The best of 2021: From Bombay Begums to The Family Man 2; here are the OTT series you should watch

The best of 2021: From Bombay Begums to The Family Man 2; here are the OTT series you should watch

The best of 2021: From Bombay Begums to The Family Man 2; here are the OTT series you should watch

City Of Dreams 2 (Disney + Hotstar)

City Of Dreams produced by Applause Entertainment is about power, politics, and personal losses, not strictly in that order. The series retains its compelling core even while introducing new interesting characters who grow as the yawning arc of Maharashtra’s politics opens up to multiple interpretations. We all know who ‘Saheb’ Amey Rao Gaikwad (played by the brilliant Atul Kulkarni) is, right? The reference to the tiger in the bedroom that comes up towards the climax of the series is a dead giveaway. But who the hell is Poornima Gaekwad modelled on? Nagesh Kukunoor and his co-writer Rohit Banawilkar weave in and out of fact and fiction creating a riveting political pastiche that proves what we already know: absolute power corrupts absolutely. The line dividing the world of politics and crime in City Of Dreams is so thought, it is almost non-existent.

The simmering cornucopia of characters is forever in danger of slipping through the cracks. And many of them do. Poor Purushottam (so poignantly pathetic as played by Sandeep Kulkarni). As Poornima Gaekwad’s trusted lieutenant he finds himself falling into the honeytrap. Flora Saini is curiously tragic and seductive as the moll who ensnares and destroys poor Purushottam. I loved her sequence at the end where she comes to meet Purushuttom’s simple trusting wife who asks the pretty lady if her husband had an affair with her.

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Without blinking, Flora denies it. Sometimes a lie is worth many times more than the truth. Even Mahatma Gandhi thought so. Not that there are any Gandhian politicians in this intricately conceived game of power and deceit. Our heroine herself is no saint. She has the blood of her own brother on her hands from Season 1. Now in Season 2, she pays the heaviest price possible for a woman and mother. One of this season’s great joys is to watch the amazing Priya Bapat play the estranged wife to a political activist Mahesh Aravale (Addinath M. Kothare, well played). And before we shout ‘Aandhi’, Kothare himself describes himself as Sanjeev Kumar in Gulzar’s film and even hums Tere bina zindagi se koi to his estranged wife.

Bombay Begums (Netflix):

First look poster of Bombay Begums. Image courtesy_Netflix India

Like them or loathe them, hug them or hate them, spurn them or ‘sperm’ them… The five women in Bombay Begums (one of them, just entering puberty) leave a lasting impression. This is a series like no other, replete with plot twists that will keep you watching until the very end. And when the ‘end’ comes, you want to know what these ladies will do with their lives after we leave them. Would they continue to be so fabulously flawed? Or would they… Ummm… mend their ways become faithful to their spouses? Would they stop thinking of good sex is preferable to a good marriage? Shahana Goswami’s character Fatima Warsi actually does the unthinkable… She goes out and has a rollicking sexy affair with her senior (that too a Caucasian) although she has a very loving devoted husband (Vivek Gomber, too wimpy and whiny to leave an impression). Yup, women in Alankrita Shrivastava’s universe do stray from a solid marriage in search of solid sex. A recurring image in her cinema is that of a woman lying inert under a heaving lurching man who clearly isn’t giving his partner the promised paradise. My favourite woman of this resplendent bunch is Amruta Subhash’s Lily, the sex worker who wants a good life for her son. She connives, schemes and when anyone steps into her dreams, she screams. What a volcanic performance by Amruta Subhash! And not just she. Pooja Bhatt gives to her role as a dithering wife, struggling mother, and self-seeking woman the kind of menopausal imperiousness not seen before in Hindi cinema.

Pooja Bhatt in Bombay Begums | Netflix

The ever-dependable Shahana Goswami is bang-on as just a teensy-weensy guilty unfaithful wife (but why the symbolic cracked mirror in her bedroom?). And little Aadhya Anand as the girl who can’t wait for her periods to start is a delightfully young but wise narrator in a series that defies the norms of gender stereotyping but doesn’t make a brouhaha about being “bold” and “bindaas”. These women are what they are. Like them or not, you can’t ignore them. It is very difficult to like these women but it isn’t difficult to love them. They are so robust, so vivacious, passionate, and self-assertive, they won’t rest easy until they attain self-actualization which here have different connotations for different women. Different strokes for different fucks, I guess. Bombay Begums is a lavish upper-class saga of supreme sexiness. Most of the characters live the good life and are not the least apologetic about it. If Bollywood Wives was not dumb, not vulgar, and not ignorant it would have been Bombay Begums.

