If you’re in the market for sharp, socially conscious cop dramas — perhaps something with a female lead — I’d recommend Dahaad, a grim story about casteism and misogyny in northern India. Barring a slapdash climax, Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s series is a stunning watch, accomplished and satisfying in most ways but one: it lacks relief. As though in response, Netflix is now streaming Kathal, a mystery film that charts roughly the same territory... but does so with humour and pop.
Moba MLA Munnalal Pateria (Vijay Raaz) is furious. Two ripe Malaysian breed jackfruits, each weighing 15 kilos, have been stolen from his front yard. Pateria was growing them for a rarefied pickle, a promised gift for the state Chief Minister (the setting is Uttar Pradesh). The inspecting officer, Mahima Basor (Sanya Malhotra), is both bemused and aghast; as she tells her superintendent, this is not a legible case. Still, it becomes her lot to find the jackfruits, assisted by constables Kunti (Neha Saraf) and Saurabh (Anant Vijay Joshi), the latter of whom is also her beau.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the jackfruits are a MacGuffin. As Mahima investigates the case, a larger, far more pressing crime bursts into view. The film, at this point, acquires a serio-comic tone it will sustain for the rest of its span. The humour flows from Rajpav Yadav’s (playing a local journalist) partially bald crown; it resembles, at times, the Japanese chonmage without the knot. But the visual quirkiness does not paper over the many cross-currents of gender and caste. Mahima’s life is no different from Sonakshi Sinha’s in Dahaad; a backward caste woman who’s risen up the ranks, yet is subject to the same sexism and muted prejudice that’s the lay of the land.
Kathal is produced by Guneet Monga Kapoor; her Sikhya Entertainment had backed Pagglait, another light-touch, gender-sensitive dark comedy starring Malhotra. The other big influence is TVF. Director Yashowardhan Mishra appropriates the visual grammar of the best TVF shows: you can bet actors Raghubir Yadav and Ranjan Raj turn up for cameos. The art design and cinematography is cheery and accented, highlighting a pink Nano here and an orange popsicle there. The final stand-off climaxes with a vegetable fight. The ideas aren’t fresh but will keep an impatient audience member watching.
Kathal is perceptive about its small-town universe and its interactions with modernity. Mahima solves her case perusing CCTV footage and images on WhatsApp. Brijendra Kala plays a suit-wearing forensic expert. Digitisation is everywhere, yet technology and Westernisation are also perceived as corrupting influences. Enquiring about a missing girl, Mahima is told she used to wear ‘ripped jeans’ — an incriminating detail. The reverse happens when a cop, looking for an upper-caste groom for his daughter, shows pictures of her in a Western outfit on his phone.
Sanya Malhotra is perfect (perhaps too perfect) as Mahima, in turns sweet-faced and exasperated. The film, sticking to its easy-breezy tone, does not throw her much of a challenge. She is best in her scenes with Joshi, suggesting a power dynamic rarely explored between Hindi film couples. Saurabh, though a lowly constable, can’t quite check his caste privilege; Mahima upbraids him for his maltreatment of the poor even as she waits for him to be promoted, so they can marry. It’s a lively criss-crossing of emotions, and Malhotra and Joshi lend it spark.
As befits a film about a hunt for missing jackfruits, Kathal is full of characters complaining about their jobs. “We go by the IPC,” sighs the portly superintendent. “Indian Political Code.” Anuj, the fake news-smelling reporter played by Rajpal Yadav, calls patrakaarita (journalism) a “thankless job”. Yet, when Mahima comes to arrest him in a scene, we see him beaming from ear to ear. He’s been accused of ‘anti-national’ activities, and he couldn’t be happier. Years of grassroots reporting has taught him how such stories play in the wider media. His ‘Moba Samaachaar’ is about to go international.
Kathal is currently streaming on Netflix