Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Vijay Varma, Gulshan Devaiah, Sohum Shah
Director: Reema Kagti
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
A policewoman still in the process of learning the ropes of a high-pressure job is the protagonist of Dahaad, a slow-drilling, distinctive crime drama set in a rugged terrain where poverty, oppression and the lure of matrimony drive women to desperate measures that end in disaster.
The eight-part show, created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti and produced by Excel Media and Tiger Baby, is devoid of the visceral and the explosive. It has no major action scenes, no chase sequences and no playing to the gallery by the law enforcers on the trail of a psychopath. What the series does have is the spark to make the most of a classic crime-and-punishment tale rendered as piercing, rooted social chronicle.
Resident of a small town in Rajasthan's Jhunjhunu district, the policewoman at the heart of the dark, disturbing story has to contend with caste discrimination, gender prejudice, cases of women gone missing without a trace, threats of honour killings, a nagging mother intent on finding her a suitable boy and a wily, weathered serial killer who leaves no clues.
The Amazon Prime Video series revolves around the committed cop, her colleagues and a deceptively taciturn killer. It does not, however, go looking for the sort of thrills and action tics that are integral to conventional police procedurals.
Dahaad spotlights the grind of police work, the human side of law enforcement, the emotions and family responsibilities that weigh down men/women in uniform, the tyranny of unyielding processes and the burden of debilitating social and political pressures.
Directed by Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi and written by the duo with Ritesh Shah and others, Dahaad probes the psyches of the cops engaged in a battle of attrition with a dangerous criminal.
A series of women are found dead in public toilets in towns and villages across the state in what appear to be cases of suicide. Sub-inspector Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha in her streaming debut), posted in Mandawa police station and assigned the case, believes that there is more to the deaths than meets the eye.
She detects a clear pattern in the incidents and works on the hunch that the girls have been killed by a lone wolf although the local superintendent of police insists that a whole gang is involved.
With the steady support of her boss, SHO Devi Lal Singh (Gulshan Devaiah), and with grudging and sporadic help from SI Kailash Parghi (Sohum Shah), whose motivation levels fluctuate wildly as the investigation unfolds, Anjali sets out to get to the bottom of the truth.
She finds herself on a murky trail with distracting detours and deterrents. The first two episodes of Dahaad drop clear hints about who is responsible for the string of deaths before the series proceeds to completely blow the lid off the culprit's identity.
The audience is in the know. The police are in the dark. The challenge before the cops is to gather evidence, figure out the modus operandi and nail the killer. The mission to ascertain how and why the women have ended up dead constitutes the largest part of the Dahaad plot.
But that isn't all there is to Dahaad. It tells the story of a woman who has defied all odds to don a cop's uniform in a caste-conscious, male-dominated world. The show also delves into the mind of a maniac who hides behind a firm façade of sociability.
Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Verma) is a professor of Hindi literature. When he isn't reciting poetry in the classroom, Anand, elder son of a jeweller whose thriving business is now run by his younger son, drives around in a van full of books and reads out stories to disadvantaged village children.
Anand is the prime suspect. But the police have absolutely no proof against him. Nothing in the man's demeanour or personality suggests that he could be a serial killer. But SI Anjali Bhaati thinks otherwise and sticks her neck out.
Anand lives with his wife Vandana (Zoa Morani), who leads the banquets team at a heritage hotel, and a school-going son. His amiability never deserts him. When an emotional crisis hits or when bleak facets of his past emerge, the man does not lose his calm.
As the death toll rises and the cops struggle to make a breakthrough, Dahaad leads us into the discomfiting realities of a conservative society where women are believed to be incomplete unless they marry, the dowry system makes a daughter's wedding prohibitively expensive for impoverished families, and girls at the bottom of the caste hierarchy are easy prey for the predator that Anjali and her team must stop before he claims his next victim.
Given the family she comes from – her deceased father, a Public Works Department employee, changed her surname to make life easier for her – Anjali's battles are manifold. She tries to enter a mansion in the line of duty. The owner stops her. This is our ancestral house and no backward caste person has ever been allowed in, he says. Anjali shoots back: this is not the time of your ancestors; it is the time of the Constitution; you cannot stop me.
The cops in Dahaad are as ordinary as they come. Their heroism manifests itself in little acts of bravery that are a vindication of their humanity. They are at the same time prone to impulsive acts that spark domestic strife. With regard to what happens to the cops as well as to the suspect within the four walls of their homes and in their negotiations with their spouses, the series delivers many surprises and dramatic moments.
Anand's wife sparks a crime that pushes the investigation in a new direction. Devi Singh's wife, Shivangi (Shruti Vyas) raises hell when her husband makes a decision without taking her into confidence. And Parghi's wife Neelam (Swati Semwal) conceives her first child and that triggers a clash between the two.
What these supporting characters say and do not only impact how things pan out for the men, they help the audience understand their shifting thought processes. The top-notch writing and the sure-footed direction help Dahaad derive value from situations that may not be central to the plot but contribute to turning the principal characters into rounded, believable individuals.
The performances are marked by restraint and impressive acuity, with Sonakshi Sinha shining in a role that gives he room to convey a gamut of emotions. Vijay Verma stands out as the seemingly meek Hindi professor. Gulshan Devaiah is terrific as the incorruptible police officer. Sohum Shah delivers a flawless performance as the conflicted cop.
On the technical front, too, Dahaad is noteworthy. The background score (Gaurav Raina and Tarana Marwah), the cinematography (Tanay Satam) and the editing (Anand Subaya) augment the all-round sharpness of the show.
A refreshingly clear-eyed, multi-layered thriller that pushes genre boundaries, Dahaad soars without having to roar in predictable ways.