Mahi V Raghav, the showrunner of the recent Telugu comedy-drama series Save the Tigers, explores the other end of the spectrum with Shaitan, the new Telugu web series he has written and directed. The series streaming on Disney+ Hotstar begins with ample trigger warnings. Viewers are advised to watch it in isolation and use headphones, given the use of profane language, violence and sexual content. This one is not out to please family audiences and aims to be in the space of Hindi series such as Sacred Games, Paatal Lok and Mirzapur.
Shaitan harks back to the period between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s to narrate the story of a family caught at the crossroads of police brutality, the Naxal movement and the politics of the State. As always, it is those who struggle to make ends meet who bear the brunt of the socio-political atmosphere. Savitri (Shelly) is a single mother who makes peace with being exploited by a police officer. All she wants is to feed her three children. If she has fallen in the eyes of society’s standpoint of morality, she rarely lets it affect her.
Cast: Rishi, Shelly, Devyani, Jaffer Sadiq, Ravi Kale
Direction: Mahi V Raghav
Storyline: A family caught in the crossfire between police, politics and Naxals in rural Telangana takes the violent path to survive.
Streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
The narrative focuses on the plight of her children who battle demons of different kinds and ultimately choose violence. The story is narrated from the point of view of Baali (Rishi) who is cornered in a police encounter after he threatens the home minister of the State. His face shows no fear, for he has been hardened by living life on the edge.
Baali reminisces how he tried his best to eke out a living by working hard but was forced to use violence to survive. His younger brother, the short-statured Gumthi (Jaffer Sadiq), grows up to be a cold-blooded murderer willing to do anything for his siblings; and their demure sister Jayaprada (Devyani) wants to lead a peaceful life but destiny has other plans. These tropes used by Shaitan are familiar. What gives the characters and the situations a relatively new spin is the period rural Telangana setting in Madanapalle.
Mahi Raghav fleshes out characters such that while we do understand their plight and are curious to know their journey, they remain grey-shaded and do not evoke sympathy. The other characters we are introduced to over the nine episodes — including the police officers and Naxal leaders — are also morally ambiguous and opportunists. The subplot involving Baali and police officer Nagi Reddy (Ravi Kale) is the most interesting one of the lot.
Heads get chopped, cuss words are thrown around liberally and women are assaulted at regular intervals; after a point, it gets tiresome. Rishi is effective as a man who is pushed to the brink and having decided to strike back, knows no fear. Jaffer Sadiq who made an impression with his wicked act in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram gets further scope to embrace the violent side and he is convincing. Shelly is striking as the quiet rebel who can get mean to survive. The one who gradually makes her presence felt is Devyani. Ravi Kale, Kamakshi and others are aptly cast.
The nine episodes span 25 to 30 minutes each and the payoffs begin from the fifth episode. The Naxals-police-politics web gets thicker. Had the focus been on fleshing out some of the subplots better instead of the overdose of sex and violence, Shaitan could have hoped to make a better impact. The characters and subplots had potential but Shaitan does not tap into them enough.
(Streaming on Disney+ Hotstar)