Period dramas are the current rage in the OTT space. Many streaming giants suddenly have a budget to recreate a decade, place a believable story in the setting, and sell it by using the nostalgia factor. There is nothing better than the reminiscence of a decade that viewers consider special to them. Milan Luthria is known to have delivered many period movies in the past. The Dirty Picture, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, and OUATIM Dobaara! are some of his noted works that garnered some attention. He is back with another period show, Sultan of Delhi, that talks about the capital city and the workings of the rich businessmen around the clout of powerful politicians. The show is a Disney+ Hotstar special released on October 13, 2023, and is based on the novel Sultan of Delhi: Ascension by Arnab Ray.
Sultan of Delhi is a fictitious title given to a person who has gained the confidence of all the arms dealers based in Delhi. The said person will rule the city just like the actual sultans did centuries ago. The fight is for this title, and many contenders are waiting to reign as Sultans. Arjun Bhatia and his father, Ashok Bhatia, had to painfully leave everything behind in Lahore and move to India during the partition. After seeing their family massacred, both lost all their money and glory. Arjun, seeing his father’s state deteriorate, takes it upon himself to make a life for himself from scratch. As he slowly climbs the ladder of success in the business of arms dealing, he gets surrounded by people who stay loyal to him till the end.
But there are a few who would want him out of the race. Rajender is a royal, but all his life he was controlled by his father. He beds his father’s mistress after he passes away, and she is now the master manipulator who uses her beauty to make sure Rajender always stays under her influence. Who will be the next Sultan of Delhi? Will Rajender and Arjun ever get along as business associates? Milan Luthria answers these and many other questions as the series progresses.
Sadly, the screenplay, written by Suparn Varma and Milan Luthria, is not as exciting as the premise. I have not read the book by Arnab Ray, but I’d assume that the source material would have been more engrossing than the narrative written for the show. The screenplay has nothing to offer when it comes to emotions, pacing, or a decent conclusion. There was a lot the writers could have worked around, but the storytelling lacks any sort of originality. There is no scope for character development in this nine-episode-long show. Milan Luthria tried hard to add a Mumbai flavor to the story based on Delhi’s mafia but failed to create an engaging narrative that could help the viewers sustain themselves till the end.
For the longest time, the narrative was unable to get a grasp of what Vinay Pathak and Nishant Dahiya’s characters do in the show. They just mention their line of work as “dhanda,” and the rest is left for the audience to assume what is happening in the narrative. The arms dealing is the core, which is established quite late in Sultan of Delhi, but there is hardly any other aspect explored about it, even though most of the characters in the show were allegedly enamored by it. Arms dealing brings in a lot of cash, but beyond that, the makers did not bother to discuss the complexity of this business and how it directly or indirectly might affect them in the long run.
The screenplay also added many love-making sequences to talk about the depth of the affair Rajender has with his father’s mistress, Shankari Devi, who is the puppeteer. These scenes do serve a purpose, but after a point, they were added only to titillate the audience and were of no consequence to the narrative. Also, an affair would imply chemistry between the two characters, but that simply did not exist. The screenplay took itself way too seriously and tried hard to create tense moments, but sadly, a lot of the subplots had a predictable conclusion. The climactic sequences were slightly unpredictable, but the screenplay had become too dragged out and tedious for the audience to be shocked by Arjun and Rajender’s actions.
The direction is sloppy throughout because the actors here are not truly inhabiting the role; they are acting as per the instructions of the director. The screenplay and the direction tried to romanticize the struggle Arjun and his father went through during the partition. The painful subject was hardly brushed upon by the makers. The cliched scenes of violence and bloodshed only served the purpose of glorifying their agony for a short period. Nothing much is said about what this displacement did to Arjun as a child, which led him to become a ruthless man willing to kill people in the blink of an eye. The direction is tiring, and it does not improve the shoddy state of the screenplay. There is an endless list of cliched scenes that have been included, and it proves that Milan Luthria lost control of the ability to get a grip on the storytelling.
The dialogue is the most annoying part of the show, for lack of a better word, because no line is said with the intention of conveying something important. There are couplets, riddles, and suggestive lines. No dialogue is delivered in a normal conversational fashion. Currently, filmmakers are trying hard to make movies and television shows as realistic as possible, but Sultan of Delhi takes it up a notch by manifolds and does not allow for any dialogue that could help viewers understand the intention of the characters and the reason behind their actions and consequences. It is tiring after a point to dissect and understand the connotations and denotations of these lines.
The production design is another drawback that the makers of the show could not work around. A period drama requires finesse when it comes to showcasing the homes and other surroundings found in the 1960s. Most of them seem tacky because period dramas require a good budget, and it seems the makers of Sultan of Delhi didn’t have much. Many costumes did not seem era-appropriate, especially the ones worn by the ‘femme fatale,’ Shankari Devi. The production is supposed to add value that eventually draws the crowd, something we see in Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies. Even if SLB’s movies are not that great on the screenplay level, audiences still watch his movies for the eye-pleasing set design, which itself becomes a character. There was a lack of this particular entity in this show.
There are strong female characters written just for the sake of it. Rajender’s wife, Sanjana, is introduced as a race car driver from a rich family who ends up becoming a housewife. She eventually takes care of his household and is the woman who is forever in misery for being in a dreadful marriage. Mouni Roy also began as a bar dancer with some agency, but she also resorted to becoming a damsel in distress waiting for the right man to love her for who she is. Farida Bibi was introduced to showcase the power of women in mafia circles, but there was hardly anything said about her role in the arms dealing that goes on in Delhi. Shankari Devi, the antagonist, is given only cliche, alluring clothes, over-the-top makeup, and uninspiring dialogues. Her struggles and her history with Jagan Seth could have been worth the time, but she was reduced to a villain with no layers.
The viewers genuinely feel bad for some great actors who were cast in this show, and their talent was hardly utilized. Vinay Shukla as Jagan Seth, the uber-rich arms dealer, really hams it up throughout the runtime of the show. It is appalling to watch him deliver a performance that is peculiar and has no complexity. His struggles during the partition are hardly talked about. Tahir Raj Bhasin is a fine actor, but in this show, he has delivered a drowsy performance through no fault of his own. Actors perform as per the instructions of the makers. His ruthlessness is just a part of his nature, and there is no reason given for such behavior. Nishant Dahiya showcased his impeccable talent in 83 and Raat Akeli Hai. Unfortunately, in Sultan of Delhi, he is simply walking around in tailor-made suits. His performance has no depth, which again is because of how his character development was done on paper. His reason for hatred toward certain leading protagonists is not established and will frustrate the viewers.
Sultan of Delhi would have been the perfect opportunity for the makers to explore the dynamics of the capital city right after the partition. Sadly, it is a lost opportunity. Sultan of Delhi fails to establish a core story about the Delhi Mafia.