Mafia review: ZEE5 thriller series is unable to rise above its confusing execution
Mafia, directed by Birsa Dasgupta, relates the story of six estranged friends whose reunion turns into a nightmare when their past crimes threaten to overturn their present cushy lives.
What happens when a woman — abused, gaslit, intimidated, casually dismissed as unhinged — decides she has had just about enough, and resolves to unleash her rage on the oppressor? Birsa Dasgupta's eight-part psychological drama Mafia attempts to unspool a story on violence and trauma in the guise of a mystery thriller.
Ritwik (Saurabh Saraswat), Rishi (Tanmay Dhanania), Sam (Aditya Bakshi), Tanya (Madhurima Roy), Neha (Anindita Bose) and Ananya (Ishaa M Saha) were once thick college friends, but have now drifted apart. When Tanya gets engaged, Neha sees an opportunity to bring estranged friends closer. She organises a reunion trip to Madhupur, in plan to stay in Rishi's bungalow in the middle of a jungle.
Interestingly, the friends had taken a similar trip to the bungalow six years before, and the events of that fateful night in Madhupur permanently scarred their friendship. Shuttling between the past and the present, Mafia unfolds the possibilities of what may have happened on that night, and how the past will come to haunt their cushy lives now.
Mafia borrows its name from a party game, where two players are the police and the mafia, and the rest are villagers. The mafia continues to kill villagers until the police is able to correctly identify the mafia. The show, like the titular game, plays out like a cat-and-mouse thriller, and does a decent job at conjuring the thrills. But it is Namit Das' Nitin, a stranger who turns up at the bungalow claiming he's lost his way, who ramps up the fear quotient manifold. He is deliciously chilling as a mild-mannered suspicious guest whose presence disrupts the apparent status quo of the group.
Perhaps in an attempt to inject a predictable dose of shock-value at the big reveal hour, the other characters, at least in the beginning of the series, appear more one-note prototypes — be it the multi braided hippie, the guitar-strumming wayfarer, the saccharine-sweet couple, the kurta and kohl-wearing shy one or the boisterous dada (leader) of the pack.
But the act in acting is too conspicuous to be ignored. The contrived dialogues in the flashback college sequence often skirt the dangerous territory of hammy, robbing it of the authenticity and the spontaneity expected out of the friendship Dasgupta wants us to buy into.
The depiction of sisterhood or female solidarity is unhackneyed and organic, and stands in stark contrast to the toxicity of "bros-before-hoes." The men the show are varying degrees of entitled — some sweet-talkingly condescending, others downright abusive. Even within a college-bred, urbane demography, often considered to be the beacon of liberalism, the men routinely slut-shame the women, scoff at their ambitious nature, and casually relegate them to the status of second-class citizens.
Despite its empathetic stance towards women, Dasgupta's narrative is handicapped by its male gaze. When one woman's seething rage, unresolved anger and immeasurable sadness ultimately culminates into 'insanity,' Mafia unwittingly ends up doing exactly what the woman's friends have been doing — reducing her trauma to madness.
The show also cleaves open the caste dynamics prevalent in the non-urban pockets of India. What Anubhav Sinha did with Article 15, Dasgupta takes a step forward by ditching a Savarna saviour in favour of a Dalit quasi-hero. Not a chest-thumping champion, the protagonist often manipulates, lies and schemes, even cowers down. They are aware, and routinely reminded by their upper caste brethren, they don't have the resources to crusade for their causes without fear of ramification.
Power abuse is ubiquitous, and Mafia, in subtle and overt ways, underscores this. In one scene in Mafia, Tanya accuses their house-help Bidhua of breaking a camera, even slaps her, without a shred of evidence. However, Dasgupta is not quite sure about where to head this priviledged versus the downtrodden dichotomy. Rather than probing harder on how caste is used to perpetrate hate crimes, the show comfortably places the blame on the urban lifestyle of "drugs and sex" as the root of all problems.
Mafia was possibly an ambitious idea on paper, but the problem with fervent ideas is that they need to be followed through with a surefooted execution. Unfortunately, the occasional sparks of brilliance cannot gloss over the lack of the storyteller's conviction in his own creation.
Mafia is now streaming on ZEE5
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