Despite an impressive cast and direction, Jehanabad suffers from a case of stuffing too many ideas into one bouquet of caste, politics, violence and love, writes Manik Sharma.
Last Updated: 06.40 AM, Feb 03, 2023
IN A SCENE from SonyLiv’s Jehanabad, a Literature student takes to the stage to recite her poem titled ‘Ripples of Awakening’. Instead of her poem, we cut away to hear a politician make his cunning pitch to distressed voters. It’s a subtle yet stinging way of interlacing the hopelessness of politics with the whimsy of poetry. Both are essentially manipulative tools to mould directionless minds and hearts. And it’s in these deft moments that Sudhir Mishra’s uneven series really soars. Jehanabad is a 10-episode survey of Bihar’s complex socio-political realities at the turn of the millennium. However, while there is enough directorial flair and acting talent to impress, the series suffers from a case of stuffing too many ideas into one bouquet of caste, politics, violence and love.
Jehanabad is anchored by several characters, each subjected to the imposing nature of Bihar’s conservative political outlook. Ritwik Bhowmik plays Abhimanyu Singh, a lecturer who arrives in Jehanabad, an outsider who disrupts the status quo. Singh is quickly eyed and pursued by his pupil Kasturi (Harshita Gaur) in a teacher-student relationship whose problematic precedents are strangely never addressed. While this love story moves ahead with stately conviction, there is also the parallel plotline of Naxalite leader Deepak Kumar’s (Parambrata Chatterjee) imprisonment. Satyadeep Mishra plays conflicted cop Durgesh, overseeing Kumar’s incarceration; Rajat Kapoor is effortlessly excellent as local politician Shivanand Singh.
Events don’t seamlessly coalesce in this series as much as they happen one after the other. The suicide — perceived murder — of a lower-caste student sets in motion a sequence of events that exposes Bihar’s crude underbelly, where generations worth of indignation and disillusionment are ingested. Caste and religion power reason with the unrelenting cruelty of a hammer beating down on a worn nail. In a scene, two men on their way to bomb a police station casually discuss the caste of an emerging Bihari cricketer — his name is of course MS Dhoni. It’s a quietly affecting sequence, one that literalises the effects of years of social conditioning, and the improbability of escape; these men, the show tells us, are capable of breaking the law but incapable of exiting designs systemised to oppress them. No one, absolutely no one, is outside the purview of this seemingly natural force: Neither the idealistic English professor, nor the all-knowing politician.
The problem with Jehanabad is that it wants to be too many things. No series has in recent memory turned out to be as distant a departure from its teaser trailer than this one. Every time the show builds steam, it loses focus and veers off-road into trajectories it could have avoided for the sake of a more cogent script. Violence, jailbreaks, factionalism, political betrayals and embattled anti-heroes collide for space in an overstuffed narrative that really doesn’t stick to one thing in particular. It takes far too long to justify why so many threads operate in parallel with characters appearing and disappearing for long periods. The series wants to speak about love and war, often interchangeable emotions and conquests, but ends up depriving both of their own singular agency.
Deepak Kumar’s violent rhetoric mixed with platitudes makes for a fascinating portrayal of disenfranchisement but rarely is it explored with the intimacy it deserves. The love story at the heart of the show is adept, but effectively slackens a tense narrative about politics and identity in a landscape populated, quite literally, by divisions. Dignity is an everyday battle in this land and while Jehanabad wishes to illustrate the struggle for it through disparate situations and characters, it eventually squanders one too many promising stories by, quite simply, attempting all of them.
Jehanabad isn’t poor, it’s just frustratingly all-embracing. It meanders through far too many tunnels to be able to see the consistency of the ceiling. There are impressive creative flourishes, the hint of the subversive wisdom Sudhir Mishra’s eye could import to a complicated, politically charged narrative and yet, the writing errs more than it delivers. Interestingly, viewed separately, the political background to the love story at the core of the series works fine in isolation, freed of the chaff that forces the two into an awkward embrace. It’s an ambitious marriage of broad-stroke ideas that refuse to come together, despite the best intentions of a decent directorial unit and some stellar actors.
Jehanabad could have been a potent image of a world viewed through the lens of a defiant love story or it could have been the unstruck canvas that no social reformer has managed to paint (yet) in their own image. Unfortunately, it wants to be half of each, often to the detriment of craft that feels it has been estranged from its soul by being claimed by far too many bodies.