The Family Man Season 2 (Amazon Prime):

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The new season of Family Man escapes the curse of the second season. I mean, Gawd, look at what happened to Mirzapur 2. The Family Man 2 is a lean, mean, sinewy, sexy, dramatic, and topical piece of work that shows a natural organic growth, from season 1. Though it runs into 10 episodes there is not an ounce of flab, as the sprawling yet taut narrative moves across a luscious labyrinth of global terrorism (helmed by the chilling presence of Samantha Akkineni) and domestic warfare. Ah, domestic strife! Our unlikely hero Srikant Tiwari is still at it. His wife (played by the underused Priyamani) is still sulking and his children Vedant (Atharv Tiwari) and Dhriti (Ashlesha Thakur) still think their father is a bit of a fool. Little do they know. Incidentally, or maybe not so incidentally, this time Srikant’s daughter has a pivotal part to play in the plot’s emphatic action. Can’t reveal much. But the way her role shapes up will take FM fans by surprise. This season, the action moves to Chennai where Rajalaxmi, a.k.a Raji, and her rebel friends are planning a massive attack. The most gripping sequences in the entire narrative spectrum recur each time Akkineni’s Raji is on screen. She is ominous in her silences. You know when she erupts there will pay hell to pay. The story of her stint as a fearless soldier in Sri Lanka and a cowering sexually harassed civilian in Chennai and …well, whatever happens as the plot explodes into a show of strength between Srikant and his team’s Task Force and the rebels, has a life of its own. I would love to see a feature film based on Raji’s character. Manoj Bajpayee’s Srikant is a character of immeasurable possibilities.

He is hopelessly naïve with his family and devilishly sharp at work. And his partnership with J K Talpade (Sharib Hashmi, brilliant back-up) accommodates some of the series’ most entertaining episodes. Apart from a miscarried joke when both of them inadvertently end up in lock-up with a female cop (Devdarshini) mistaking Srikant’s desperation for abuse, this partnership sparkles with wit and street wisdom. Super-skilled writing and an alert narration that catches the drama even as it falls, make this a constantly watchable sequel with actors from every generation pitching in with performances that sweep the storytelling forward into a sinfully engaging swoop of adventure and drama. Indeed the only good that comes out of crime against mankind such as terrorism is that it yields some terrific art, instant or otherwise.

Grahan (Disney-Hotstar): 

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I was a shocked teenager when the 1984 genocide wiped away thousands of Sikhs. Well-known politicians and even politically motivated celebrities from the entertainment world provoked and incited the mobs to go out and take revenge against an entire community for their beloved prime minister’s assassination. I haven’t forgotten the dance of death that started on the night of October 31 and continued till my birthday on November 2. Quality-conscious producer Ajay Rai (who has invested in many a significant cinematic project from the Marathi masterpiece Kill in 2014 to the most recent achievement Fire In The Mountains) opens up the wounds of the 1984 genocide, wounds that never healed, wrongs that were never righted. Directed by Ranjan Chandel, the 8 episodes have a certain consistent momentum in the storytelling, and though it moves through two time zones, actually three, the plot never becomes a jumble of unnerving frisky jumpcuts, as serials about multi-time passages tend to. The story is pronouncedly dramatic. And that’s how it should be, considering the improbable brutality of what transpired on those 3 fateful nights when Sikhs were pulled out of their homes and burnt alive. Bokaro was one of the cities that were most harshly affected by the genocide. This is where Grahan is set. Shot on location, Kamaljeet Negi’s cinematography captures that frozen-in-time quality of those small North Indian towns which have never grown up. The opening in the 1990s, when an investigative journalist with incriminating evidence on the 1984 carnage against a prominent politician of the town is hunted down by two goons, will immediately capture your attention.

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The audience is made privy to an intense probe to bring the culprits of the 1984 riots to book (if only wishes were horses…) wherein a young plucky female police officer Amrita Singh (Zoya Hussain) discovers that the father she hero-worships was present at the looting and arson in Bokaro in 1984. If the truth is told, Grahan is not Amrita’s story. Sure, she is omnipresent and Zoya Hussain plays her with grit that provides inner strength to the story. But this is not Amrita’s story. It is her father Gurusevak Singh’s story. His past and how deeply it colours his daughter’s present and future is the raw material on which the series builds its emotionally simmering edifice. In the role of the troubled turbaned time traveler, Pawan Malhotra again reminds us he is one of Indian cinema’s most brilliant, underrated, and underused actors. Watch him in the courtroom finale where he speaks up finally, but mostly through his eyes which convey an eternity of pain. Standing frail but tall, this aging man becomes the living embodiment of an abiding testimony to all the wrongs that the whole community suffered. This is an actor on a par with the world’s finest acting talent. I wonder what Grahan would have been without Malhotra!

