‘Lootere’ series review: Ambitious hijack drama on the high seas

Hansal Mehta’s new series, set in the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia, is too dense and sprawling for its own good

March 26, 2024 04:34 pm | Updated March 27, 2024 01:40 pm IST

A still from ‘Lootere’

A still from ‘Lootere’

From the bustling newsrooms and trading floors of claustrophobic Mumbai, Hansal Mehta sets sail for the high seas in Lootere, his latest long-form offering. Mehta serves as showrunner on this 8-part miniseries directed by his son, Jai (Shaailesh Singh is credited as creator; Vishal Kapoor and Suparn S Varma have written the screenplay from a story by Anshuman Sinha). Set on and off the coasts of Africa, this is a highly, and often bewilderingly ambitious series, combining elements of hijack drama, political thriller, and transcontinental crime saga. Like the RMS Titanic, it’s clearly weighted against itself, negotiating chunky narrative icebergs before inevitably crashing its hull.

The basic premise recalls Captain Phillips (2013), where Tom Hanks fended off Somalian pirates on a large commercial ship. Intriguingly, Rajat Kapoor—who plays the imperiled captain in Lootere—isn’t our dramatic entry point into the story. Instead, the series finds its protagonist (if he can be called that) in the unlikely figure of Vikrant (Vivek Gomber), a lumpish businessman of Indian origin based in Mogadishu, Somalia. From the start, Vikrant’s fortunes are on the slide: his trading empire, which he inherited in marriage, is collapsing, and he is tipped to lose his presidency of the city’s port. A cargo ship, inbound from Ukraine and bearing precious contraband, appears to be the answer to his prayers. Soon, though, it becomes a nightmare, as pirates besiege the Indian-owned vessel and divert it towards Harardhere, some 300 miles from Mogadishu.

The pursuit and subsequent capture of the ship isn’t as thrillingly choreographed as in Captain Phillips (a beautiful moment, where Tom Hanks and Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi lock eyes through binoculars, is still etched in my mind). The tension in Lootere kicks in once the pirates storm the ship and start rounding up the crew. The captain, AK Singh (Kapoor), is Indian, so are most of the staff. Meanwhile, on land, a complex game of negotiations, deceit, and backchannel diplomacy is waged. A key stakeholder is Ajay Kotwal (Chandan Roy Sanyal), a sybaritic shipping magnate in Kyiv who is Vikrant’s partner in crime.

Lootere (Hindi, English)
Showrunner: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Vivek Gomber, Amruta Khanvilkar, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Martial Batchamen Tchana
Episodes: 2 out of 8
Run-time: 40-45 minutes
Storyline: The hijacking of a Somalia-bound ship by pirates sets into motion a complex chain of events

Delhi exerts a peripheral, shadowy presence, with a customary acknowledgment of Indian soft power in Africa (“Bad Indian,” a pirate scoffs, when Singh confesses he isn’t acquainted with Akshay Kumar.) Barring a few episodes in the second season of Sacred Games (2019), Lootere is the first major Hindi streaming show set predominantly in Africa. The series was shot during the pandemic, with South Africa substituting for Somalia. Al-Shabaab, the East African militant group involved in the ongoing Somali Civil War, is fictionalized here as ‘Al-Muharib’. At one point, we visit a pirate training camp, with destitute young children enlisted in dangerous maritime adventures. It’s shot with a curious NatGeo detachment, summarizing a nation riven by drugs, desperation, and decades of civic strife.

There are quirks in the writing that pay eventual dividends. Before the pirates embark on their mission, they are warned by their handlers not to kill any crew. Our awareness of this precondition only heightens tension on both sides. Jai, making his stand-alone directorial debut, shows promise as an action filmmaker, shooting convincingly scrappy skirmishes and near-escapes in confined spaces. The series has a tendency towards graphic brutality for shock—bleeding noses, severed limbs, a head popped open over lunch—which feels both desperate and a little surprising, given Mehta’s relative control over the material.

It’s rankly absurd to hear the Somalis converse with each other exclusively in English, though linguistically, the Indians aren’t any better off. Vikrant and Ajay have pretty much the same style of speech, peppered with desi expletives, even though one grew up in Africa and the other is a resident of Ukraine. Gomber, known for subtle performances in films like Court and Sir, is made to play broad and boisterous, a chain-smoking brute in pinstripe suits, sounding painfully incongruous dispensing action movie patter (“You don’t know who I am... you don’t know what I can do.... you don’t know what I am capable of!”). It is a weird mismatch, since every time Vikrant is with his family—Amruta Khanvilkar and Varin Roopani play his wife and son—he lapses into Gomber’s soft-toned ordinary Hindi.

Rajat Kapoor is characteristically measured and involving as the beleaguered captain, though I wish there was more of him, and more often. This is where the density and sprawl of Lootere start to work against it. Its steadily inflating scope and diverging plotlines give us little to hang on to. Despite the vast dramatis personae of the show, the most fascinating characters are on the ship, including Barkhad (Martial Batchamen Tchana), the tough yet honorable leader of the pirates. A former militant, Barkhad has traded the tumult of his broken land for the choppy familiarity of its open seas. Vikrant mentions seeking one’s fortune in the Gulf of Eden. Barkhad is halfway there.

2 out of 8 episodes of Lootere are streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. The rest premiere weekly on Fridays.

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