Bejoy's Nambiar's 'Kaala' series review: Dazzling and confused

 Kaala feels bloated, and Bejoy Nambiar’s over-stylized direction makes it a pretty, confused mess.
Avinash Tiwary in Kaala.
Avinash Tiwary in Kaala.

A picture is worth a thousand words. This seems an aphorism that director Bejoy Nambiar keeps close to his chest. Every episode of his latest series Kaala begins with a visual, which is abruptly cut to black, as if the camera has shut its ‘eyes’. Then we see it in a close-up before the screen goes black again. The visual then reappears, this time almost touching the screen. It feels like a tired gimmick to intensify a scene. In one of the opening sequences, Nambiar even uses it on a steaming kettle. I didn’t know that seeing tea being made can be so anxious.

Kaala is a saga of two sons and two fathers. One son is Ritwik Mukherjee (Avinash Tiwary), an IB officer, building a case against another son Naman Arya (Taher Shabbir), a business tycoon engaged in waste recycling which is actually a front for money laundering and ‘reverse hawala’. Their fathers go long back. While Ritwik’s dad was Shubendhu Mukherjee (Rohan Mehra) an Army officer, disgraced after a secret operation went wrong, Naman’s was Balwant Singh (Jitin Gulati) a corrupt border police officer instrumental in labelling Shubendhu as a traitor. Unbeknownst to the sons, they have inherited their fathers’ enmity.

The show is sprawling, almost novelistic in its storytelling. The timelines jump between 1988 and 2018. In flashbacks, we see how Shubendhu tracks down Balwant while currently Ritwik strives to bring down Naman’s empire. The series is filled to the brim and spills often. Smuggling on the India-Bangladesh border, money laundering, an international black money ‘syndicate’, secret informers, political nexus, financial fraud, it glides over narratives with a jittery immediacy. Kaala feels bloated, and Nambiar’s over-stylized direction makes it a pretty, confused mess. In a scene, the camera hovers over two women making out on a bed, slowly zooming in close. It felt giddy, indulgent and frankly, unnecessary.

What I liked about Kaala, was the attempt to weave a well-rounded epic (Apart from Nambiar, the series was written by Francis Thomas, Pryas Gupta, Mithila Hegde and Shubha Swarup). But it remains selective in the development of its characters. Naman is initially introduced as the main antagonist, suave and slithering but is soon put on a backseat as the focus shifts to his father Balwant. Some characters get an overly-detailed back story, while others are mere standbys to nudge the narrative forward. With all its cinematic athletics, Kaala feels desperate to evoke emotions out of viewers. Nambiar uses all tricks in his repository, from swaying, dizzying drone shots of car chases to dazzling yellows of blasts shown with abandon. Words, however, fail him. His characters talk in exposition and he strains the images to cover up for the lack of gravitas in the narrative. Resultantly, for the majority of its runtime, the series remains a kaleidoscope, bright, vivid and hollow in the middle.

The colours create a lot of noise in Kaala. You get a tube light blue in a rescue mission, a sepia yellow in a flashback, a crimson red at a wedding. The grading gets too bright and too dark but never fully illuminates what is happening in the plot. What is exactly Naman’s business? Why is he sending money across to Bangladesh to aid rebels? What is this syndicate pulling the strings of both Naman and his father Balwant? Thousand questions no image can answer.

Created and directed by: Bejoy Nambiar

Starring: Avinash Tiwary, Taher Shabbir, Jitin Gulati, Rohan Vinod Mehra, Saurabh Sachdeva

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Rating: 2/5 stars

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