‘Afsos’ Review: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells the Tale?
Mercurial pace and plot of new black comedy/thriller surprises at every turn
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
(*This review contains spoilers)
Afsos begins with a man in a hard place. “My life story is so poorly written ki mujhe lagta hain ki maine khud likhi hai (that I think I’ve written it myself,)” says Nakul (Gulshan Devaiah), a struggling writer, who once again finds himself on the precipice of death, cushioning (he quite literally steals a pillow from a homeless person’s bedding on the railway bench) his 11th attempt at exiting the world. Will he succeed?
(*The cast and crew have repeatedly emphasized that Nakul doesn’t deal with a mental illness such as depression on the show but rather an exaggerated sense of negativity and imagination. Based on a viewing and inferred context, this review treats Nakul’s affliction as so too.)
Well, in Amazon Prime Video’s latest black comedy/thriller series Afsos, viewers soon come to realize that nobody quite gets what they want.
Created and written by Anirban Dasgupta, Dibya Chatterjee and Sourav Ghosh, the eight-episode series is a delightful exercise in disappointment with a mercurial plot that unfolds at breakneck speed. Director Anubhuti Kashyap chooses a subtle and sardonic lens to portray the outlandishness of the series as it delves into life, death, immortality, ambition and more, constructing a purposefully grounded yet incoherent picture of the grotesque and euphoric realities on the fringes of everyday, urban middle-class existence.
Following an ‘it is what it is’ ethos, characters, who under normal circumstances would never meet (much less cross paths), collide in Afsos. Ayesha Mirani (Sulagna Panigrahi), a journalist, runs into a “mad” sadhu hailing from an ashram in Harsil, Uttarakhand. He tells her about the amrit or the immortality elixir meant for the chiranjeevi (eternal being). She publishes a story the next day titled ‘The Immortal Man.’
In the meanwhile, Nakul, seeks the services of Emergency Exit — an ‘ethical’ killing startup run by ex-cons Maria (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) and Vikram (Ujjwal Chopra) — after surviving his 11th suicide attempt (a product of his insufferable imagination and not a mental illness as one may at first surmise). They beset their best assassin, Karima Upadhyay (Heeba Shah), on his trail. Nakul, however, survives Upadhyay too, inadvertently kickstarting a relentless cat and mouse cycle where nobody — not even his therapist (Shloka Srinivasan played by Anjali Patil) — is safe.
When all the sadhus at the Harsil ashram are murdered and the elixir is discovered to be missing, local police officer Bir Singh (Aakash Dahiya) finds a suspect in the only missing sadhu, Fokatiya baba (Robin Das), and traces him to Mumbai, setting in motion the machinations of fate, law and order while English scientist Dr. Goldfish (Jamie Alter) reads the murderous news headline and makes his way to India, compelled to nab the instrument of immortality, once and for all.
The plot oscillates between surprise and suspense — you never know what’s going to happen and the characters’ highs and lows make you root for an ending you already know won’t come your way. “You know how difficult it is to digest when you think that someone is going to be the main character of their story and he just dies right in front of you?” Srinivasan tells Nakul at the tea stall. The only answer she receives is a splatter of blood as Upadhyay’s failed headshot temporarily incapacitates her victim. This scene is splendid for the simple reason that nobody gets what they want and that subtle but thrice amplified theme of futility neatly ties it all together. This impact is perhaps only fully realized in the final scene of the series where past, present and future unwittingly unite for an unexpected exchange (I’ll keep mum on that sweet spoiler).
The director and writers approach the series with an irreverence that’s code of the genre and their infusions of absurdity are artfully executed. There’s a scene where Mumbai cop Vitthal (Shyam Bhimsaria) storms Goldfish’s lair with his men to rescue Singh. They’re up against a security detail that’s quite trigger happy and also double their number, but in his quest to salvage what’s left of his career, inspector Vitthal revels in almost childlike delight as he keeps score of how many men are down on both sides. He takes shots and earns points of his own, sobering only when his eye in the sky is taken down. Preceded by lines borrowed from Singh himself (“Kyon dhobi ke rozgaar ke liye apni uniform dhulwa rahe ho? — Why are you getting your uniform ironed only so the dhobi can earn a living?”), this scene is perhaps the only time in the show when a character gets exactly what they want — redemption. As a viewer, you don’t realize when the line between reality and the bizarre blurs because the segment is so thick with tension and yet, there’s an unmistakable underbite of humor exacerbated only by the irony that the show espouses so generously — a couple of well placed calls lead to Goldfish’s release later. This is evident in the dialogue too such as when Nakul says, “Maine meri maut ka contract diya hai kisiko (I’ve contracted my death to a killer,)” and the show is packed with many such pithy, wry earworms.
