The Gone Game: This 'lockdown thriller' series with a promising cast is simple yet layered, with twists galore
The Gone Game tells us that for a thriller to thrill, simplicity works as long as there is a tangible effort at the writing stage.
One of the first things you may notice about The Gone Game, streaming on Voot Select, is that its title sequence — with its kaleidoscopic mirrored images — seems inspired from the titles of the Netflix hit Dark. You will probably take it in your stride soon enough, though; because what follows is a tight, gripping, four-episode story set in the earliest days of India’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in late March.
The Gujrals, an ‘upper-class’ family, are spread across cities during the lockdown. Like many others, they catch up via video calls and make jokes about rattling thalis. One of them even keeps her ‘digital footprint’ to a minimum because she is particular about ‘privacy,’ and keeping her info from the government. (Never mind that if you have a mobile number in your name today, it means you have Aadhaar, so your privacy is almost like our world without COVID-19 — it does not exist.)
Yet, it is specifically the COVID-19 lockdown that provides The Gone Game the hook for its thriller story, involving (tiny spoiler) betrayals of different shapes and sizes, and a few hundred crores of money. (Aside: Notice how these days the stakes with money in our screen stories are always a casual few hundred crores? All the thousands and lakhs of crores we have seen in headlines have clearly upped the game for regular fictional scammers.)
Shot remotely during the lockdown, a lot of it in the actors’ homes itself, it nevertheless manages a slick feel that does not actively remind you of the constraints and logistical challenges the crew would have faced to pull it off. Instead, you are focused on the rapidly unfolding family dynamic, which takes a dark turn — one among them dies of COVID-19. The death quickly turns into a far deeper mystery with possible foul play, and the needle of suspicion begins to point to within the family itself.
Even though many of the tropes are familiar — a rich family with secrets; red herrings to keep you looking elsewhere; an omnipotent hacker providing key breakthroughs in the mystery later; an enthusiastic Shweta Tripathi taking charge of things (we will come to the actor again in a bit) — the state of the world becomes a major player in the story.
The victory of the show is how it manages constantly shifting remote perspectives, using them to deftly ‘thicken’ the plot, so to speak.
God and the Devil (they say) are both in the details. In The Gone Game, the details come fast and furious: a menacing blackmailer, a social media influencer, a fellow who returned from Bangkok just around the time the country was shutting down, now in self-quarantine, the works. There are couples with distance issues, kids with underlying daddy issues, and thankfully, no connectivity issues.
A chunk of the narrative unfolds over screens, but that is no impediment to the story. It seems we have all taken our intimate relationships with screens to the next level during the COVID-19 lockdown, so the reliance on so many of them to narrate a story bothers us far less. As things get murkier, you will have theories about who, what, and why; and the makers gleefully fuel all of them, while also managing to raise questions about general life stuff — ‘influencer culture,' ‘relationships’ et al. The cast is large enough to spawn a bunch of theories, yet small enough so that things never get too convoluted.
And it is a solid cast. Sanjay Kapoor’s face looks like it was meant to be in distress and extract pity, so he is perfect as 'distraught dad.' Arjun Mathur plays his son, and he is reliable as always. There are two others among the cast, however, that play a big part in keeping things interesting at all times.
There is a gear that Shweta Tripathi operates at, in this show and in other roles before this, that makes her seem so enthusiastic, so devoted to playing her part. When I see her face, the word I see in the eye of my mind, and feel in my heart is 'enthusiasm.' ‘Smartypants-turning-detective-by-happenstance’ is a character right up her enthusiastic-alley, and Tripathi dives into it... whole-heartedly. (Got you.) Watching her in every role that she does makes me wait for her to do meatier and more complex parts; I hope creators are lining up.
Then there is Shriya Pilgaonkar, whose screen presence is maturing with every passing performance. Here, she plays a social media influencer who ‘performs’ her life online for her followers, which leads to ethical questions; particularly when tragedy strikes her, it obviously finds its way online for the world to see. It is a part that requires a certain kind of persona, and there is a certain coolth about the actor that is worthy of being mined and honed.
At four episodes of about half an hour each, The Gone Game is a quick binge, with twists to keep you interested all the way to the end. It is a remarkable achievement considering the lockdown constraints, but it also reminds you that there is a story at every turn, and that for a thriller to thrill, simplicity works as long as there is a tangible effort at the writing stage; you have to keep the audience involved and guessing.
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