IWMBuzz.com reviews web series Criminal Justice

Review of Criminal Justice: Evocative storytelling enhanced by exquisite performances

The Indian web space has truly come of age in recent times. The sanguine, slice-of-life shows that ruled the space in its nascent stages have given way to stylized, meticulously structured storytelling, the likes of which we were used to watching only on international TV. Web content available in the country today is a veritable smorgasbord of delectable stories and genres, designed to assuage the voracious appetites of insatiable viewers.

Into this giddying digital milieu arrives Criminal Justice, a crime cum prison drama that is legit international. Coz it is the official adaptation of season 1 hit BBC show of the same name. Its American counterpart was called The Night Of. Hotstar, the digital arm of Star India and the latest player to have thrown its hat into the Originals ring, is where you can watch Criminal Justice Season 1. The ten-part series has been created by the Aditya Birla Group’s Applause Entertainment; Shridhar Raghavan has adapted the story from Peter Moffat’s original, while it is helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia.

Aditya Sharma (Vikrant Massey) is a young MBA aspirant, plays football for a local club, and is a do-gooder at heart.  He plans a night out with his friends to celebrate a football win. But before hitting the party scene, he agrees to complete a few rides for his dad, who operates a cab with a popular cab aggregator company called FirstCabs.

Just as he completes his last ride for the evening, a pretty young girl named Sanaya Rath (Madhurima Roy) bulldozes her way into his cab, demanding to be taken to her destination. Noticing how high-strung the girl is, Aditya agrees to drop her. Things start going awry pretty quickly thereon. The girl is high on drugs and behaves like the perfect, privileged b**ch. She changes her destination multiple times, forcing Adi to abort his party plans for the night. To make up for the pain she’s been, she invites Adi into her posh, well-appointed home for a nightcap. After a drugs and alcohol-fuelled s*x session, the girl is dead and Adi lands up in police custody, implicated for the rape and murder of Sanaya Rath.

For the cops, led by Police Chief, Raghu Salian (Pankaj Saraswat), it’s a cut-and-dried murder case. For Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi), the fly-by-night lawyer who takes up Adi’s case, it is a case clearly out of the league. For hot shot lawyer, Mandira Mathur (Mita Vashisht), who represents Adi on a pro bono basis on behalf of FirstCabs, it is a case she must close quickly if FirstCabs is to save face, even if it means compelling Adi to plead guilty. Mathur is assisted by an earnest Nikhat (Anupriya Goenka). Adi is eventually convicted of Sanaya’s murder and despatched to judicial custody, aka living hell.

The first two episodes of the show are almost identical to the initial episode of its British antecedent, including some of the dialogues; save for the Indianization of the proceedings that is. That ill-advised attempt at Indianization is also what bogs down the story considerably. In fact, it gets decidedly slow and dragging because of it, what with the needlessly lengthy depiction of the travails of Adi’s not-so-well-off family and the trial by media. Both seem too far-fetched and tedious, covering the entire gamut of weepy, done-to-death tropes. Doing away completely with some of it would perhaps have made the final product sharper and crisper than what it is now.

It is from the third episode onwards that the story truly comes into its own, as the series shifts from first to fourth gear. The jail that Adi is sent to is a veritable hell-hole. Space is in short supply while the cells are crammed with hardened criminals. One of them, the hair-raisingly terrifying Layak (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), will make your skin crawl with the sheer evilness that radiates from him. The scene where viewers are first introduced to Layak is particularly spine-chilling. It makes your hair stand on end and your heart beating faster, as your mind rushes ahead to contemplate the perils that await the naive, cherubic Adi. He is suitably terrified, as are we, the viewers.

And then there’s Mustafa Bhai (Jackie Shroff, in a masterstroke casting coup) who runs a parallel fiefdom within the prison confines, of which he is King. He takes Adi under his wing in exchange for protection money, mentoring him to take on the big bad wolves of the barracks. But what is merely a commercial deal at the beginning converts into a profoundly moving relationship by the end of the series.

