Photo Credit: Disney+ Hotstar
The Great Indian Murder, out now on Disney+ Hotstar, is an insanely disastrous adaptation of a maddeningly ambitious novel. It's based in parts on Vikas Swarup's 2008 whodunnit Six Suspects — Swarup is best known for the book that got made into the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire — which, through its six titular suspects, comments on virtually everything under the sun. Class, politics, indigenous, nationalists, spoiled elite, the unprivileged, and Gandhian principles — you name it, Swarup's book attempts to tackle it. Not all of these make it to The Great Indian Murder, but as you can tell from the refashioned grandiose title, the new Hotstar Specials series — directed and co-written by Tigmanshu Dhulia (Paan Singh Tomar) — is no less audacious.
Swarup was unable to bring it all together in his book, but The Great Indian Murder fails in an even grander fashion. Unable to get a grip on the dozens of characters and their intertwining storylines, Dhulia and his collaborators — actor-writer Vijay Maurya (Toofaan, Radhe) and lyricist Puneet Sharma (Dhamaka) — simply throw in the towel. (Ajay Devgn is among the producers.) Its nine episodes swerve wildly in tone and the way they are handled. There's no cohesion to any of it; myriad ideas not only clash with one another in the same episode, but remain strangely disparate. Pop culture is expected to draw parallels, but that's beyond the capabilities of Dhulia and Co.
Most scenes land with absolutely zero impact — as we push deeper and deeper, it's mind-bogglingly excruciating to watch as Dhulia (the sole director) haplessly struggles with the material. And while the book had enough narrative intrigue to push you through its hackneyed clichéd ideas, the Disney+ Hotstar adaptation is all backstory and no forward momentum. That's true even deep into the final episode when the net should be closing in on the suspect. The Great Indian Murder opts for an unnecessary and unbelievable last-minute twist that does nothing to add to the story, but exists purely to leave the audience guessing (and hanging). It's a plot twist for plot twist sakes.
The Great Indian Murder is disjointed, a mess from start to finish, and ends on a whimper. It's quite possibly the worst thing Disney+ Hotstar has ever said yes to.
It's all further dragged down by some of the dumbest cops ever written. They get involved in useless chase sequences, after turning their backs on a suspect. It takes them days to realise that they should ask crime scene witnesses to submit their phones so they can go through videos that were shot on the night of a crime. They don't think to go through evidence when an incident happens or when a suspect is caught. Instead, they only realise it days later — or is told to them by someone who wasn't even directly assigned to the case evidence to begin with. Some of this is done to drag the suspense and lie to the audience. It's not all dumb cops in The Great Indian Murder, there are other dumb characters too.
Because of the terrible writing and lacklustre direction, all the actors involved (save one) feel like they are working in a B-movie or something. It doesn't help that The Great Indian Murder is technically poor as well. The camerawork and cinematography — by Rishi Punjabi (Yaara, Vinaya Vidheya Rama) — is pedestrian and impersonal. There's no visual language on display here; so much of the new Hotstar Specials series is shot with long lenses that give it a terrible look. Even the sound and foley work is subpar, comparable more with student films than with productions that belong on the Big Three (Netflix and Amazon Prime Video being the other two). In essence, The Great Indian Murder feels both cheap and phoned in.
The new Hotstar Specials series revolves around the investigation into the murder of playboy industrialist Vicky Rai (Jatin Goswami) who, in Swarup's book, is written as an amalgamation of Jessica Lal murderer Manu Sharma, Salman Khan (hunting endangered blackbucks), and Sanjeev Nanda (involved in the 1999 Delhi hit-and-run). On The Great Indian Murder, Rai is convicted for covering up the death of two teenage girls, but later goes scot-free after his Chhattisgarh politician father Jagannath Rai (Ashutosh Rana) pays off the investigating cops. As Vicky celebrates his manufactured acquittal at the Rai's South Delhi mansion, he's shot dead — that pulls in Delhi Police's Sudha Bharadwaj (Richa Chadha) and CBI's Suraj Yadav (Pratik Gandhi).
