Anil Kapoor's 24: a leap in Indian television

by Prayaag Akbar

The first time I saw Anil Kapoor this week he was on the front page of HT City, where he’d managed a previously un-achieved feat – doing a bicep curl while simultaneously making a duckface. It was quite sweet, really, Kapoor establishing for the newspaper’s audience that even at 53, he has all the qualities we require in an action hero. I, for one, was convinced. Perhaps we can test all our superstars this way once they’re halfway to a hundred. Can you do a bicep curl? Good. Can you make a duckface? Good. Now do both together? Great. Here, have a Filmfare award.

The Duckface-Bicep, as I fondly refer to the photo, was part of the publicity drive for a television show that debuted last night, with much fanfare, on Colors. The show Anil Kapoor and his cohort have reimagined for Indian television is 24, a frenetic American television show featuring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a no-nonsense renegade CIA agent who stops every crime in the world by torturing a Muslim. I’m sorry, that was a joke. Bauer, being a liberal as Hollywood understands the term, is an equal opportunity torturer: over the course of the show, he tortures British people, Chinese people, Russian people, homegrown loonies and, yes, brown people too.

Watch even a handful of episodes and you’ll be left with no doubt that torture, and a more general disregard for civil liberties, are necessary and effective tools in curtailing terrorism. There is a clever, insistent juxtaposition of one monumental terrorist plot after another (Jack’s got to save LA!) with the extraction of a vital bit of information from a low-rung plotter Bauer has managed to chase down. It’s difficult work, but someone has to do it.

Anil Kapoor in 24. IBN Live.

Anil Kapoor in 24. IBN Live.

And — with apologies to Mr Tagore — into that heaven of freedom, Anil Kapoor awakes. The Indian 24 introduced us to Anil Kapoor's Jai Singh Rathod as he brought his wife (deftly played by Tisca Chopra) a birthday cake, grinning in the slightly manic fashion that Kapoor has made his own since the late-1980s, his face lit up by candles. Ah, agent Jai Singh Rathod, dutiful husband and father, who in a few minutes will go out to save India because elsewhere, an assassin is called in (“Yakub” flashes up on the assassin’s cellphone) to kill Aditya Singhania, India’s young PM-in-waiting. I was confident then that the show would swim along quite happily its own clichés; but then it dropped the A-bomb. Or perhaps this was the G-bomb? Whatever it was, I liked it.

Cut to the inside of a private plane. We encounter the first family of politics in this fictionalised India, the Singhanias, a portrayal of Sonia Gandhi and her brood. Yet this is no anaemic, insipid representation, carefully toeing the line so as not to incur the displeasure of the most powerful woman in India and her son. This cuts mighty close to the bone.

Perhaps the producers know something definitive about the electoral prospects of the Congress in the upcoming election (the American version famously seemed to predict a number of real-world scenarios), because they go for the jugular here. Aditya, the Rahul-proxy, is an earnest man who gives flowery speeches heavy on principle, but does not understand the political game. His mother is trying to exercise command over him but from time to time fails. Divya, his sister, loves her brother, somewhat resents her mother and is mired in a loveless marriage to a boozed up lout. Now where have I heard that before? The drunken daamaad Vikrant, is a hilarious character, asking his wife for a threesome on the family’s private plane, complaining about her being frigid, incurring the wrath of the matriarch at every possible opportunity. There is also a cousin whom the incipient PM trusts as his own brother, but who, it seemed to me, might soon be revealed as an overambitious schemer himself. I must confess I didn’t think we were allowed to talk about the Gandhis in this unabashed way in our country, certainly not on prime-time television. What a heartening moment in our democratic development. Brought to you by Anil Kapoor.

I suppose that’s why I’m conflicted about this show. It seems to revel in marrying cliché and surprise. The writers are trying to do something genuinely different, and there is no doubt this show is unlike any fiction being produced on Indian television. Remarkably, despite my jokes earlier, Kapoor is not an obtrusive presence on this show. This is not a vehicle of his vanity. Story is king here, and there are numerous strands already being developed in this first episode. There are interesting twists: for instance, the small illusion of the happy family unit at the centre of business is quickly shattered when we learn Rathod had an affair with one of his colleagues, played by Mandira Bedi (who does an excellent job of filling a white shirt, if not much acting).

But then you have a genuinely insane sequence, such as—spoiler alert—when Rathod injects his own boss with a green liquid that he pretends will make his heart explode. Jack Bauer was an inveterate torturer, but even he spared his own bosses. What makes this more amusing is this boss has spent the past ten minutes warning Rathod against any insubordination. If this is the way our hero treats his seniors, I can’t say I blame the man.

But perhaps I’m being churlish. Despite its more overt departures into Bollywoodism, this was a pretty entertaining hour of television. Kapoor’s team has built themselves a platform that might well change television programming in India. It’s been quite a leap, this, from Ekta to Anil. I look forward to what comes next.

Prayaag Akbar is a journalist with the Sunday Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @unessentialist.

Disclaimer: Colors is a part of the Network18 group which also owns Firstpost

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