrative was left hanging by a thread for the audience to assume.
At a certain point in Kaala, IB Delhi gets involved in the Naman Arya investigation, but sadly, that did not go further. IB Delhi Officer Mohan was reduced to an angry investigating officer. The purpose of introducing them in the middle of an ongoing investigation was not made clear at any point. There was a hint of the IB Delhi team being corrupt, but that subplot was left unattended, and the writers did not go back to closing the chapter.
Many other subplots were overtly dramatized, and none of them generated any kind of emotion. It is only the concluding montage of the show that gives the audience a lump-in-the-throat kind of sentiment, which is elevated by the strong soundtrack accompanying to it. The makers did not explain how Naman and his mother generated black money. The eye for detail is missing from the entire show. Bejoy Nambiar is known for exploring subject matters in depth. Here, the fixation is so much on revelations that it feels like the makers relied on it only for the shock value. The final twist about the central character came so late that the viewers were more frustrated than surprised by this change of trajectory in the show.
The trailer introduced Naman Verma as the lead antagonist, but the makers spent so much time on Shakthi’s character that they forgot to talk about what Naman’s childhood was like and what his motivation was to become a criminal. That relationship dynamic is hardly explored as well. There was so much potential for the writers to get into Naman’s mind to help us understand how he dealt with his father’s transition to Shakti Arya. Naman’s character was a criminal who was given no redemption arc. The biggest disappointment of the show was the climax. There was so much buildup around the consignment being sent to the other side of the border, but it’s predictability, followed by the shoddy execution, shows how lazy the climax was on paper and screen. The buildup fizzled out by the penultimate episode, and there was no tension or aggression created.
It is appalling to see Bejoy Nambiar losing control over the direction of the show. The convoluted screenplay is the reason why the direction fell short and could not recover from the debacle. Too many subplots were part of one episode. The back and forth between two to three timelines in one episode again put the narrative in a frenzy. There was no connection built between subplots, as the transitions were erratic. Bejoy Nambiar is an excellent director who is known to have command over his craft. Somehow, in Kaala, we can hardly see the genius that he is.
A subplot involves bankers who were forced to help the IB Kolkata team find evidence against Naman Arya using seized black money. The interaction between the bankers was good comic relief, and it explored dark comedy and self-aware humor convincingly. This was one of the aspects that stood out and remained consistent until the end. The humor could only salvage 25 percent of the show.
The cinematography by Siddharth Srinivasan is one of the other aspects that stood out. Despite Bejoy Nambiar having a hard time getting a grip on the direction, the camerawork can be very evocative. Many scenes involving Ritwik’s dreams that depict his distressed state of mind allow the audience to feel his anger, pain, and confusion. The montage involving Balwant and his lover Hussain is one of the best love stories presented in an Indian web series. Their intimacy is infectious, yet one cannot ignore that their love was doomed right from the beginning. None of the scenes were added to titillate the audience. The makers have presented this love story with utmost sensitivity.
Gaurav Godkhindi’s soundtrack throughout the show is another highlight. Each song and background score represents varied emotion. This elevated the viewing experience to a large extent. The soundtrack is a saving grace of the show.
The performances by all the lead actors allowed the show to remain exciting and engaging until the end. Jitin Gulati, as Balwant or Shakthi Arya, is the backbone of Kaala. Her journey, which begins as a man who was known to be a corrupt border security official and ends as a ruthless, ultrarich transwoman, is an arc that was remarkably explored by the writers. Jitin is exquisite as the arrogant person who, at heart, longs for the love she lost years ago. Jitin’s performance in Kaala will be revered for years. Although the subject of inclusivity appears to be why a trans actor was not cast for a role as complex as this one, We earlier saw Jitin Gulati in Bambai Meri Jaan as Saadiq, Dara’s elder brother. In just a few days, Jitin showcased his range as an actor in two distinct web series.
Avinash Tiwary is having a good week as well. With Bambai Meri Jaan opening to rave reviews, Avinash Tiwary, through Ritwik, can portray the frustration of a young man who is dealing with a life-changing revelation on the family front. Despite haphazard writing, Avinash gives a lot to the show just through his mere presence. His performance gave Ritwik some depth.
Nivetha Pethuraj was as good as Sithara, but from the screenplay perspective, her arc deserved better treatment. Her inconsistent accent was irritating. The sudden change in her character was more perplexing than shocking.
There were way too many characters in Kaala, and not one of them was given a consistent arc. Many of them just entered a particular subplot and left without any notice. There was also the subject of casting a Bengali actor to portray the role of the Chief Minister. A Bengali-speaking actor would have brought some authenticity to the role.
The audience wanted Kaala to be a complex tale of money laundering. The makers could have explored the intricacies surrounding the lead characters and the choices they made over the years. Instead, the makers delivered a convoluted narrative, which made the show underwhelming and formulaic. Kaala falls short of the expectations that were built around it. Watch the show only for the good performances of the actors.