It is within the confines of the jail that Adi’s true grit comes to the fore. Under Mustafa Bhai’s tutelage, his meek and asthmatic college boy character undergoes a stunning transformation to become a force that can’t and mustn’t be messed with. The jail scenes are simply brilliant and elevate the series from mundane to a must-watch.

At one point, when Layak compels Adi to carry out a task that is disgustingly despicable, you literally put your hand over your nose to stem the stench – a testimony to the vividness of the story’s picturization. The sundry characters that populate the jail add a powerful dimension to the proceedings – Taklya, the corrupt jail Superintendent, the young lad who falls prey to Layak’s perversion, and so many more.

The series is studded with a stunning show of character arcs of all the main players – Mustafa’s, Madhav Mishra’s, and of course, Adi’s. It is one of the highlights of the stellar storytelling that marks Criminal Justice.

On the face of it, Criminal Justice presents itself as a simple murder and prison drama; grim and hard-hitting, yes, but a murder and crime thriller, nevertheless.

Delve deeper, however, and you find yourself face to face with a plethora of latent, simmering layers, each more nuanced than the next. It is this deeply layered narrative that makes Applause’s Criminal Justice stand apart starkly and proudly from its international predecessors.

First off is the character of Madhav Mishra, the small fry lawyer out to make a quick buck. Rendered with his trademark chutzpah by Pankaj Tripathi, Mishra’s character arc is breath-taking. He is plagued by an itch that just won’t go away, both physically and meta-physically. Despite Adi’s conviction, Mishra pursues the case doggedly in the hope of securing justice for the boy. In doing so, he hopes to exorcise the ghosts of his past and find the way to redemption, from both – his past and his itch.

Then there’s Police Chief Raghu Salian. What is just another rape and murder case to others alters into a personal vendetta for him by the sole virtue of him being father to a fifteen year old girl. He takes it upon himself to see the case through to the definitive punishment for Adi – death by hanging; nothing more, nothing less. His change of heart towards the end ­– another striking character arc – helps Madhav Mishra take the case to its logical conclusion.

Anupriya Goenka’s Nikhat is terrifically portrayed, lending a disarming dignity to the otherwise depraved lawyer profession. Yet, despite all of Anupriya’s earnestness, the role pales in comparison to the overwhelming presence and performances of the ring-leaders – Pankaj Tripathi, Jackie Shroff and Vikrant Massey.

Jackie Shroff, in particular, leaves a lasting impression on our minds with his beyond brilliant turn as Mustafa. He’s in his element as the tough-as-nails-softie-at-heart jailbird. The last shot he features in plays in your mind’s eye on loop, that’s how impactful is his Mustafa Bhai. Now that Jackie’s rediscovered his mojo, we hope to see much more of him in all forms of the content space. Lage raho Jaggu Dada!

The other performances are worthy of mention too. Dibyendu Bhattacharya is terrific and terrifying as Layak. His debauchery is as stunning to view as it is repulsive to perceive. Madhurima Roy impresses in her short but striking rendering of Sanaya. Mita Vashisht is remarkable as the snooty Mandira Mathur, conveying more with her minimal, though haughty, expressions and austere tone than is possible for lesser actors. Rucha Indamdar, as Adi’s sister Avni, has put in an earnestly appreciable performance too.

Shridhar Raghavan is master of all he surveys when it comes to grave, gritty writing. He wields his skill with consummate deftness in this vivid and visceral adaptation of Criminal Justice. Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vishal Furia’s directorial skills are in fine fettle too. Other than a few places where the story does tend to drag, the direction is flawless.

That said, the show could have done with a crisper length than its present 45-50 minute long ten episodes. The tediousness of some parts does get to you, and all you can do to escape it is hit the forward button.

That notwithstanding, Criminal Justice is a worthy adaptation of its well-received western counterparts. Watch it for the exquisite performances. Watch it for the evocative storytelling. Watch it for its inherent triumph-of-the-underdog premise. Watch it, period!

In the meanwhile, IWMBuzz gives Criminal Justice a 3.5/5 rating.