Pushpavalli season 2, Aarya, Bandish Bandits, Asur, Paatal Lok: 20 best Indian streaming shows of 2020
A definitive list of the 10 best Indian streaming shows in 2020, ranked, and 10 shows that had immense potential.
Indian streaming content in Hindi took a giant leap in 2020, with a boom in the number of original shows across a host of platforms being released this year. Only a handful of them were genuinely outstanding, so most year-end best lists are likely to resemble one another. To broaden the scope, we’ve looked at 20 shows this year - 10 truly good ones, and 10 that had potential and were worth watching, even if they could have been significantly better.
This still isn’t a comprehensive list - over 50 shows in the Hindi language alone were released this year, not to mention many in other Indian languages. Here, then, are 20 shows of 2020 that were worth talking about.
Best of the Year, ranked
10. She - Netflix
At the heart of this brisk series written by Imtiaz Ali and Divya Johry is a thoroughly dark, twisted relationship between a conscience-less mobster and an unwilling undercover cop, the latter of which is played in a remarkably layered manner by Aaditi Pohankar. The two leads, Sasya (Vijay Varma) and Bhumi (Pohankar) respectively, have a dynamic that takes a scalpel to subjects such as consent and female sexuality. She doesn’t always hit the mark, particularly when the larger story involving the cops handling Bhumi veers off course. Still, the darkness and subtext of She is unusual enough for Indian content, to make the show worth a watch.
Season 2 of this meme-mine of a show continues its efforts in depicting the goings-on in the heartland underworld, with Wasseypur-style dialogue and characters. (I’m sorry, but Gangs of Wasseypur is the original, this one’s a knock-off. A good one, but a knock-off nonetheless.) Kaleen bhaiyya holds back while Munna bhaiyya gets most of the seetis this time round, even as Golu and Guddu plot their revenge after Season 1’s shock end. (You either know and care, or you don’t and you don’t.)
Compared to season 1, it’s a lot less real, a lot more filmy, but still rather good fun. Mirzapur has perhaps the most assured sophomore season for an Indian streaming show, certainly at least on this list.
Action and misdirection are the hallmarks of a Neeraj Pandey enterprise, and Special Ops is probably his most ambitious effort yet. Kay Kay Menon almost single-handedly holds the entire show together, supporting a young cast that only attempts to do the heavy lifting; the true work is done by Menon’s knowing smirks and shrugs. The show hinges on an intriguing premise – the Parliament attacks of 2001 had an unknown attacker who escaped, and that guy is responsible for most terrorism in India since then. Menon’s Himmat Singh has spent a lifetime chasing after this mystery villain, who finally comes to the fore. It’s grand and silly in equal measure, but Menon sinks his teeth into the role and how.
Among all the roles she’s done this year, this is Swara Bhasker’s definitive performance of 2020 - angry, devil-may-care cop with a past, chasing down an impossibly large network of human traffickers. Flesh suffers from a familiar problem with Indian crime shows – they’re graphic because they’re allowed to be, not strictly because they actually need to be. Still, Flesh is fast-paced, and has at least a twist or two that are worth the effort. Bhasker’s ACP Radha is a brutal bitch, and I mean that in the best way possible. There’s some great joy to be had in watching her beat the bollocks out of anyone who crosses her path.
Sushmita Sen’s performance in the title role, and Neerja director Ram Madhvani’s deft style of direction often make this an unputdownable show. There’s an ensemble cast and an intricate plot at play, and the show has a nervous energy about it that keeps the tension up. Something’s always bubbling under the surface, something always seems ready to escalate and explode. Massive marks for Sen, who may have been out of practice with acting, but she certainly hasn’t lost her magnetic screen presence.
Homegrown Indian comedy can truly bring great joy, as TVF has often shown. And Jitendra Kumar is an actor who deserves to be seen more. Panchayat has the simplest of stories possible – a city boy who wanted a comfy job in the city ends up in a government job in a village instead. Yet, the actors, the writing, and the all-round earnestness of the story makes this one of the best Hindi shows of the year. Extra points, and then some, for Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta, who are convincingly delightful in their village headman and wife characters.
