Perhaps the biggest failure of Khakee: The Bihar Chapter is its complete disinterest in scratching beneath the surface. It’s the cop show equivalent of a flesh wound. But that might also be its greatest strength. This way, it’s more forgiving. Set in the badlands of Bihar in the mid 2000s, Khakee is surprisingly engaging masala entertainment that embraces its lowbrow values instead of pretending to be something else. There’s a rugged charm to its unrefined storytelling, as it willfully looks the other way at the briefest sign of moral complexity.
Created by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Bhav Dhulia, Netflix’s seven-episode crime drama is happy just to be here, like a new police recruit so pleased with their ‘vardi’ that they don’t even bother to check if it fits.
Karan Tacker plays the wet-behind-the-ears rookie cop Amit Lodha, a highly-qualified young man who is posted, like Ayushmann Khurrana’s character in Article 15, in a lawless new land that he neither understands nor particularly likes. But he is driven by duty, and almost comically upright. In one scene, his wife catches him smiling at himself in the mirror as he puts on his uniform in the morning. Calling him a boy scout would be mean; he’s practically a saint.
As Amit climbs up the ranks over the next few years, as does a lowly goon named Chandan Mahto, played by Avinash Tiwary in a performance so transformative that it makes his brownface makeup more redundant than problematic. Women are forgotten, bodies are slain, and more masculine energy than even 10 Axe body spray commercials could contain is spent, as show puts Amit and Chandan on an action-packed collision course.
Tacker, who previously worked with Pandey on the rather enjoyable spy series Special OPS, does his best with the limited firepower that the underwritten Amit has been given. Amit is an idealist, and that’s about it. Over the course of the season, he’s hailed as the police force’s brightest new talent, ‘shunted’ for some time after rocking the boat, and then reinstated as a potential fall-guy in the force’s manhunt for Chandan Mahto. Along the way, the show sprinkles in some rather worthless scenes of Amit in a domestic setting, but they’re given even less of a thought than the concept of privacy in a men’s urinal.
A third character, however, is given the responsibility to narrate this story. Abhimanyu Singh’s sweaty station house officer eventually joins forces with Amit as they form a rogue squad of sorts to nab the elusive Chandan, whose power and influence over Bihar politics increases formidably in the background. Veterans Ashutosh Rana, Anup Soni, and Ravi Kishan drop by as supporting characters on either side of the law, while Vinay Pathak’s bent politician is so badly ignored that he might as well have been a woman.
As you can probably tell, there’s a lot happening here. And by taking on so much responsibility, the show basically does none of its 15 parallel plot lines any justice. Breaking Bad, by comparison, spent over five season on less story than what Khakee glosses over in seven mid-sized episodes. Forget examining its own themes properly, it treats even its primary characters with only a cursory interest. For instance, Khakee doesn’t give them the luxuries that they might have had in the real world, such as the ability to feel hesitation and insecurity; instead, every decision is made with a single-minded determination, purely to propel the plot forward.
This is normally a very annoying way to tell a story, but unlike rival crime series such as Mirzapur, Maharani and Aashram, Khakee’s breakneck pace is a part of its appeal. Consider an elaborate prison breakout scene orchestrated by Chandan Mahto and his right-hand man, Chyawanprash Sahu (Jatin Sarna), in an early episode. It’s rough around the edges like virtually every other sequence in the show, but Dhulia and Pandey give it a sense of forward propulsion that is engaging on multiple levels. It’s a violent sequence that begins and ends, ironically, with shots of ‘prasad’. And even though the director cuts away almost instantly on both occasions, it suggests that while his sensibilities might be old-fashioned, the storytelling ideas are all there. The scene doesn’t just establish Chandan Mahto’s ruthlessness, but also his cunning; he knows how to exploit fools.
There are similar, all-to-brief attempts to draw parallels between Amit and Chandan, particularly towards the end, as the show goes from Scarface to The Untouchables to Heat. But if you’re looking for psychological insight into the minds of determined cops and crazed criminals, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Potentially interesting ideas such as systemic corruption and encounter killings are flirted with, but never fully committed to. Khakee is content with being a B-grade potboiler. I mean this not as a slide, but as a compliment. Few shows, especially of this kind, are able to sustain a tone. And Pandey has established himself as something of a master of this kind of squad-style procedural. Fans of his brand of storytelling will find much to enjoy here, even as others are put off by the plainness.