Give Vishal Bhardwaj any text and he’ll infuse into it a life of its own. He’s a master at adaptations, from his William Shakespeare trilogy (Maqbool, Omkara, Haider) to Ruskin Bond’s Susanna’s Seven Husbands (Saat Khoon Maaf). Now, he turns his attention to one of the best crime novelists of all time, Agatha Christie. And it’s a huge compliment to confirm that he doesn’t let us down, yet again.
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Vishal takes Agatha’s 1931 British novel The Sittaford Mystery and sets it in Solang Valley and Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The snow-covered mountains and old-world mansions, however, are the only visual similarities between the adapted text and the original one.
The characters and their backgrounds are steeped in local flavour and benefit from India’s ethnic diversity. The detective investigating the murder case is Charlie Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi), a Punjabi girl, engaged to Jimmy (Vivaan Shah), an entrepreneur who has been arrested for the murder of his maternal uncle, Brigadier Rawat (Gulshan Grover).
Gulshan, infamous for being cast as the ‘bad man’ throughout the years, is actually the one who’s been killed here. The actor’s polished demeanour and the underlying evil streak lend him a beyond-the-grave intrigue that haunts the entire storyline.
Speaking of haunting, those of you who have watched the pilot episode that dropped back in June, would know that the show kicks off with a supernatural/horror element. Roy (Naseeruddin Shah), a paranormal investigator, invokes Lady Rose, a spirit who guards the Solang Valley, to declare that Rawat is dead.
Costume designer Abhilasha Sharma’s eccentric clothes, cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain’s staging, and Naseer’s immersive histrionics make that scene feel like a page straight out of a play. Agatha’s novel also started with a table-turning session, but the theatrical quality of the scene in Charlie Chopra makes it amply clear that it’s not a supernatural murder mystery. Since it’s set almost a century after the original text, we see the other actors in the room share our amusement and suspicion towards the mumbo jumbo.
Breaking the fourth wall
Another theatrical element used generously by co-writers Vishal, Anjum Rajabali, and Jyotsna Hariharan, is Charlie breaking the fourth wall. Charlie has a banging introduction, dancing in a baaraat before she wears the detective hat and begins tracing the groom’s stolen jootis. It’s only when she receives a call about his fiancé’s arrest that we see her break the fourth wall with a Punjabi expletive.
Wamiqa looks and feels like Charlie, a hereditary detective trained well by her estranged mother (watch out for that cameo). But her dropping sister di gaalis and exposition directed towards us in the middle of a scene don’t always land. This format is still very new to the Indian senses, and Charlie Chopra is only a baby step in the direction of the Fleabags.
A fellow investigator in journalist Sitaram (Priyanshu Painyuli) only makes the case for breaking the fourth wall weaker. Charlie is always discussing the nitty-gritties of the investigation with him, instead of bouncing theories with us.
The technique does evoke instant reactions at two particular points — when she asks us to look away while changing her clothes, and when she shuts the door on us after an embarrassing moment. Those two instances make the viewers truly participative by questioning their prying gaze.
Suspects and their stories
The USP of Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley is how seamlessly Vishal interweaves the individual back story of each character with the investigation process. It gives this whodunit wings because every suspect has not only a motive, but also the means and will to get the job done. It’s only the one who took the leap in that moment that ended up as the killer.
During Charlie’s investigation, we come across several side-plots which could very well be separate short stories of their own. There’s a physically-challenged Parsi woman (Ratna Pathak Shah), a no-nonsense ill-tempered boy (Imaad Shah), a struggling writer (Chandan Roy Sanyal) and his wife with a beauty parlour (Paoli Dam), a dialysis-bound former soldier (Danish Aslam), a retired army general, a Muslim single woman (Lara Dutta) and daughter, your regular genial mama and mami (Neena Gupta), and the most obvious suspect – the house help and his wife (Hiba Shah).
All their storylines are fascinating to say the least, and like any sumptuous whodunit, all roads lead to murder. Every character is so promising that instead of having them rushed through a three-hour narrative, I’d have personally preferred weekly drops of an hour-long episode dedicated to one suspect each. Say, like an Only Murders in the Building. If there’s a Season 2… hope you are listening, Vishal Bhardwaj?
The razor-sharp way in which the trailer has been cut adds dollops of suspense and drama to the proceedings. It’s peppered with adroit clueing and wilful misleading. If you watch the trailer closely, you can see the murderer from a few yards, if not a mile. But even if you guess it, both the payoff and the journey to get there, feel like a worthy ride.
Casting of the entire Naseeruddin Shah family under one roof, a murder by slamming the tabla on head, and an important reference to Vijay Anand’s 1966 thriller Teesri Manzil are just some of the winks in Vishal’s screenplay. But the mood of the show isn’t all winks, and no wisdom.
There are at least a couple of extremely moving moments, like Wamiqa fake-calling her estranged mother on the phone instead of talking to the camera for an intimate conversation, or a soldier helping out a wounded fellow, or a mother getting betrayed by a lustful father.
Even the original music that Vishal inserts through the series ranges from the pulpy opening theme (can’t get Sunidhi Chauhan crooning ‘Charlie Chopra’ out of my head), Sunidhi and Rekha Bhardwaj’s pensive mood pieces in the above-mentioned moving moments, and the meditative yet suspenseful sprinkling of the tabla and the sarangi.
These desi touches of music, humour, and personalities make Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley a whole new experience even for those who have read the original book. And for the others, it may seem a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but would soon engulf you into its world of deceit and empathy. Empathy, because none of the suspects are seeking power here, they’re only trying to get by through tough times.
All episodes of Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley is streaming on SonyLIV.