Randeep Jha’s Netflix show quietly folds together lessons in love within a slow burn
Last Updated: 03.22 PM, Jul 19, 2023
Kohrra is a brilliant shape shifter of a series. It adopts the disguise of a slow-burn police procedural while slowly proceeding to defuse its own narrative engines, opting for methods of narrative elision. This couldn’t have been possible without a creative team who are savvy and secure in not toeing in with the narrative rulebook. Instead choosing to care intensely about characters, flashing their ugliest and desperately human flaws. Writers Gunjit Chopra and Diggi Sisodia, co-creator Sudip Sharma and director Randeep Jha step up to the task, with a breathtaking eye for detail and atmosphere. The plot for a police procedural that Kohrra is deceptively designed as is not particularly sinuous nor convoluted. There are no grand, flabbergasting twists and turns, but a quiet, no less powerfully disturbing sense of moral corrosion in people pushed to the edge, staved off their capacity for enduring. There’s no tinge of heroism to the cops in the show; they are people grappling with the overwhelming shadow of personal and family histories. Their foibles and failings constantly catch up with them, trapping them in a limbo-like situation.
The show is remarkably simple and we can immediately tell its creators aren’t interested in weaving elaborate tangles but in carving out characters whose fractured interiority is central to the screenplay. Jha narrates the tale of the two police officers, Balbir (Suvinder Vicky) and Garundi (Barun Sobti) and their investigation into the murder of an NRI youth whose body is dumped in the fields of Punjab’s Jagrana. They carry out their inquiries with extraordinary patience, consistent with each passing character. Everyone matters, their interpersonal dynamics smartly woven, creating well-rounded portraits of characters, with their contexts critical to the tenor of their actions that recur by force of unchecked habit. Both Balbir and Garundi have kept wounds and toxicities long buried within themselves. Jha finds a tremendous Suvinder Vicky to channel Balbir even in his most unlikeable form, capable of enormous damage, unwilling to admit the abuse he inflicted on his now-dead wife, projecting a similar controlling force upon his daughter, Nimrat (a fierce Harleen Sethi). At one point, Nimrat reminds him she knows that he shall always be on his son-in-law’s side, instead of being by his own daughter. That Nimrat has left her husband and moved back home with her father chafes at Balbir’s normative expectations of women’s roles in a marriage. His means of loving her refuses to recognise her as someone who wishes to pursue her happiness – beyond a marriage that he forced her into and a child she hadn’t wanted. Balbir does not hesitate to put her on surveillance and lock her up while battering the man she truly loves. He’d rather have her conform to the married life he’d arranged for her, regardless of that it may just as well completely crush her. He believes his love for her permits him to manoeuvre her life’s trajectory as per his wishes.
Several economic rungs higher, the murder victim, Paul’s father, Steve, similarly mistakes domination and ownership for love. Steve is one of those men who has his household in his iron grip, bulldozing everyone around him into submission and ensuring his son sticks to his ideal of masculinity. While the show occasionally unsubtly buttresses such parallels among patriarchs wrecking damage with far-reaching repercussions, it intelligently observes the nexus between love and power, control and entitlement.
Amidst these rich character studies, the police investigation seems secondary. The storytelling takes its time in sharpening the tensions among characters, deepening the fault lines of gender, sexuality, class, and caste that run through the show like a spider’s web.
We are ushered into the public and private worlds of Balbir and Garundi, with the director acutely attuning us to the socio-political miasma of present-day Punjab. Jha only very rarely gives into scenes of paranoia, more readily dwelling on the trauma and emotional scars human beings are racked with. This is a show that even grants a rookie to a truck driver moments of guilt. The rugged hyper-masculine truck driver, who is synonymous with Punjab’s landscape, is deliciously, subtly queered. By contrast, the positioning of Paul and Liam as queer comes off as a hurried afterthought in the manner of a late twist, the pre-climactic sequences a quickly mixed-up cocktail of impulsive rage and the darker, possessive facets of love.
Kohrra is as geographically rooted as it can get, bolstered by the painstakingly precise work of production designers Mukund Gupta and Parul Sondh. Ranging from the roadside dhabas to rehab centres to urbanised settlements to the more earthy houses surrounded by acres and acres of fields, the plot tracks pirouette among these with lived-in textures. These are familiar terrains for Gunjit Chopra and Sudip Sharma; the fields are athletes’ haunts for sex and addiction is instantly established by the opening scene. The actors seamlessly blend into these settings, essaying characters who give off a distinct impression of their lives superseding the universe of the show’s narrative action. There is even a quirky American-style diner that acts as a meeting point in the show.
There are deep rifts among several sets of characters. Steve and his brother, Manna, who unlike him remained in Punjab, share a fractious relationship, Manna’s resentment toward him stoked by his sister’s undying love for Steve despite his willing absence in their lives, even in her illness. Paul’s starry status in the family is silently grudged by his cousin, Manna’s son, Happy. At a later point in the show, Manna concedes he lavished more affection on Paul than he ever did on his own son. All his life, Happy strived to make himself noticeable in his father’s gaze, hungry for some validation, adulation and loving attention. What he received instead was persistent belittlement. He mutely stews in hate until he slips off the edge.
How does the absence of love spiral out into a recourse to violence? This emerges as one of the pivotal questions the show poses, through a patchwork of tracks, treating people who would otherwise pass as minor subjects in other shows with dignity and attention. Editor Sanyukta Kaza, fresh off her masterful work in Konkona Sen Sharma’s short, The Mirror, in Lust Stories 2 , compellingly cleaves together these strands. Watch out for a brilliantly cut sequence, surreally threading together Balbir’s mounting dread, on the back of denied acts of his past. It’s heavy-handed but undeniably startling. Cinematographer Saurabh Monga, who had also shot Kanu Behl’s Cannes-premiering film Agra, harnesses the craggy, lumbering physicality of Vicky, strikingly capturing a morally compromised land, across the class paradoxes it is mired in.
Kohrra is resolutely unafraid in plunging into the warp and weft of relationships that have vitiated beyond any compassionate, healthy recognition. It achieves this also by making the linkages with the land holdings of the state, the old feuds and suspicions in men’s hearts that keep apart one from the other, even initiating skewed living arrangements like Garundi’s. His brother seems fine with his wife servicing Garundi’s sexual needs, just to keep any possible bride at bay and subsequently, most importantly, impede presumed land grabs by Garundi. When Garundi is drawn to someone else, his sister-in-law, Rajji, is torn apart in heartbreak, driving her to trigger a gas cylinder leak explosion at his wedding.
“Love is a bitch” is a refrain in the show, continually reminding us what lurks underneath the slow-burn design. “You know what the tragedy of Punjab is?” Balbir asks at one point, answering it himself, “that we don’t confront the truth”. Kohrra is an invitation to probe truth at its barest, most psychological, of love and the ties among us, whose nature, if one attempts to manipulate and coerce, only threatens fissure. The passage of time brings bitter realisations, lessons Balbir passes on to the rough-handling Garundi. Balbir silently undergoes rites of atonement. His bruised heart is also tentatively opening up, gradually trusting the reins of Nimrat’s life to her and allowing touches of tenderness in what constitute the show’s most compelling, delicately realised scenes with Balbir’s dead informer’s wife, Indira (Ekavali Khanna). In these, Kohrra leaves us with a smidgen of hope.