This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows.
A LOT about Ruchi Narain’s new show Karmma Calling makes sense if one reads up on its origin. The series that is now streaming on Hotstar is an Indian adaptation of ABC's crime drama Revenge. A decade back Narain had approached Star India with the idea of retelling the American series for an homegrown audience. The Indian media house was keen but the project fell through since the network refused to give the rights. It took some years, some reshuffling of the executives for it to finally culminate as a sprawling seven-episode series on a streaming site. But despite the change in form, the outing’s initial ambition comes easily to the fore given the way it unfolds with the expressed aesthetic of a daily soap.
The signs are all there: the background score heightens at the very sight of a reveal (like a half-opened drawer), actors communicate only in side-eyes and they chew on every word like talking is an excuse for them to practise breathing exercises. Narain’s Karmma Calling is so campy that camp here is both the genre and the tone. It is the reason for the show’s existence and the excuse for it. It is why…well I give up.
Narain’s series does that to you. It breaks your soul, crushes your spirit and beats down your will to a pulp. It is so bad, in all possible aspects of story and storytelling, film and filmmaking that it makes an artform out of it. It is so bad that it almost dives in the direction of being a guilty pleasure but quickly settles into being an unbeatable mess. Karmma Calling is determined to defeat you, and here I stand defeated.
The premise, as is in Revenge, is simply this: a young woman comes to a neighbourhood with a plan. Several years ago, her too-good-to-be-true father, Satyajit (Rohit Roy), was duped by his close friends and associates in a public bank scam, leading to his imprisonment and eventual death. As it turns out, all those who cheated him stay in Alibaug making things rather convenient for his daughter who comes back years later with one plan: to destroy them. Because the show is as unsubtle as they come, the first thing she does is take up a new identity and change her name from Ambika to Karma. In fact, one of the earlier scenes of the series feature her calling someone, thus literalising its theme: Karma calling.
From here things can be only as good or as bad as one wants them to be. Narain takes this crossroad as a challenge and chooses to go all out in making it the worst thing we might watch this year. Each episode includes one person from the lot that Karma destroys. Her plans are the most blatant anyone could devise and by the end of it, I must confess to developing a grudging regard for the makers’ conviction. We don’t know how, why and when but Karma has tons of money — she buys bunglows like we buy hairbands. She is young but she has somehow spent years studying law, doing some courses with someone, all in service of solidifying her eventual plan.
In fact, watching the series I was convinced that Alibaug is a stand-in for a setting where laws of nature, logic and time do not apply. Anything happens here and anything goes. For instance, her nemeses are the Kotharis, the uber-rich family who presumably accumulated their wealth by cheating her father. The Kotharis do not merely imply they are rich, they show it. In one episode, they throw a Karwa Chauth party and because the sky is filled with clouds, they take a chopper to see the moon closely.
Subtlety is a bad word here both in terms of plot twist (one involves two men falling for Karma and the only point of encouragement was that they both met her) and writing. All episodes are bookended with Karma’s voice overs where she says the utmost basic things with the solemnity of Rumi. Sample this: “Dusro pe bharosa karna kamzori bann jaati hain and khud se bharosa karna taakat…par iss takat ka ek daam hai — tanhai (Believing in others can be a weakness and believing in oneself can be a source of strength. But the price one pays for it is solitude).” The acting is just as bad.
Namrata Sheth plays Karma like she is in the reality show Bigg Boss, where there are cameras at every corner to grasp her expression. She doesn’t say something as much as make a show of saying it. It is a fascinatingly vacant performance that hinges on so much excess and amounts to nothing.
Giving her tough competition is Varun Sood, who plays the role of Ahaan, the heir of the Kothari clan. His character is supposedly in love with Karma but it is fairly evident that the only person Ahaan can be in love with is himself. He spends most of his waking time shirtless in the show (in one scene he emerges from the bathroom with foam strategically placed on his body) and it is a marvel that he remembers anything other than the brand of the protein shake he drinks. There is also Raveena Tandon as Indrani Kothari, the main target of Karma. The actor admirably commits to the camp of the show and halts so often and so much like there is something perpetually stuck in her mouth. The only one having fun is Viraf Patel. The actor plays a queer entrepreneur called Zane Khan, the sole ally of Karma. No one talks to him, save her (at one point I was pretty certain the character is a figment of her imagination) but he is real fun to watch as he makes something out of what was on paper a mess of stereotypes.
Which brings me to the one who did not have any fun: me. It is too early in the year to watch something like this and then write about it. It is too early in the year to destroy my defences and have my senses numbed. For a show based on karma, which implies each action having consequences, I thought long and hard and hard and long about my life while watching it. I have finally come to one conclusion: I do not remember what I did to deserve this.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The author is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the content of this column.)