Afsos has a host of intriguing characters but perhaps the Trojan horse of the show is Patil’s Srinivasan. The therapist is the only ‘normal’, unsuspecting, chameleon-like figure — you never know what ace she has up her sleeve — and the writers use foreshadowing well with the character. While addressing her students, she says, “Can we dare to look beyond the obvious?” and we soon learn that the diagloue’s context is not just limited to mental health care but a hint at the survival instinct as well. Whether it’s empathizing with Nakul, Mirani or even Upadhyay, Srinivasan is always looking to come out on top, rationalizing every situation by deconstructing her subject or captor. The therapist who is constantly adapting ultimately — in perhaps the greatest stroke of irony — doesn’t survive the series and her role poses a very interesting moral conundrum to viewers as she skirts the line between truth and lies through deft manipulation. Do we want Srinivasan to incur punishment until we learn her complete truth? That’s the mirror the writers unintentionally hold up in the series, questioning the morality of the moral lens itself.
What the show does well too is characterization. No one character is ever so well established as to not change — Nakul goes from being a ‘loser’ to a man taking charge of his own destiny to a man in love to being clueless to realizing his nightmare and so on…Whew! — making their graphs surprising and shocking even — after all, Upadhyay’s final victim was a complete curveball. Character arcs too when abruptly snipped are realized — R.I.P Vikram the killer who wanted to turn a new leaf — and even the background and supporting performances stun — the dark-humor of the emergency room nurse (Swati Sarkar) was an unexpectedly light moment on the show.
Afsos succeeds because of its experimentative writing and direction but also on account of some stellar performances by the series’ cast. Devaiah is devastating as Nakul, nailing every nuance of a character who is so gloomy, his continuous existential crisis is a punchline. The actor does a lot with a little, infusing subtle mannerisms to depict the psyche of Nakul which particularly comes out in two scenes — when his publisher tells him he’ll have to pay for a chance at publication and when he picks up the tea tab for Fokatiya baba who tells him, “Bhagwan tumko lambi umar de, bete (May God bless you with a long life.)” Devaiah indulges Nakul in a sly, barely registrable, sardonic smile because in both cases, the irony is not lost on the character and that measured restraint of expression coupled with other body language intimations, across multiple plot situations, displays an acting prowess that one can only hope Devaiah continues to tap into.
Shah is formidable as the unflinching assassin Upadhyay, going from reasonable to relentless in an instant. Dahiya embodies the small town cop morale and impresses particularly in scenes where his character indulges in occupational commentary while Das captivates as Fokatiya baba, employing an understated gravitas that never overwhelms the innocence of his character. Bhattacharjee is delightful as Maria, skirting the line between murderous and courteous in every scene whereas Bhimsaria breaks out with his portrayal of a man at a turning point and Patil turns an oft flat therapist persona into a red herring with her layered performance as Srinivasan.
A subtle standout in Afsos is Krish Makhija’s cinematography which is striking in its mundanity as it romanticizes the balmy cityscape of Mumbai and the whitecast village of Harsil, turning introspective in hue when the camera pans on its denizens. Scenes such as those at the local tea stall and serene ashrams are interspersed with gloomy reflections by characters as well as calm crime sites bearing bullet laden bodies. It’s these contradictions that further make the absurd tangible in Afsos. The soundscape of the show too blends well with the narrative and series scorer Neel Adhikari’s thematic compositions “The Kill” (sung by Spanish vocalist Pati Amor) and “Afsos Hai” (sung by playback singer Arijit Singh) juxtapose the cat and mouse ploy brilliantly over the eight-episodes.
Afsos, with its dark underbite and insensibly pragmatic approach, is the thriller that does not deign to make you laugh, but endeavors toward it. There’s an honesty to the narrative that feels refreshing — almost making up for the confusing timelines — and the series is a breakout commentary on social alienation and urban convention. Endlessly riveting and deliciously deceiving, Afsos just might be Indian dark comedy at its peak.