The immediate suspects are lowly thief Munna (Shashank Arora) who was posing as a waiter at the party, and Andaman native Eketi (Mani PR) who was chasing a precious artefact that belonged to his people. They are both taken in because guns are found on them. In the book, guns are found on six people. The Great Indian Murder introduces the other suspects through a drip feed of information, with the final one — served once again through a Bollywood-ised plot twist — revealed in the season finale. Along the way, the Disney+ Hotstar series introduces a dozen other characters who could be potential suspects — from a Bollywood actress (Paoli Dam) who has a grudge to bear with Vicky, to his badly-treated step-sister (Rucha Inamdar) — but has a terrible habit of forgetting them.
The core task for The Great Indian Murder is to establish an ensemble — but Dhulia seems to have no clue how to weave them in. At times, new characters are introduced in a vignette of sorts between two longer scenes. And then, they aren't seen for episodes altogether. But what is most baffling of all is that the series' protagonists, Sudha and Suraj, don't even exist for the first two episodes. (Chadha has a non-talking role in episode 1, where the camera oh so deliberately lingers on her for a few seconds. It doesn't count.) The “investigation”, if I can call it that as we will get into that in a minute, doesn't start until episode 3. It's stupid and crazy. And even once our detective duo has been established, they seem to only exist to get characters to play their backstory tapes.
Swarup also used this device in the Slumdog Millionaire book Q&A, where the game show-winning protagonist tells his backstory to the cops who accuse him of cheating, but then the cops weren't the protagonists. Chadha and Gandhi are top-billed on The Great Indian Murder, but if you ask me what their characters do outside of serving narrative needs, I would struggle to answer. The suspects are the meat of the story as they come from all walks of life and paint a picture of India — except Dhulia and Co. are unable to do anything meaningful with their disparate backstories.
The Great Indian Murder ends up being all over the place, figuratively and literally. Episodes bounce around from revolving around a Raipur politician and industrial family across Delhi, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, following an Andaman native who goes from his far-flung home to Kolkata, Chennai, and Jharkhand in one episode, and delving into a retired bureaucrat who suffers from dissociative personality disorder and believes himself to be Mahatma Gandhi. There are dozens of mini-subplots scattered throughout, be it a tone-deaf exploration of Naxalism, threats to investigative media reportage, and the cavalier misinformation and surveillance campaigns orchestrated by government lackeys.
That means every episode, every character needs to stand on their own essentially. But the writing, direction, acting or the filmmaking don't have any sense of power to make you care per episode, like on an anthology level. What The Great Indian Murder needed was a virtuoso director — like say, The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street's Christopher Miller who is tackling different genres every episode that focus on different suspects in the Apple TV+ murder mystery The Afterparty. Or a series of directors who each brought a different visual language to every episode. But Dhulia's direction is so ordinary, monotonous, and uninspiring that everything feels the same and everything feels like nothing. It feels like he directed the entire thing via Zoom from the comfort of his bed.
It's truly baffling that Disney+ Hotstar allowed The Great Indian Murder to get beyond the page. Calling it the worst thing it has ever made is saying something too, given its wholly-dubious legacy in the Hotstar Specials department (and its movie equivalent, Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex). There's an argument to be made these local originals have only had a negative contribution to the platform and brand's image since their conception.
While the HBO intro animation and sound — Disney+ Hotstar remains the home of HBO in India until the launch of HBO Max at least — are attached to a history of great content, I now get the opposite feeling whenever the Hotstar Specials logo animation and accompanying drums sound come on screen. It's terrifying and frightening to me, as my brain asks me: what calamity will they deliver this time? What more lies after City of Dreams, The Office, Special Ops, Sadak 2, Laxmii, The Big Bull, and Bhuj: The Pride of India? What will be next after The Great Indian Murder?
The Great Indian Murder is released Friday, February 4 at 12am IST on Disney+ Hotstar. In the US, The Great Indian Murder is available on Hulu.