An Indian filmmaker gets express permission from the Christie estate to adapt one of the celebrated authors in an Indian context. Normally, that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows because the creative industries need sources of stories to mine and make films out of. But if you hear the name Vishal Bhardwaj, the one man who is synonymous with crafting some of the definitive Shakespeare adaptations in an Indian context, that automatically raises expectations, at least mildly. And besides, the name carries cache; otherwise, why would audiences be so interested in his streaming debut show? Well, perhaps because Wamiqa Gabbi is the lead.
I am more and more convinced that single-location shows or whodunnits are set around hill stations because of automatic atmospherics. All you need to do to ensure a feeling of dread or foreboding is a muted colour palette and gorgeous outdoor cinematography, which wouldn’t be utilised anyway because most of the show is taking place indoors in closed rooms. And it’s not as if incidents occurring in closed rooms have anything bland about them. After all, there’s a seance predicting a murder, a murder occurring two hours away, plenty of suspects with apparent airtight alibis, plenty of red herrings to go around with that alibi, and a gorgeous amateur sleuth out to clear her fiance’s name who is arrested on suspicion of the murder.
It is suitably complicated, but what gives this show the spark it desires is Charulata “Charlie” Chopra, the spunky, badass, Punjabi-accented, amateur sleuth whose sleuthing genes come from her mother, but she only utilises her capabilities when necessary and falls into that sleuthing game to clear her beloved Jimmy’s (Vivaan Shah) name of the murder of the wealthy Brigadier Rawat Singh (Gulshan Grover). Oh, and did I forget? She breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience.
For most of these whodunnits, the trick is to keep an audience at a distance because the revelation is the key, but with Charlie Chopra breaking the fourth wall, it is almost as if we are literally with Charlie in this case, looking through it with her own eyes. There aren’t any cutaways to other events once Charlie gets involved with the case, and it becomes a somewhat unique, solipsistic experience. It helps that Charlie, played by Wamiqa Gabbi, is fiercely independent, and with every moment she comes across a man interested in her or a new break in the case, Gabbi’s expressions and inflexions carry forth dimensions of emotions far more than even a screenplay could realistically fit in. There is an off-kilter rhythm within Gabbi’s performance, a rhythm that is somewhat shared sparingly within the environment where she interacts.
That irreverence in Chopra’s character is the extent to which Bharadwaj and his writing team are prepared to go to produce any semblance of personality. One might argue that a story like this brought to film lives and dies by its main lead, and if that investigator is charismatic, the battle is halfway won. But the filmmaker has to meet the other half as well, and even after stocking the cast with thespians and talented performers like Priyanshu Painyulli, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Neena Gupta, and a host of others, “Charlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley cannot cross the bridge from being a stagey, staid, and bland production to something more interesting and vibrant. It progresses perhaps a quarter of the way, due to which we get shades of black humour in unexpected moments, be it Chandan Roy Sanyal’s character laughing in glee on hearing about the murder or the police investigator’s barely disguised disdain towards Charlie Chopra, which leads her to difficulties within the case due to the sheer simplicity of the authorities choosing to ignore her observations.
But there is nothing else to write home about here. Tassaduq Hussain, as the cinematographer, is given nothing to work on here, and the interiors, as a result, look dour and drab. Bharadwaj’s knack for weaving in real-life issues like the plight of the medically infirmed cadets in military-boarded schools or the CAA-NRC debate is just airbrushed upon. For the most part, this show feels very much like taking the skeleton of the original Christie novel, with a final resolution that is so outrageous and yet so much based on medical research and pharmacology that it could only have come from the source, and thus a pretty evident marker of the faithfulness of the adaptation.
The problem is everything else. At the cost of making the central protagonist so kooky and yet so memorable, Bhardwaj frontloads her with all the personality he can muster. He even goes to the extent of making her go through an entire season’s worth of character arc in a single episode; the episode felt rushed as a result. Thus, “Charlie Chopra” is memorable, down to her catchphrase and the earworm of a theme song. It’s “The Mystery of the Solang Valley” that needed the lion’s share of the work and where the story falters. And from the oeuvre of a director like Bhardwaj, bland isn’t exactly what you would expect. But even the greats miss their home runs.