‘Dahaad’ series review: Sonakshi Sinha leads a sensitive procedural

Mixing crime drama and social commentary, ‘Dahaad’ engages till the final act—where it suddenly runs out of steam

Updated - May 12, 2023 03:11 pm IST

Published - May 12, 2023 01:56 pm IST

 A still from ‘Dahaad’

A still from ‘Dahaad’

Dahaad gets going with a sequence of almost unbearable political import. A harried-looking man comes to the Mandawa police station enquiring about his missing sister. The cops—male and upper-caste, except for sub-inspector Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha)—ignore his pleas, saying the girl had eloped of her own accord and there isn’t much they can do. Outside, the man encounters a crowd agitating against entrapment and religious conversions. Joining their ranks, he lies that a Muslim took off with his sister. And just like that, the case is escalated and an investigation commenced.

Dahaad, on Prime Video, isn’t telling the Rajasthan story. It’s telling the India story, where real and complex crimes against women jostle for attention with false alarms and politically-motivated fearmongering. Created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, the series walks a razor’s edge between depicting the plight of its victims and damning the right of consenting adults to do as they please. There is an obvious villain—a serial killer who lures unsuspecting women online—yet the makers constantly point to a society that enables the exploitation of young girls in the name of ‘protecting’ them.

Dahaad (Hindi)
Creators: Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti
Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Vijay Varma, Gulshan Devaiah, Sohum Shah, Sanghmitra Hitaishi, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, Zoa Morani
Episodes: 8
Run-time: 49-59 minutes
Storyline: Sub-inspector Anjali Bhaati investigates a string of mysterious suicides leading to the hunt for a serial killer

“Twenty-five years in the service and not a trifling,” grumbles Anjali’s higher-up. “And in one year you’ve landed a serial killer?” That much she has. Across Rajasthan, over a long period of time, 27 women have been found dead in public washrooms, apparent suicides that betray a disturbing pattern: the victims all hail from socially and economically backward homes, have had a dowry problem and were impelled to run off with a lover. A breakthrough in the fourth episode leads Anjali to meek literature professor Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma). Like Walter White, he’s a respected teacher married with a kid. And, also like White, he drives around the desert in a creepy RV.

We know from the beginning that Anand is the killer. The fun lies in discovering how he will be brought to book. This allows Kagti—who shares directing duties with Ruchika Oberoi—to protract and occasionally pause the central chase, expending time and energy on social commentary. Not all of it is subtle: the image of an upper-caste cop ‘purifying’ his cubicle with incense sticks comes to mind, the Anubhav Sinha-ness of the scene belatedly confirmed by Anjali bringing up the Constitution. But the show’s grip on gender disparities and oppression is unerring. A predator like Anand exists because he can exploit the vulnerabilities of women stifled by their domestic situation. Even Anjali isn’t free from constant societal scrutiny, her mother repeatedly insisting she settled down.

The last time Kagti and Akhtar collaborated on a thriller was Talaash(2012). That film drew its power from character psychologies and an exploration of private trauma. Something similar is ventured in Dahaad, even if Anand is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a sympathetic character. Despite Tanay Satam’s stark cinematography, the world-building is not wholly pitiless either. Caste pride and conservatism pervade the small-town milieu. Yet, there are also flashes of sanity and progressiveness: two of the best scenes involve minor characters having an honest heart-to-heart.

As a police procedural, Dahaad has to compete with acclaimed Indian shows like Paatal Lok and Delhi Crime. I found the deliberate middle episodes of the series to be the most engaging. Varma, calm and methodical as he goes about his job, is an entertaining foil to Sinha. The series has fun with Anjali reining in her textbook feistiness and learning to work with evidence and clues. Gulshan Devaiah—cast against type as a reassuring voice of reason—and Sohum Shah as a slimy, repentant officer are excellent on the sides. It all goes to pot in the climax, which felt rushed and underwhelming for a series of this caliber. Did ideas suddenly dry up on the page? Were the makers going for a second season before budgets were pulled? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Dahaad is currently streaming on Prime Video

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