Crime revenge dramas like Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 are cult classics that led to a barrage of films and television shows in this genre in the Indian cinema space, only for it to become saturated in the last ten years. Following in the footsteps of every other small town-based criminal drama, Disney+ Hotstar brings you Shaitan, created and directed by Mahi V. Raghav, and released on the platform on June 15, 2023. The show takes us through the politics of rural Andhra Pradesh at the peak of the conflict between the system and the Naxals and how many locals get embroiled in it.
Shaitan is all about Baali and his family, which consists of his mother and two siblings who, from a young age, have seen it all. Their mother’s struggle to keep the family financially running and many other unspeakable horrors the kids were subjected to led to all four of them becoming a version of the devil to survive in this unjust world. The system calls them criminals, while they consider themselves to be survivors. In this intolerant world, the powerful prey on the needy and the desperate and play their games to retain their influence. Baali’s decision to join the revolution to stand up against the system leads to a chain of horrifying and vulgar events that makes it difficult for the protagonist to get out of it. A hero’s journey is what the makers wanted to showcase, but the show quickly became a platform that glorified brutality and crimes against women.
Shaitan did have a dramatic start, which gave it a jumpstart required to get the audience hooked on to the show. But as the show progressed, Shaitan became more about the gruesome violence, revenge, blood, and gore than the plot. Written by K. Ravi Kumar and Mahi V. Raghav, who happens to be the director of the show as well, spends a lot of time magnifying the savagery the people in the show carry out, rather than relying on the screenplay. After a point, the narrative was carried by the brutish scenes that bordered on sadism. If only there was more drama through tense scenes, dialogue, and a tight screenplay. Sadly, the back-to-back long, vicious sequences of murders lead to the show losing tempo right in the beginning, and there is no way to salvage it up until the pre-climax and the climactic sequence.
The problematic messaging regarding women in this show is the highlight that would make the audience give up on Shaitan halfway through. There are numerous explicit sexual assault scenes shot over a period of time. These sequences have been kept only to titillate the audience and not to project the issue of women being abused regularly. There isn’t a single scene where the female characters are given time, space, or dialogue to process the pain of being assaulted, which shows that the makers had no intention to do so. The women and the men in their lives immediately jump on the revenge bandwagon and kill the men who brutally assaulted them. It is appalling to see women’s characters written with such shallowness.
What is shocking is the high level of hypocrisy and contradiction in the narrative itself, where the lead protagonist wants to fight for his mother while he is ready to let his sister get married to someone who shamelessly asked for a hefty dowry. Followed by a scene where Jaya, Baali’s sister, is physically assaulting her newly married husband into leaving her. The messaging might come across as empowering, but physical assault on your spouse cannot qualify anyone as a strong person. This is the issue when men write female characters. They forget to give them layers and understand their mindset. The communist and oppression angles do not work in favor of the narrative because the story soon becomes a revenge drama with not much to offer on the subject. The makers just brushed through the topic of Naxals again without exploring the complexities of the conflict and the history attached to it. This was a television show, so the writers had immense time to explore this subplot instead of developing tacky side stories with a predictable setup and conclusion.
The pre-climax and the climax sequences of Shaitan come out triumphant and engaging, as it seems the director was finally in control of the storytelling aspect, and there was no unnecessary confusion in understanding what was transpiring in front of the audience. The climax was very straightforward, which allowed the audience to comprehend why the show had to end this way. But again, it was the messaging that was problematic because crime is something that should not be glorified. The makers seem to have concluded with the idea that the cycle of crime and violence is bound to continue, and more specifically, that kids witnessing crimes are going to end up becoming criminals themselves. This sets the wrong precedent and forms a stereotype.
The direction by Mahi V. Raghav remained inconsistent throughout the nine episodes because the back-and-forth between the protagonist and his enemies became vulgar and tedious. It was as if the director had nothing new to offer when it came to the execution of a sloppy screenplay. The director seemed to be on autopilot, delivering scene after scene of killings. The dubbing of all the actors was off through the nine episodes, which immediately stifled whatever interest was left in the show. The background score and the sound design were jarring and close to deafening the audience. The makers blasted the background score to showcase the evilness of Baali.
The production design aspect is something that remained consistent throughout the show to give the feeling of the rustic nature of the show’s setting. The costumes, the locations, and the homes felt more true to the narrative than the screenplay. Unfortunately, these aspects were not enough to keep the interest consistent. If only there was more time invested in making the story a lot more gripping. The action sequences were executed well, but the brutal tone went way over the top. From the beginning, the makers were in no mood to bring down the harshness of the fighting and killing sequences, and as the show progresses, it only gets ghastlier.
The performances of the many actors in Shaitanwere irregular because they did not bring out the emotion required to carry many emotional scenes. They were borderline unnaturally heading towards the hamming territory. Rish’s performance as Baali, the lead protagonist, was supposed to bring out the evilness of being the man who does not blink an eye before killing someone, but his performance was not at all constant. The female characters, such as the mother, played by Shelly Nabu Kumar, and Jayaprada, by Deviyani Sharma, had nothing to offer as actors because their characters’ only aim was to seek revenge. Kalavathi, played by Kamakshi Bhaskarla, had some layers, but her character was not allowed to grow. Jaffer Sadiq as Gumthi could have been utilized as an actor, for he has shown the potential to be a good one, especially in Vikram and Paava Kadhaigal, but he was restricted to a one-toned role.
The whole point of Shaitan was to portray the entire environment as the devil, and the rotten system pushed a bunch of human beings to tap into their devilish side, which unleashed a revenge saga. The entire viewing experience was turbulent, making this show not a good watch. Shaitan is a television version of a long commercial Telugu movie only with explicit dialogue.