The Last Hour (Amazon Prime):

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Although the plot may seem dense and unnecessarily cryptic, to begin with, there is plenty to be admired in The Last Hour. In a market cluttered with serials of every hue. it dares to venture into the never-never world of North Eastern mysticism, cracking the code of a gripping crime thriller while it moves along at a pace that is never too urgent but always heedful of the brisk momentum required by the thriller genre. The writing (by Anupama Minz and director Amit Kumar) secretes a kind of primeval wisdom that could be taken as borderline mumbo-jumbo. Luckily the focus is not so much on the mysticism as the characters. Set in an imaginary North Eastern state called Mangchen (which looks uncannily like Sikkim), The Last Hour begins where it ends, with a bored cop Arup Singh’s pretty daughter Pari threatening to jump off those resplendent heights of Sikkim.

This series is a visual treat, with cinematographer Jayesh Nair capturing the local flavours and rituals with more integrity than a touristic curiosity. The mountains, meadows lakes, and streams are omnipresent. But they never overpower the characters. Till the last (and I watched all the 8 episodes) The Last Hour remains a study of after-life as seen through the prism of a rapidly-changing social structure where the modern and the ancient are uneasy bedmates. The protagonist Dev (Karma Takpa, a prized find) is a local with mystical powers. He can enter a newly slain person’s mind to know what exactly happened to him or her in the final hour of his life. I have no clue if such a supernatural phenomenon actually exists. It probably doesn’t. But the lead actor who plays the spiritual link between this and the other world is so unconditionally convincing, so into the otherworld, that he takes us along on his fascinating frightening enigmatic journey. The scenes where Dev travels with the newly-dead murder victims are special in their power to convey the meditative mystique of the afterlife. Shot in a saturated orange glow, they accentuate the actor Karma Takapa’s cryptic personality while bathing the plot in spirituality and bloodshed. The Last Hour is a sum-total of many things. It is a serial-killer thriller with an assassin with supernatural powers named Yama Nadu (played by Robin Tamang) stalking his young victims with the help of a henchman named Thapa (Lanukam Ao). The ruthlessness of this deadly duo is appalling. But bearable because at the other end of the spectrum this is a love story between the man who can see into the afterlife and a vulnerable shaken young woman Pari (Shaylee Kishen) who has lately lost her mother (Raima Sen, in a ghost appearance) and probably doesn’t see much of her workaholic father (Sanjay Kapoor, looking more like an affluent entrepreneur than a cop). How the bloodshed and romance eventually coalesce is the crux of this voyage into the unknown.

The narrative wraps its shapely limbs around the picturesque locations, navigating the plot through a maze of events and actions which involve cops and corpses. Many of the roles are played by talented North Eastern actors who infuse a large dose of authenticity into the proceedings. Dewashish Lama as a polio-inflicted young college student who has a deep dark past and Tenzien Choden as the spunky self-employed woman secretly in love with Dev, are worth a special mention. It is Karma Takapa as Dev who does most of the heavy lifting in the plot. He is more than capable, conveying a deep sense of hurt pride while showing himself to be a natural product of his culture and ethos. Sadly the series wastes the very talented Shahana Goswami as a cop who seems to know more than she’s willing to tell. The plot doesn’t have much time for her. Holding back information, maintaining secrets, and reading whispers are vital to the proceedings. The Last Hour might not qualify as great entertainment. But it is a bold and often brash departure from the norm. And it opens up a window into a world where we seldom dare to venture.

Decoupled (Netflix):

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A riot of marital discord, a carnival of profanities, and a fiesta of frank speak. Decoupled is a year-end whammy, the kind never seen before on the Indian OTT platform. The extremely talented Madhavan plays a wickedly unfiltered pulp fiction writer who speaks his mind even if it means offending everyone around, and that includes us the audience, and his pissed-off wife (Surveen Chawla). Manu Joseph's writing is sharp witty sarcastic and acerbic. The series is not everyone's cup of tea. It's more like black unfiltered coffee.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.