This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Here: Kohrra on Netflix.
IN the Indian streaming landscape, there is hardly a genre as versatile as the police procedural. The image of officers in uniform has become central to narratives, either as a means to explore the crime topography or examine the diverse polarity of the country. Unlike feature films which continue reducing them to stereotypes, long-form storytelling lends them the space to be people; the precarity of their position, standing as they are at the cusp of law and lawlessness, opens up the space to tell a larger story about the system. Writer Sudip Sharma has been crucial in this transition. His work across mediums, comprising Paatal Lok (2020) and Udta Punjab (2016) among others, are defined by their expansive look through the intrusive lens of procedure.
Kohrra, the terrific new show written by Sharma, Gunjit Chopra and Diggi Sisodia, is seemingly cut from the same cloth. On a foggy morning in Punjab, a young NRI man is found dead. His throat has been slit and his head disfigured by a boulder. The high-profile incident triggers an extensive investigation helmed by sub-inspector Balbir Singh (Suvinder Vicky) and his subordinate Garundi (Barun Sobti).
The suspects are plenty. Paul (Vishal Handa) had come from London to get married. The woman he was betrothed to, Veera, was involved with her musician lover till the longest time. The car in which Paul’s corpse was found had a dent, signaling an attempt to kill him in the past. As the cops keep digging, more revelations unfold. The CCTV footage reveals a bus had intentionally hit his car a couple of days back, and its driver was seen with Happy, Paul’s sheltered cousin. One’s successful career as a lawyer in London made the other feel small, unseen even by his own father (Varun Badola) back home.
On the night when things transpired, Paul was with his friend, Liam (Ivantiy Novak). After the accident, Liam is nowhere to be found. The next day his mother arrives (Rachel Shelley, making her appearance in a Hindi outing after Lagaan). As his missing posters are plastered all across the town, the investigating officers are informed that on the fateful night, both friends had bought alcohol and later met a drug peddler for cocaine. In the midst of all this, Paul’s missing smartwatch gets activated from a different location.
A premise such as this where probable culprits are scattered across a city has become a familiar route to inspect the beating heart of the place. In narrative fiction of late, bureaucracy is a smokescreen for sociological scrutiny. Think of Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime (2019), Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy’s Pataal Lok (2020) and more recently Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi’s Dahaad (2023). Even in Kohrra, Balbir and Garundi query the young boy who first spotted Paul’s dead body on the field, if he is an addict. The initial arrests consist of junkies, highlighting the drug problem the state is known to be struggling with. As the episodes unravel, more details of the sleepy town are brought to the fore. Paul’s family, more privileged than others, is above the law even when the mother accuses her brother-in-law of murder in a fit of grief. The brothers (Manish Chaudhari and Badola) have been sparring over a land dispute. The murder could be the casualty of a family spat dragged on for too long, causing the needless arrests of people less privileged than them. For instance, even with discrepancies in evidence, a higher-up official tells Balbir to put the blame on the peddler, close the case and snatch a promotion.
But things are never this easy. Not least because Balbir and Garundi have a conscience. Directed by Randeep Jha (who made the underrated Halahal in 2020), Kohrra is an intriguing addition to the burgeoning procedural canon which shows just how much it hides. It is at once a blistering outline of class inequality — when Garundi investigates Veera, the impending bride tearfully shares that she and Paul were planning to go to Machu Picchu for their honeymoon. The cop is clueless. Later, when his fiancée asks if they will be going to Shimla for their honeymoon, Garundi offers a smile and says Machu Picchu, still unaware where the place is. In another scene a group of police officers watch Paul’s wedding video for clues, holding greasy samosas in their hands while witnessing champagne flowing like water.
The six-episode series, always unfolding with one ear to the ground, is also a sobering portrait of the people wearing the uniform. It is a marvel: the fuss-free style in which details are offered and melded in the narrative. We get privy to Balbir and Garundi’s inner lives, their strained relationships with family members. Balbir’s daughter Nimrat (Harleen Sethi) lives with him, after having walked out of her marriage. He does not approve of it. Garundi stays with his brother and sister-in-law in a house teeming with toxicity. Other than these narrative details, Kohrra is enlivened with stylistic flourishes. Scenes linger even when their apparent purpose is over, signifying the inventiveness of their design. Take for instance that scene where Garundi goes to interrogate a pub manager and after getting the details, takes an expensive whiskey bottle with him. Or a similar investigative scene in a cafe where a female police officer accompanying Balbir orders a frappe (she is a crackling character). Consider even those moments where we see Balbir at the hospital, visiting his senior whose wife is admitted.
In any other show, these details would be invisible and such characters, like the male officer with an ailing wife who fundamentally plays no role in the procedure or the female officer who likes her coffee and iPhone, would either be relegated to the background or minimised to mute upholders of law. Jha, with his immaculately crafted series, affirms with every little scene his alertness to such failings. In his hands, even a random boy entrusted with the task of giving Veera her phone mid-investigation gets a line that makes him a person who invites attention.
As titles of murder investigation go, the word Kohrra fits just right. It means ‘fog’, underlining the mystery enveloping the face of the perpetrator. But in this show, “kohrra” assumes the porosity of a metaphor. On one hand, it underscores the distance that separates the cops from the culprit. But more crucially and definitely, Kohrra points to the fog that prevents people from seeing one another.
If the upper layer of police procedural is peeled, Kohrra will reveal itself to be a compelling intergenerational story at war with each other. The narrative is filled with young people struggling to claim their own identity under the tight grip of the older generation. The series is a striking commentary on this stifling control one set of people exercises over the other, convinced that domination accounts for love.
Effectively, there are four families in the show. Each has a younger member: Paul, Happy, Nimrat and Garundi. All four of them strive to be seen for who they are. And all four belong to filial units that see them for what they are — youth, susceptible to be disciplined. Flashbacks reveal Paul being beaten up by his father Steve for not wearing the turban; Nimrat reconnects with her former boyfriend while filing for divorce and in a brilliantly staged scene, Balbir beats the man to a pulp. Garundi’s sister-in-law leaks a gas cylinder to halt his engagement. And yet, all of them believe they are acting out of love. Kohrra, at its heart, is a stinging critique to this assumption, this order of the old world trying to perpetuate their ideals in the language of commandment. The genre becomes critical because the police officers are not just standing at the cusp of law and lawlessness but also, inevitably, gatekeeping orthodoxy in the name of legality.
In terms of ambition alone, Kohrra is one of the finest shows of the year. The craft informs the narrative and the style enriches the commentary. Performances are faultless across the board. By now Chaudhari has built a reputation of essaying roles of privileged, angry men. Even though his Steve can be seen as a reiteration of his previous performances, the actor rages differently. Sobti brings an understated charm to his character, drawing attention to himself only when the scene requires. But Kohrra stands on Vicky’s broad shoulders. The actor is phenomenal as the face of guilt looking for redemption in the unlikeliest alleys. His inner turmoil reflects on his being as he drinks in the cover of darkness, hiding his self from himself.
Most of Sharma’s works look at the country through the lens of the people. Kohrra looks at the people through the lens of the country, depicting the extent to which their unchanging ways of control have transmuted, taking on a horrid shape. (Leaving the country forms a recurring theme in the show, the youth enticed by the Liberal promise of the West.) It focuses on those who have been stuck up for so long that the fog has entered their system, preventing them from seeing others and themselves. The haze is so thick that they looked for a criminal instead of the crime, not knowing till much later that while murders happen in fields, death occurs in houses.
(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.)