Supporting cast is really what makes Big B’s debut sparkle

How do you talk about a thing in transition? How do you comment on something that’s amorphous — yet to betray or fulfil its promise? The most you can do is take a step back, observe and withhold your judgement. Because what has unfolded in front of you is a glimmer of things to come; in subsequent days, it can even deliriously lurch from one extreme to the other. Also, you don’t really “review” the first 100-pages of a 500-page novel or the first 30-minutes of a two-hour film, do you? So why make that exception with a 900-minute TV show, whose remaining 700-minutes are yet to unfold? The show in question is Yudh, a new TV series that premiered on Sony last week, but if the gavel-wielding cultural custodians on social media are anything to go by — the show either falls into one set of adjectives or the other. If only it were that easy.

The towering expectations from the show, however, are not misplaced. An Indian TV show that piggybanks on names such as Amitabh Bachchan, Anurag Kashyap (creative director), Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kay Kay Menon, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sarika and Zakir Hussain cannot be safe from scrutiny. Moreover, for the most part Indian television has, in the last 10 years, been held hostage to overly melodramatic, regressive soaps that on any given day vacillate from plain embarrassing to painful hilarity. And it’s precisely in the same period when American television has come into its own. As if the schism between our films and theirs was not glaring enough, now we have to also contend with the progressively widening gap between their TV dramas and ours. So a miniseries like Yudh compels you to sit up and take notice. And makes you want to hope.

Yudh opens to its eponymous protagonist, Yudhisthir Sikarwar (Amitabh Bachchan), struggling to get out of bed. The camera slowly pans over his feet that have been rendered immobile for the moment. We don’t hear a word of dialogue; it’s just Yudh struggling on the bed alone — we don’t know why something is wrong, but we do vaguely know what. And just like that, with great economy, Ribhu Dasgupta (Yudh’s director) and Bijesh Jayarajan (screenplay writer), make us aware of the show’s key conflict. Yudh’s conundrum is revealed in detail a little later, but this foreshadowing feels just right: it’s confident, doesn’t border on the exposition, and tells you just enough to draw you in. And this is not an isolated instance of confident writing that informs — and even propels — the show. Consider the scene at the beginning of the second episode, where Yudh meets Gauri (Sarika). We are unaware of the nature of their relationship, but their conversation — marked by fumbling hesitancy and awkward pauses — tells us this is not an ordinary conversation between two acquaintances. As their conversation draws to a close, Gauri lets out a minor faux pas, the background music — as if on a cue — faithfully changes its course and that’s it: we know we have just witnessed a conversation between two ex-lovers. On the other hand, Yudh’s conversations with his wife are a poignant contrast: they are perfunctory and slightly frigid. However, the tension in these scenes — between Yudh and Nayantara (Yudh’s second wife) — is not immediately apparent. In fact, they derive their poignancy from the very absence of a tension.

For a show like Yudh, whose universe is marked by moral ambivalence, it’s interesting to note how the characters play their parts. They reveal themselves to us in fragments, their facial expressions often belying the lines they are about to deliver. Two actors especially come to mind: Kay Kay Menon and Zakir Hussain. Menon plays a corrupt police officer whose venality is tough to determine or pin down. The swiftness with which he transitions from being amiable to hostile leaves you confounded more than once. He also frequently interrupts his lines by a quasi-diabolical smile that not only has calculated nonchalance written all over it but also indicates veiled threat. Hussain, on the other hand, is a lot more staid. This role could easily have been botched by a lesser actor, but Hussain’s impassivity keeps you intrigued. This portrayal is all the more interesting because he constantly keeps you at bay — even though he is an advisor to Yudh (whose stringent morality comes across as tedious at times), we aren’t entirely sure which side he will veer towards.

The inevitable whispers have begun — turns out, Yudh might be inspired from the American miniseries, Boss. Both shows have protagonists who are diagnosed with debilitating diseases they choose to hide from others. Both Yudh and Kane (Boss’ lead) grapple with unfulfilled married lives and try to reconnect with their estranged daughters. Yudh’s inner circle of confidants is similar to Kane’s — both of them rely heavily on their two aides. These similarities are indeed irksome but, as of now, it’s a little too early to bring out our cudgels.

Originally written for The Sunday Guardian

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