The only show on this list completely made after the global pandemic shut the world down, The Gone Game is a surprisingly competent pandemic lockdown thriller. It’s a short series – just four episodes at about half an hour each. But its victory lies in the fact that despite it beingPaa shot remotely following early lockdown norms, it’s a briskly paced story with some genuine twists that don’t stop coming till the show ends.
Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is one of the best looking shows this year, because of its painstaking attention to period detail and Hansal Mehta’s unhurried, mature treatment of his subject’s life. It isn’t always on the money in terms of its pacing and there’s a bit of a seesaw when it comes to making the financial aspects of the crime accessible to the viewer while not making it seem like they’re idiot-proofing the intricacies of what actually went down. Primarily, though, it’s Pratik Gandhi’s earnest portrayal of the life of a complex personality that really makes the show memorable.
If you ever needed a reminder of how grotesque life is for the average Indian on the spectrum of under-privilege, Paatal Lok would serve you well. Politics, money, gender and caste issues, queer identity, journalistic ethics and a lot more are rolled into this grim, gritty look at the quintessential underbelly of the massive machine with a billion moving parts that is India. Jaideep Ahlawat’s cop turns out one of the great screen performances in recent times to centre the story and power it through, while Neeraj Kabi gives us yet another smug-but-effective portrayal with his hotshot news anchor.
I do not know how to describe this show or what genre to slot it into. It’s a bit of a romance, I suppose, a bit of a thriller as well. It’s also the kind of comedy that can make you laugh for a while before suddenly taking the darkest turn conceivable. Pushpavalli, the character created and played by Sumukhi Suresh, goes from cute to morbid and back again really quick. She can go to any lengths to survive the present moment and make it to the next. And the characters around her are no less batty. Beneath its simple stalker story exterior, the show has got the kind of layered writing you’re going to find nowhere else on this list. The only TV series in the last few years that comes close to wringing the insides the way Pushpavalli does is Fleabag, so I have no qualms in saying that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is India’s Sumukhi Suresh.
The Ones That Could Have Been
Avrodh – Sony Liv
Adapted from a chapter of the (ostensibly) non-fiction book India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, Avrodh is a more intricate look at the surgical strike executed by the Indian armed forces in response to the terror attack at Uri, in comparison to the 2018 film starring Vicky Kaushal. Like the film, the series exaggerates machismo and jingoism, but it manages to craft a few interesting characters along the way. Led by a suitably smug, self-aware Neeraj Kabi as India’s National Security Adviser, the series is pumped with production value and a host of familiar faces. Avrodh is fun enough to paper over the cringe, though my personal favourite part of the show was Vikram Gokhale’s turn as PM Modi. It’s a small role, but the veteran actor plays him stern and intriguingly ambiguous.
Bhaag Beanie Bhaag - Netflix
You don’t need an MBBS to make a show about doctors, but if you choose to make one about a stand-up comic, you don’t have the option of winging it. If it’s not funny, it’ll fail. That’s the unfortunate fact about BBB, which otherwise crafts a few interesting characters and situations around Swara Bhaskar’s aspiring comic Beanie Bhatnagar. The actor, who’s had a busy year in the streaming space, isn’t necessarily the best choice for this character. Instinctively, it seems like this character needed a more raw talent with lesser screen exposure to do it full justice. Still, Bhaskar gives it her usual and then some, making the character worth rooting for.
Mismatched - Netflix
Old people don’t really get young people, but that doesn’t stop middle-aged folks from making shows about older teens. There’s at least one 17-year-old on the show who’s desperate to find a life partner asap. I’m not sure if that’s how kids are these days, but there are a bunch of them on this show – led by Prajakta Koli’s Dimple and Rohit Saraf’s Rishi – that are cute and fun more often than not. There are a host of young adult issues tackled on the show, but thankfully it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The main adults on this show about teenagers, played by Rannvijay Singha and Vidya Malvade, are precisely that – bones in the kebab of youth. Only because the kids are cute and I’d like to know what happens to them, I’d be more than happy to have more seasons of this breezy, tiny series.
