Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

Kohraa, Jubilee, Trial by Fire: As web series trumped films in 2023, Shubhra Gupta picks the year’s best

The best web-series trumped the best movies of the year in the way they were backed by solid, layered, meaningful writing, with proper character arcs and motivations built in.

Here is Shubhra Gupta's list of best web series in 2023.Here is Shubhra Gupta's list of best web series in 2023.

Looking back at 2023, OTT-wise, it’s clear that in the most crucial manner, the best web series trumped the best movies of the year in the way they were backed by solid, layered, meaningful writing, with proper character arcs and motivations built in.

Just look at ‘Kohraa’, by far my top show of this year. A brilliant collaboration by Sudeep Sharma, Randeep Jha, Diggi Sisodia and Gunjit Chopra, it used a murder as a peg to hang a compelling character-study in a very specific time and place. The five-part series opens with a body in a fog-laden field in a Punjab village : the discovery leads to seemingly disparate people connected by dark secrets, with a parallel thread of drugs and mobsters. In a great ensemble cast – Suvinder Vicky, Barun Sobti, Manish Chaudhary, Varun Badola, Harleen Sethi, Rachel Shelly– the former towers over the rest.

Vikarmaditya Motwane’s ‘Jubilee’ is a joy: a detailed, doused-in-affection, piercingly nostalgic re-creation of a time ( late 40s and 50s) when the Hindi film industry was coming into its own, with its powerful studio mavens, sultry seductresses, noble heroes and black villains. The brief pre-Independence slice becomes the full loaf, expertly sliced and diced by Motwane and writer Atul Sabharwal, as we bounce alongside Aparshakti Khurrana as the star-in-waiting, Prosenjit Roy as the star-maker, Aditi Rao Hydari as the woman who loves and loses, Ram Kapoor as the oily man with the money, Wamiqa Gabbi as the good-hearted minx with ambition, and a couple of riveting new faces, in Nandish Singh Sandhu and Sidhant Gupta.


Trial By Fire
Showrun and directed by Prashant Nair along with Randeep Jha and Avani Deshpande, ‘Trial By Fire’ takes us back to that black day in 1997 when a fire in a South Delhi theatre claimed 59 lives. Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande play the real-life Krishnamoorthi couple who lost both their teenage children in that senseless, completely avoidable tragedy. That it was not a mere accident but brazen criminal negligence on the part of the theatre’s staff as well as the owners, has been the burden of Shekhar and Neelam Krishnamoorthy’s long, arduous fight against one of the most powerful builder conglomerates in India, and both Deol and Desphpande are stellar in their difficult roles. Their unending struggle and resilience over the years is moving and inspirational: their fight is still not over.

Kaala Paani
Kaala Paani, directed by Amit Golani and Sameer Saxena, is fictional yet frighteningly real. Set in the near future in picturesque Andamans, it is about a deadly disease which spreads amongst humans, for which there is no cure. But even worse than the killer virus is the profiteering corporation whose depredations have caused nature to rebel: you can overlook the few bumpy patches in the way the whole comes together in this beautifully-shot, immersive cautionary tale against human greed.

Festive offer

Lust Stories (The Mirror)
One segment in the otherwise eminently forgettable Lust Stories 2, The Mirror, needs to be a full-fledged film. Directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, featuring Tillotama Shome and Amruta Subhash, it’s a full-frontal exploration of desire and class, and how the two clash and cloud perceptions in people who think of themselves as being sensitive to other people’s needs. There’s nuance here, as well as insight, and that mirror in which one of them confronts her suppressed self, is held up to us all.

Special mentions
The Railway Men: YRF’s first web-series ‘The Railway Men’, based on the real-life story of a group of intrepid Indian railway employees who saved hundreds of lives on the night of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984, with solid performances from Kay Kay, Divyenndu, and Babil Khan.


Saas Bahu Aur Flamingo: Homi Adajania’s mad, mad caper about drug cartels in colourful Rajasthan outposts run by badass women–Dimple Kapadia, Angira Dhar, Isha Talvar, Radhika Madan– with the former leading from the front. Most of the men here are, delightfully, wusses. Waiting for the second season.

Scam 2003: Show-run by Hansal Mehta and directed by Tushar Hiranandani, in which an impressive Gagan Dev Riar plays Telgi, the unlikely mastermind behind the stamp-paper counterfeiting, isn’t as interesting as ‘Scam 1992’, the show based on the shenanigans of the more charismatic scamster, Harshad Mehta. But Riar makes us watch.

Kaalkoot: Directed by Sumit Saxena, Kaalkoot is a small-town crime procedural, featuring a cop who comes to terms with his own shortcomings. Vijay Varma pulls off his best performance in a busy year ( Dahaad, Lust Stories 2), with Yashpal Sharma and Gopal Datt in super supporting acts.


Rainbow Rishta: From Jaydeep Sarkar, Shubhra Chatterjee and Hriday E Nagpal, this features first-person accounts from several couples on the LGBTQi spectrum, as they navigate living and loving in a society inimical to same-sex relationships. The tricky territory of dating, finding a place to live, and, yes, even getting married, it’s all there.

School Of Lies: Made by Avinash Arun, set in a private boarding school in the hills, it is about lies, truths, and half-truths, and how humans resort to telling their own stories, especially when it is a question of keeping up appearances. Effective ensemble cast of the kids and adults ( Aamir Bashir is excellent) who twist and turn, to survive and thrive.

There’s enough to watch in the second season of ‘Rocket Boys’, in which Jim Sarbh and Ishwak Singh, Regina Cassandra, Saba Azad, are as good as they were in the first. ‘Made in Heaven 2’ hewed as close as it could to the bittersweet notes of its first season, even if its controversial Dalit wedding chapter nearly took attention away from the main acts : Arjun Mathur and Sobhita Dhulipala, Jim Sarbh and Kalki Koechlin are as eye-catching as they were before, and this time around, real-life transperson Trinetra Haldar, who also features in Rainbow Rishta, adds heft to Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s show. And Mona Singh, as the penny-pinching but good-natured accountant keeping a sharp eye on our wedding planners, is outstanding.

It’s been a good year for original Indian web-series.

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 08:28 IST
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