A still from Shehar Lakhot. (courtesy: YouTube)
In Shehar Lakhot, a neo-noir crime drama series peppered with dark humour and atmospherics that evoke the heat and dust of the location, director and showrunner Navdeep Singh (NH 10, Laal Kaptaan) returns to the fictional town in Rajasthan where his critically acclaimed 2007 debut film, Manorama Six Feet Under, was set.
The long-format exercise is a far cry (in terms of both substance and style) from the thriller that Singh made 16 years ago but it does yield substantial dividends. However, there is so much going on in the series that the murky, messy history of the marble mining town that the script seeks to dive into is often lost in a dense haze of opacity.
Shehar Lakhot does not possess the depth and range of either Dahaad or Kohrra, but the show rustles up an array of characters that grab instant attention owing to the absorbing arcs that the script by Singh and Devika Bhagat is able to etch out for them.
The eight-part Amazon Prime Video show revolves around a man who calls himself a negotiator (he is not a fixer, he emphasises) and has a past that he is determined to live down. But circumstances conspire to bring him face to face with the realties that he wants to run away from.
The tetchy protagonist, Devendra Singh Tomar (played with restraint by Priyanshu Painyuli), reluctantly makes his way back to his hometown in an SUV that his boss gifted to a demanding young mistress who wants her car back in one piece. He left Lakhot a decade ago and isn't sure it is a good idea to return.
Such is the terrain that the vehicle that Dev drives, the family that he tries to reconnect with and the job that he has been sent to Lakhot for - ending a blockade of a marble mine by an agitated local tribe that has lived on the land for centuries - cause him and others no end of grief.
A local activist Vikas Kachdaar (Chandan Roy) - he has a doctoral thesis on the social impact of mining under his belt - leads the protestors. He is the man that Dev negotiates with. But progress is painfully slow because Vikas refuses to abandon either the cause he espouses or the people he leads.
Lakhot is poised on the verge of a development boom - a road is being built from the city to Kota and the inauguration of a new marble mine promises to open avenues of growth for its denizens - but its small-town ambience is hard to dispel.
Shehar Lakhot kicks off with the discovery of a White woman's body buried in a dry, dusty, desolate piece of land. Pallavi (Kubbra Sait) of the Lakhot police station's women cell ferrets around for clues even as the officer-in-charge Rajbir Rangot (Manu Rishi Chadha) wants her to close the case and move on. But she, the sole woman in a male-dominated police outpost, is persistent.
Each episode of Shehar Lakhot is nearly an hour long, with the final one clocking a minute over 70 minutes. The series inevitably feels stretched and taxing at times. The writers are under constant pressure to keep the less effective passages from sticking out too prominently and undermining the impact of the series as a whole.
But the parts and elements of the twisted tale that work - a few of the characters in particular and Dev's complex relationships with his father (Gyan Prakash), elder brother Jayendra (Kashyap Shangari), sister-in-law Vidushi (Shruti Jolly) and Sandhya (Shruthy Menon), the girlfriend he left behind without so much as a by-your-leave - generate intrigue and suspense.
Shehar Lakhot has three characters outside Dev's immediate orbit who add layers to the narrative - besides the smarmy cop Rajbir and the assiduous Pallavi, there is the unapologetically wicked Kairav Singh (Chandan Roy Sanyal).
Kairav owns the marble mine that he claims will change Lakhot forever. He lives in a sprawling castle that doubles up as a heritage hotel where a slew of unseemly secrets lies buried.
The mendacities and treacheries, the shenanigans of politicians and policemen, the deceit and deadly conspiracies, the conspiracies and betrayals flow thick and fast once the series gathers steam and plunges into an abyss of amorality.
The male protagonist stands his ground despite being repeatedly roughed up. A tragedy compels him to dodge the law and vicious pursuers, among whom is a duo of siblings, Bhi (Manjiri Pupala) and Bho (Sanjay Shiv Narayan), who work for Kairav.
Bhi, who wields a bow and arrow with as proficiently as she handles firearms, is one of many women in Shehar Lakhot whose survival instincts border on the uncanny, resting as they do on the kind of meanness that stems of toxic masculinity. But not every woman in the series is her replica.
Pallavi and Bhi represent two different worlds just as Sandhya and Vidushi do. Pallavi and Vidushi are good friends. The former is anything but feminine - a reflection of who she is in a man's world; the latter is a docile, soft-spoken homemaker who comes into her own when secrets begin to tumble out of her husband's closet.
Sandhya's troubles are the most daunting. She is caught between two bickering, poles-apart brothers and between a man who wants to have Lakhot all to himself and another prodigal who wants to get away from it as soon as he can.
Alternating between the fascinating and the mechanical, Shehar Lakhot throws a few punches that land but it would have benefitted immensely from a shorter runtime. Is it good enough for a binge? It is because there is much in the series that goes beyond the limits of the genre.
The first-rate performances by an effectively edgy Priyanshu Painyuli, an understatedly beguiling Kubbra Sait, a consistent Manu Rishi Chadha and a superlatively classy Chandan Roy Sanyal (superb), the fusion of crime, politics, police work and family dynamics in an environment in which nothing is what it seems, and the evocation of a lawless town in flux combine to make Shehar Lakhot watchable for the most part.
If only the series had not demanded such a huge chunk of our time, it would have been another story. A leaner structure would have made a huge difference to the show's overall impact.
Priyanshu Painyuli, Shruthy Menon, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Kubbra Sait, Manu Rishi Chadha and Sanjay Shiv Narayan