Criminal Justice review: Vikrant Massey, Jackie Shroff, Pankaj Tripathi rescue Hotstar's inconsistent series
Even though Criminal Justice is not a binge-able show (the pace is inconsistent and the cliffhangers foreseeable), you will find yourself thinking about it well after it is over.
Vikrant Massey is the sort of actor who forces a premature judgment out of you. He just has that kind of comforting face. And then he almost always goes on to prove you wrong, in pretty much every role he's done so far (A Death in the Gunj and more recently Made in Heaven). This is why he is perfectly cast in the Hotsar Special series Criminal Justice.
Just as you begin watching Criminal Justice — an officially licensed Indian adaptation of BBC-produced series Criminal Justice (and also very similar to Riz Ahmed-led The Night Of) — the first thing that strikes you is, "how can a person like Vikrant Massey play a cab driver?". It's a superficial judgment, coming from years of stereotypical portrayals of blue collar jobs on the Indian small screen, but the show deliberately plays on this. In doing so, they set the tone for a series that is somewhat predictable in plot, but unpredictable in character arcs (especially for those who haven't seen the source material, like me).
You'll find yourself riddled with many questions through the show, and not too many answers will be provided. Joining the dots then becomes the viewer's job, not in an intellectual but puzzling way. This can be challenging and frustrating.
Criminal Justice has an intriguing premise: Aditya Sharma is a college student doing his MBA. His family owns a First Cab (play on Uber/Ola) and he sometimes helps out by driving it around during surge pricing to make extra money. One night he picks up a passenger, Sanaya Rath (Madhurima Roy), and she leaves her phone in his cab. When he goes back to her apartment to drop the phone, they hit it off (she's from the same college) and end up sleeping together after a few shots of whiskey and tryst with drugs (looks like Digene but we're told it's MDMA). When Aditya wakes up, he finds that Sanaya has been stabbed multiple times, but he has no memory of it.
The show then splits into two definitive halves — one follows the criminal trial of the incident, with two lawyers in focus (the hilariously good Pankaj Tripathi as Madhav Mishra, and Mita Vashisht), both of whom work to prove Aditya is innocent; the other follows Aditya's journey in jail and how he transforms from a meek, lanky asthmatic kid into a Bulked-up Badass™.
A lot of time is spent in establishing normalcy around Aditya's life in the beginning. He laughs freely, plays football with his friends, has a great relationship with his older sister (who is pregnant) and this serves as a dramatic contrast to his life in jail. There, he is bullied, out of place and takes the length of four episodes to get used to internal politics. These scenes are the highlight of Criminal Justice, perhaps since one of the creative forces is Sridhar Raghavan, whose Ek Hasina Thi had similar themes. In the film Urmila Matongkar ends up in jail by accident and has to maneuver her way around a drastically different way of life, becoming tougher, conniving, almost survivalist.
The legal proceedings in Criminal Justice are tad dramatic, and often you find yourself wanting to skip through them to get to the parts of the show that are inside prison. If it weren't for the goofy-yet-ultimately-sincere Madhav Mishra, and Pankaj Tripathi's layered performance of him, this entire narrative would fall flat. All the humour in the series belongs to Tripathi's character — and he knocks it out of the park (honestly, when has he ever not?).
Criminal Justice tries to market itself as a murder-mystery-cum-procedural-drama, where you can't tell if Aditya is actually guilty or not. But there's no nuance added to this fundamental question in the show. You are shown in many different ways right from the first episode that Aditya is not guilty (really, this is not a spoiler). The only character that retains nuance in Criminal Justice is Jackie Shroff, who plays Mustafa bhai, a Godfather-esque character in jail who seems to be the senior most and well respected. It's always pleasing to see Jackie Shroff on screen, especially his unique brand of effortless acting. Here he brings his 'Bhiduness' ™ to his performance, and helps Aditya transform into someone you do not want to mess with.
The final reveal (Did Aditya kill Sanaya? If he didn't, who did and what exactly happened?) isn't a satisfying sucker-punch as much as I would have liked it to be, but by the time you reach the tenth episode of this show (with each episode playing out for almost 50 minutes), you are happy to find closure.
Perhaps we are harder on films/series when we are familiar with the creative forces behind it and have seen some of their brilliant previous work. Some of the episodes of Criminal Justice are directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, and those are the ones that stand out. But Criminal Justice becomes a case of having too many expectations (because of names like Vikrant Massey, Dhulia, Jackie Shroff, Pankaj Tripathi) but being let down by the fundamental story. Their performances, however, completely overshadow this disappointment; each is delightful to watch.
Even though Criminal Justice is not a binge-able show (the pace is inconsistent and the cliffhangers foreseeable), you will find yourself thinking about it well after it is over. This is the power of good acting. Also Vikrant Massey should be given more lead roles; it is time and he is ready.
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