Dahaad: The Muted Roar
Powerful series on policing and more
Years ago, I happened to watch an episode of ‘Crime Patrol’ that showcased the story of a Hindi professor, married with children, who also married one young girl after another. Right after the so-called wedding, he gave them a bottle of water and asked them to go to the nearest public toilet and drink it.
In those days, the producers of ‘Crime Patrol’ claimed that each episode was based on a true story. The professor was caught after having killed several young women, their bodies clad in bridal wear.
The real killer was known as “Cyanide Mohan”, a.k.a Mohan Kumar Vivekanand. Accused of alluring and murdering at least 20 women, Vivekanand defended the case himself. None among his family, neighbours and friends believed that he was a serial killer. He was sentenced to death in December 2013.
‘Dahaad’ repeats this story over eight episodes. It is one of the most well-made OTT series I have binge-watched in recent times. Zoya Akhtar who is the creative director and Rima Kagti along with Ruchika Oberoi who are the directors, have done their job with the skill it demands.
The pleasant surprise is the screen image, characterisation and performance of Sonakshi Sinha. It stands in contrast to her large screen appearances. ‘Dahaad’ marks her debut in a web series playing a no-nonsense and gritty cop for the first time.
‘Dahaad’ translates as the “roar of a lion” and, if you know the meaning, which I did not, keeps you wondering which of the major characters is the lion or lioness. Thrillers are a favourite for those who are jumping on the OTT bandwagon and ‘Dahaad’, is one of the more successful ones.
The police thriller is distinguished from other subcategories of the crime genre. It is a story in which the police and police work takes centrestage.
The centre of the investigation is the small police station in Mandawa, a town in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, India. ‘Dahaad’ checks all the boxes that define the classical police thriller.
But it does not stop at that. It goes on to actually point out the psychopath who is continuously getting rid of unsuspecting young women, after seducing them under different names and identities. He promises them an elopement and then kills them with potassium cyanide.
None of the women realise that they are about to die. The killer, Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Verma) keeps chasing new adventures, and no one has the slightest clue why.
The audience knows who he is but not why he is doing all this. Even the cops, intelligent and hard-working, are flummoxed and feel like fools at not being able to detect why so many young women go missing and their bodies surface in public toilets adorned in bridal gear.
The police are alerted only after 27 girls have already been killed and the brother of one of these girls, a Dalit, rushes to file a report on his missing sister again and again. But no one is listening except Anjali Bhaati, the only woman cop in the police station.
Without the intellectual and elitist artifice present in detective thrillers, ‘Dahaad’ cleverly weaves in several social issues that ail Mandawa. The small town is used as a microcosm of India with slight differences in attitudes, beliefs and thought processes.
Anjali Bhaati is not only the sole woman cop in the small police station where the rest are men but she is also a Dalit. Her mother is worried because no boy is willing to marry a policewoman. Anjali is not interested in marriage.
The subordinate male staff at the police station light up bunches of incense sticks to get rid of the “pollution” when she exits the room. Everyone in Mandawa takes digs at her because her police job is ‘not fit for women’. She often has a companion she clandestinely meets for a quick fix in bed, but when he leaves for Pilani, she bids him a no-strings-attached goodbye. She does not forget to take “the morning after” pill to prevent pregnancy. Old-timers may smirk at her but she is a woman who knows her mind and is willing to go the whole way to prove it, even to herself.
The parents of the 27 victims reported missing are not worried about reporting their missing daughters at all because (a) the girls leave a letter about eloping with a lover, (b) the family is too poor to afford dowry so the elopement of the daughter is “good riddance,” and (c) many of them belong to the ‘low caste’. Those who are of a ‘high caste’, are dismissed by their parents for destroying the ‘ijjat’ of the family.
The lone exception is the brother who suspects that something has happened to his missing sister and the case begins from this point on. Anjali Bhaati is the sole cop at Mandawa’s police station who is convinced that the killings are linked, done by a single man and not a gang.
The personal lives of the three main policemen form interesting sub-plots brought across extremely well by Gulshan Devaiah as Devilal Singh, the officer-in-charge, who is Anjali Bhaati’s boss. His wife is constantly suspecting that he is having an affair with Bhaati.
Sohan Shah plays cop Kailash Pargi, grumbling and dissatisfied with his posting and his designation because though he is Bahati's senior, she is always given priority cases by Devilal. Pargi is looking for a promotional transfer and is ready to bend the rules but over time, he relents and goes the straight path.
It is Vijay Verma as Anand Swarnakar who gives Sonaskshi Sinha as Anjali Bhaati a run for her money. His stupendous performance as the smooth-talking, educated, even sophisticated man, whose wife has no clue about what he does other than teaching and trying to charm young female students. One of them even gets a dried rose from him hidden inside her answer paper!
He is not a handsome hulk, but his manners are honed to perfection to lure ‘plain-looking’ young women who feel they will never get married but this guy will marry them. Swarnakar, other than his psychopathic trick to trap unsuspecting girls, is not fond of his wife, or, even of his son much.
He also hates his autocratic father who hates him back. He is jealous of his successful younger brother who runs the family’s jewellery business. The brother however loves Swarnakar very much.
The scenes between Anjali Bhaati and her harried mother, including the ‘girl-seeing’ scene could have been clipped out as they just do not belong to the story. Swarnakar kills his wife’s love by short-circuiting his electric shaver without compunction though he does not quite love his wife.
‘Dahaad’ is not just a police thriller. It is more about the world of the policemen, their personal anxieties, family problems, relationships, and the politics that sustains between and among them within the working ambience. The climax, everyone will agree, is rushed, as if the cast is hurrying to catch the flight back home.
The quick location shifts, the car chases have nothing extraordinary about them, and are not invested with electrically charged drama. But the series keeps you hooked from beginning to end because of its rapid pace, wonderful acting even by the actors in cameo roles.
There is Devilal Singh’s suspicious and old-fashioned wife, Anand Swarnakar’s attractive and successful wife who tells her husband she is in love with someone else, and the appearances by some of the victims. Perhaps the makers of ‘Dahaad’ could have closed the series with six episodes and not eight.
What really makes ‘Dahaad’ different is its editing style, sustaining a sense of both off-balance disorientation and forward propulsion. This adds to its element of suspense underscored not by “whodunit” but by “how to catch him.” Good work by three directors and one actor.