Cast: Dimple Kapadia, Radhika Madan, Angira Dhar, Isha Talwar, Deepak Dobriyal, Naseeruddin Shah
Director: Homi Adajania
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of 5)
A thriller spearheaded by Dimple Kapadia as the matriarch of a family of drug dealers in a lawless North Indian desert town, Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo transports us to a world of flawed, tough and unapologetic women who live life queen size wholly on their own terms.
The women reap the perks of power but also pay the price for their intrepid ways - the conflict between rewards and reprisals forms the core of the unconventional family drama that is, to an extent, a quirky rural variation on Disney+Hotstar's Aarya.
Strong atmospherics, a storyline that brims with emotions and action, a slew of solid performances and a script that delivers a full complement of twists and turns combine to make Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo a satisfying, if not necessarily scintillating, show.
The eight-episode Hotstar Specials series alternates between the explosive and the slow burn, the taut and the winding. It follows a dysfunctional family in which nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. That is hardly surprising. Much of the tale unfolds in a secret bunker, the site where the family grows its opium, a place that the rest of the world has no inkling of.
Several fraught relationships - same-sex, bordering on the incestuous, unrequited, heart-breaking, purely romantic, the works - and uneasy interpersonal equations threaten to upset the delicate balance that keeps the brood together. A succession war rages within the family as the woman who runs the business announces her intention to formally name the legal inheritor of her empire.
Besides turning the saas-bahu dynamic on its head and mining it for its innate potential to spring surprises, the crime drama delivers a thrilling plot in which women call all the shots even as the men around them do all that they can not to make things easy for them. But the show isn't so much about the gender divide and its implications as it is about a clash between ambition and familial bonds and its fallout.
The series isn't even-paced - parts of it are a touch sluggish and meandering - but whenever it gathers momentum and hits its straps, Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo, created and directed by Homi Adajania, is thoroughly engaging and entertaining, thanks to a meaty script by Saurav Dey, Nandini Gupta and Aman Mannan.
Set in a fictional desert in a province called Rann Pradesh, the series makes great use of the earthy backdrop, captured evocatively through the lens of director of photography Linesh Desai.
This is a landscape where danger lurks at every corner for Savitri (Dimple Kapadia), who, from a haveli that hides many a secret, plies an illegal trade that is euphemistically called Rani Cooperative. Its annual turnover is upwards of Rs 500 crore but nobody can figure out how a business run on the lines of a self-help group can be such a massive money-spinner.
In Hastipur, an outpost without a police station, Savitri is indeed the Rani of all she surveys. Her rebellious daughter Shanta (Radhika Madan) and two spunky daughters-in-law, Bijlee (Isha Talwar) and Kajal (Angira Dhar), work alongside her. They are a formidable quartet who give no quarters even when the chips are down.
The going gets tough for the badass girls quite frequently, but they hold their ground in the face of the challenges that they face from a philosophy-spouting cocaine dealer (Deepak Dobriyal) and an anti-narcotics assistant commissioner of police Proshoon Jain (Jimit Trivedi), transferred to Rann Pradesh from Mumbai with a clear brief.
Savitri has two bickering sons, Harish (Ashish Verma) and Kapil (Varun Mitra). The two men return from the US, unaware of the true nature of their mother's business. Their wives reveal nothing at all as the clueless duo stumble from one thing to another in their attempts to find a footing in a nook of the world that is now alien to them.
The two siblings have no love lost for Dhiman (Udit Arora), Savitri's adopted son and one of her most trusted aides. Tension mounts - the coke-snorting Harish and the more circumspect Kapil see Dhiman as a major rival in the succession war. That apart, a liaison between their sister and Dhiman is a cause for consternation.
The series opens with a beheading. It is followed by an attack on the haveli. It is repelled by the doughty women. Many others, all men, lose their lives as the story progresses. The series has its share of violence and gore and also a whole lot of intrigue and manipulations that unfold in the shadows of a murky universe.
No matter how firm and focussed the unbending Savitri is, reverses are a part of her existence. A backstory reveals the reasons behind the transformation of a Banjara woman into an imperious and impetuous ringleader. It also points to the circumstances in which Savitri has forged friendships and made enemies in a quarter-century journey of ups and downs.
When a cop comes calling, Savitri says: Banjaron ka ghar nahi hota hai, unka toh sirf raasta howe hai (Nomads have no home, the road is their abode). One of her daughters-in-law says to the other: Yahaan toh maaro yaa maro (Here, you either kill or get killed). Amid all the menace that surrounds the women, they are acutely aware of what they need to do in order to survive.
Especially interesting is the character of the young Shanta, who is a key cog in the wheel. She laces the leaves that her mother grows with a chemical that makes the drug much stronger. Called flamingo, the potent compound produced by Rani Cooperative is in great demand across the country and beyond its boundaries.
In the opening episode, the son of the deputy chief minister falls severely ill due to a drug overdose in a nightclub, a packet of flamingo is seized by the Mumbai Police and an anti-narcotics agent heads out to Rann Pradesh to find the source of the deadly drug. The cop's mission constitutes an important part of the plot.
Dimple Kapadia powers the show with an impressively impactful star turn. Radhika Madan etches out a young woman of substance who does not yield an inch in her pursuit of things that matter to her. Isha Talwar and Angira Dhar are unwaveringly good as the two daughters-in-law.
The male actors in the cast, including Naseeruddin Shah and Deepak Dobriyal, play second fiddle. However, Ashish Verma, Varun Mitra and Udit Arora, playing the three men who nurture hopes of gaining control over Rani Cooperative, and Jimit Trivedi as a cop are no pushovers. The script gives them enough space and they make the most of it.
Saas, Bahu Aur Flamingo may be a bit of a mixed bag but it is undeniably bingeworthy.