Hostages (Season 2) – Disney+ Hotstar
Adapted from the Israeli show of the same name, Hostages is exactly what the name suggests. People keep getting taken hostage with impunity, in service of the main hostage situation. It is silly and engaging in equal measure, with a series of close calls keeping things fun until it gets repetitive. With Sudhir Mishra directing the first season and overseeing the second, the show has its powerful moments, particularly around the lead character played by Ronit Roy. Largely, these powerful moments make up for the more cringe aspects of the show, stemming from the needless tentacles the story sprouts as it goes along. Some focus and more maturity in treatment would have helped, but Hostages is still quite binge-able.
Criminal Justice (Season 2) – Disney+ Hotstar
After Vikrant Massey faced trial in Season 1 of the show, Season 2 sees Kirti Kulhari’s character Anuradha accused in the seemingly open-and-shut murder of her hotshot lawyer husband Bikram. But of course, the truth is more twisted than it appears on the surface, and it’s Pankaj Tripathi’s Madhav who comes to the rescue. The show faithfully follows the template of the BBC original of the same name, but Tripathi dependably walks with you, helps you suspend disbelief and follow the outcome of the case and the characters intertwined with it.
Bandish Bandits – Amazon Prime
This one is all about the ensemble – not just the cast, but the entire creative unit. Veteran actors, young actors with spark, great music, good locations shot well; Bandish Bandits at its best is an audio-visual experience to behold. Those moments just don’t come often enough as the show takes its time to unfold, languidly letting emotions build up to its most dramatic moments. More incisive writing could have taken this show to another level.
Asur – Voot Select
There are scenes and shots in Asur that are stunning to look at, and the show’s basis in the darker aspects of Hindu mythology make it quite original. Of course, you need actors like Barun Sobti (who’s doing some really interesting work in the streaming space) and Arshad Warsi to stabilise things, because the screenplay is rocky at times; particularly as the mystery truly begins to build and unfold in the second half of the season. It spins a throughly Hindu backdrop to the intrigue and makes the stakes worthy of investing in. The climax of the season wasn’t up to the mark, but it still sets up a potentially great season 2.
Four More Shots Please (Season 2) – Amazon Prime
Depending on who you are, this show is either too much, or too little. You’ll find the four leads either reductive in their ‘female perspective’, or it’ll all be a little ‘extra’. Personally, I feel as long as you can get involved in the journey of the main characters, the show is certainly an improvement in terms of how accepting we are of people of all kinds, particularly when the people in question are Indian women. A little more layering and some cognizance of how caste and class also define the experience of being a woman would have helped the show immensely, but this is not that show, and that’s just fine.
A Simple Murder – Sony Liv
This show is watchable mainly because we get to see the versatile Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub work and develop his character over a whole season, as opposed to the smaller character roles he invariably finds himself in. We see his character Manish go through a series of unfortunate coincidences (too many beyond a point to help you care) and meet a host of ‘quirky’ characters along the way (again, sometimes just too quirky to be funny anymore). Amit Sial and Sushant Singh have fun with their characters as well, so even as the show dips, it doesn’t hurt to keep watching.
Abhay (Season 2) – Zee5
The format of the show – a tough cop solves one crime an episode, apart from a larger personal story; and the presence of Kunal Kemmu in the title role make Abhay an interesting proposition on paper. Season 1 was graphic for no other reason apart from the fact that it’s ‘allowed’ on streaming. Season 2 makes it slightly better, even though the crimes are still brutal and bizarre for no reason. In that sense, it’s a show only for hardcore buffs of the graphic crime genre, and even then, the show might out-bizarre you, and not in the best ways. In Season 2, for instance, Chunky Pandey turns up as a nerdy copy shop owner who moonlights as a serial killer. He kills smart kids and eats their brains because his father relentlessly taunted him for being a below-par student in his childhood. Even as I typed that, I realised how limited the appeal of this show might be, but when Ram Kapoor turns up as the mysterious big bad villain who’s after Abhay, the show takes a turn for the better.
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