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Snowstorms and slow thrills

Charlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley – Hindi (SonyLiv) 2023★★☆☆☆2.5/5Director:Vishal BhardwajCast:Wamiqa Gabbi, Naseeruddin Shah, Vivaan Shah, Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah

In what could be pitched as an OTT double-bill of crimes in the cold, it isCharlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley,released six days after Sujoy Ghosh’s middling thrillerJaane Jaan, that leans closer to the playbook.

Genre tropes are not always bad tools in the hands of an ingenious filmmaker but the web series, the first from Vishal Bhardwaj, also comes with a built-in snag. Setting-heavy by design, the series was always going to need inspired plot twists for it to work.

You trust Bhardwaj to reimagine familiar (adapted) premises with tantalising local touches, character quirks, and solid soundtracks. Here, as he turns to Agatha Christie’sThe Sittaford Mystery, he falters with the pace, the staging, and the arcs of some of the major characters. A part of his problem could be the unfamiliar, episodic format.

The first act of the six-episode series sets up the killing of a wealthy brigadier (Gulshan Grover) and the detention of a suspect, a struggling nephew (Vivaan Shah) who could do with some of that inherited money. The problem, of course, is that there are also others in this extended family who have eyes on the brigadier’s estate. Charulata ‘Charlie’ Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi), the nephew’s girlfriend and detective by lineage, needs to get this fixed.

The postcard stillness of snowed-out Manali opens well with the underlying play of death and deception. These atmospheric markers, soon, become ineffective as the writing tends to play by the numbers. Over six 40-minute episodes that are rarely distinguishable for tone or tempo, the series follows Charlie, the investigator who marks key plot reveals with Punjabi cussing, and the hanger-on relatives, each of them with a credible motive to murder.

The final act, salvaged by a gimmicky but satisfying double twist, is again pulled down by the dreariness of a living-room confession, with the sleuth and the suspects in attendance.

This sameness of the proceedings is a shame because the writers (Bhardwaj, Anjum Rajabali, and Jyotsna Hariharan) do have some interesting men and women to trail. Charlie’s mother appears in a short, fascinating scene; potentially compelling characters (including one that is named but not shown) are dropped after cursory lead-ins. These stop-start arcs are a given with the miniseries format butCharlie Chopraalso suffers from a whimsy tone that stops you short of investing in important turns in the story.

Gabbi’s titular mystery-solver gets thestartreatment.She is competent butthe styling of her characteris also forced for effect.Theseries’title trackpracticallysingsout thecharacter’s residential address, with pin code. Charlie’sFleabag-like engagement with the cameraisalsointrusive andgoes flatbythe fourth time she lands the line andhalf-smirks. At one point, sheevenasksthe camera(you) to stop checking her out.Couldwehave turned tothe suspects, instead? – catchingapausehere, aslurthere? That,perhaps,is theteasethisseriesneeded.

(Published 29 September 2023, 19:49 IST)

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