A still from Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley. (courtesy: sonylivindia)
A whodunit that may appear outmoded but continues to be enduringly appealing - the book from which this web series is adapted, Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, was first published in 1931 - receives a lively, absorbing and nifty makeover in Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley.
Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj from a script he wrote with Anjum Rajabali and Jyotsna Hariharan, the six-episode SonyLIV series centres on a murder foretold and a wrongful arrest, which forces an amateur sleuth to swing into action in a terrain where danger lurks at every corner.
Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley takes liberties, often frothily so, with the source novel and rustles up situations and thinks up character quirks that serve not only to significantly indigenize the story but also to update it for contemporary sensibilities. The result isn't instantly scintillating but as Charlie Chopra's investigation unfolds, the show grows on you.
Bhardwaj assembles a cast of seasoned screen performers and younger actors who do their bit to liven up the proceedings even though a few of them are left to languish on the fringes of the plot. Not so Wamiqa Gabbi.
The lead actress is delightfully full of beans, bringing the young detective alive by combining the curiosity of a wide-eyed rookie with the firm resolve of a steely woman in search of the truth in an environment of distrust and subterfuge.
A Himachal Pradesh hill station stands in for snowy Dartmoor in Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley. The subdued colour palette that the location yields (through the camera of cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain) lends the series both depth of view and sustained visual gloss.
The surface sparkles. What lies underneath holds the aces. More than the texture of the images and the interplay of sun and snow, light and shadow, and silences and sounds, what the series gets absolutely right is the tone of the delivery. Secrets hover over the environs and the homes that the suspects inhabit, but the air of dread is tempered with doses of gentle humour, which spring from the acute angularities of the characters.
Agatha Christie's amateur sleuth Emily Trefusis turns into Charulata "Charlie" Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi), a cocky Patiala girl who begins investigating the murder of a retired brigadier when her fiancé Jimmy Nautiyal (Vivaan Shah), the victim's nephew and a start-up entrepreneur in need of a big sum of money, is charged with homicide and taken into police custody.
In the course of a seance during a weekend get-together in the Solang Valley home of an ill-tempered psychic (Naseeruddin Shah), the spirit of a woman long dead, speaking through a girl possessed, claims that Brigadier Meherbaan Singh Rawat (Gulshan Grover) is dead in his Manali bungalow.
The superannuated army man is indeed found in a pool of blood by his best friend, Colonel Anand Barua (Baharul Islam), who risks his life and makes his way to the cottage (in blizzard-like conditions and poor visibility). He breaks into the house with the brigadier's trusted long-time factotum Hanif Sheikh (Ashique Hussain) and a jaded police inspector, Narayan Joshi (Ghanshyam Garg).
Everybody at the séance - incidentally, Kenneth Branagh's best Agatha Christie reworking yet, A Haunting in Venice, which is still in the multiplexes, begins with a similar ritual congregation although The Hallowe'en Party and the Sittaford Mystery were written forty years apart - is a suspect.
Everybody stands to benefit from the death of the wealthy brigadier, who, as Charlie's investigation progresses, emerges as a man with more than his share of skeletons in the cupboard. Similarly, everybody around the deceased, his family and friends, has something to hide and Charlie is determined to do what it takes to find the real culprit and prove Jimmy's innocence.
The Old Manali Police station is in a hurry to bury Jimmy, but Charlie, with the aid of pesky television journalist Sitaram Bisht (Priyanshu Painyuli), which whom she starts off on the wrong foot, probes the circumstances of Brigadier Rawat's murder.
As she ferrets for information, Charlie has a lot to deal with - a ski resort that might have hit a dead-end, a clandestine marijuana business, an insurance fraud, a couple of fugitives hiding in plain sight, a schizophrenic under psychiatric treatment, a war refugee and much else. As lies and half-truths stumble out of the closet, the girl dives in headlong, unmindful of the risks.
Jimmy has a two elder siblings, sister Saloni (Paoli Dam) and brother Billu (Imaad Shah), none of whom is above suspicion. Saloni's husband Manas Dabral (Chandan Roy Sanyal), a writer with a series of duds behind him, and a host of other relatives, the brigadier's younger brother Mohan (Lalit Parimoo), his psychoanalyst-wife Janki (Neena Gupta) and their ailing son Varun (Pulkit Makol), who requires an expensive kidney transplant, are also on Charlie's radar.
Neither is that all. Charlie has several others on her list of suspects - a semi-classical vocalist (Lara Dutta) and her daughter Wasima (Bhagyashree Tarke), the mysterious Miss Bharucha (Ratna Pathak Shah), the Negis (Amitabh Bhattacharjee and Damini Basu), who live on rent in a cottage owned by the brigadier, and, to be sure, the dead man's Man Friday, Hanif Sheikh.
Bhardwaj retains the classic Agatha Christie construct while employing stylistic flourishes that put his stamp on the narrative. The show opens with a muder, which is followed by a couple of more deaths, and the storyline is strewn with red herrings, exactly the way they are in the latest film adaptation of a Hercule Poirot case, A Haunting in Venice.
The rest of the arc is markedly different. With a robust title track composed by Vishal Bhardwaj and sung by Sunidhi Chauhan setting the tone - it introduces Charlie Chopra, her address and her penchant for perplexing cases - the protagonist takes the high-spirited timbre of the show forward, repeatedly turning to the camera and sharing asides with the audience.
The distancing effect has an underpinning of delicious whimsy that in the process of underscoring the artifice at play in the adaptation also creates for the audience a sense of familiarity with, and empathy for, the winsome Charlie Chopra, a girl who is herself always only a murderous attack away from grave physical danger.
In what is a show that is dominated by Wamiqa Gabbi, a few of the other actors are in their elements, none more so than Priyanshu Painyuli. If there are a few weak links in the cast of Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley, it is primarily because the overcrowded show is inevitably unable to accord equal importance to all the characters.
Among the supporting actors, Neena Gupta and Ratna Pathak Shah have their moments, but one is left wishing that Lara Dutta and Paoli Dam had more to do. But, in the ultimate analysis, what the show lacks is far outweighed by what it contains. Watchable all the way.
Wamiqa Gabbi, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Neena Gupta, Lara Dutta, Gulshan Grover, Vivaan Shah, Imaad Shah, Paoli Dam and Priyanshu Painyuli, Chandan Roy Sanyal