Between the Sundance-laurelled “Against the Tide,” “Pathaan'”s thundering box-office and Netflix’s quietly gripping miniseries “Trial by Fire,” India is on a roll in Q1 of 2023, consolidating the recent red-carpet success of “RRR” and “All That Breathes.”
In theory, that slate should be bolstered further by the return of nifty genre technicians Raj & DK – writer-director-producers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. – who helped renovate the haunted-house movie with 2018’s “Stree” before handing Prime Video one of its biggest Indian hits with “The Family Man.”
Yet the oddly flat “Farzi” suggests the limitations of the pair’s approach – and that even streaming’s brighter minds might be prone to burnout.
Until now, the pair’s formula has been comparable to Xzibit’s on “Pimp My Ride”: take a clapped-out banger of a story and extensively redesign it. “Farzi” pushes its luck from the off with its uncommonly generic, get-rich-or-die-trying plot. After his grandfather’s left-wing newspaper folds, struggling Mumbai artist Sunny (Bollywood pin-up Shahid Kapoor) repurposes a printing press to churn out counterfeit banknotes. Guided by a portraitist’s eye, the enterprise proves surprisingly successful – until it draws the attentions of an unsmiling anti-fraud specialist (Tamil superstar Vijay Sethupathi), a forensics expert (Raashii Khanna) and the mastermind behind an even bigger and far less scrupulous counterfeiting operation (Kay Kay Menon).
Setting up that pursuit provides another demonstration of one of Raj & DK’s strengths as emergent showrunners – namely that, even after a rapid rise to media prominence, they’re still very much in touch with the streets. As in “The Family Man”, the showrunners do some of their strongest work in collaboration with their location manager (Rahul Balmiki here), identifying underfilmed avenues and alleyways for their characters to duck into and run around. This pair relish a well-marshalled chase, not least for the opportunity it affords them to break up any exposition while showing off the real, cash-strapped, jammed-up Mumbai.
The location shooting chimes with the mazy way the pair continue to think about plotting. The opening episode gives us both the story’s start (the newspaper’s collapse) and its midpoint (Sunny’s capture by Menon’s fearsome Mansoor); subsequent instalments find circuitous means of connecting the two before everybody proceeds to the endgame. When Raj & DK’s projects are fun, it’s because you can feel the creatives themselves having fun – puzzling something out on the hoof, brainstorming unusually close to the camera. Here, though, they’re observed playing a perilously long game, and fatigue begins to creep in.
Because for all its makers’ flair for action, for all their dexterity of montage, “Farzi” never satisfactorily answers the question of whether this plot needs, or is best served by, eight hour-long episodes. “The Family Man” found new situations to parachute its protagonist into, thereby upending stock spy-game material. “Farzi”, by contrast, gets caught laboring on several points that don’t really require drawing out. It takes two episodes to source the right paper for counterfeiting; it takes three to assemble the task force to track the counterfeiters down. It makes for sluggish going – a show that’s forever haggling when it should be heading for the hills.
The extra time spent with this ensemble offers mixed rewards. “The Family Man” turned a seasoned character actor (Manoj Bajpayee) into an action star. “Farzi” remodels a star into a character actor, a far less dynamic trajectory. Flush and sweaty, Kapoor shoulders the series opener, but then seems to shrink, instalment by instalment, eclipsed by wilier presences: Sethupathi, for one, casually prowling his subplot and shaking off some dishevelled-cop clichés. (There’s also a nice, symbolic comeback role for Amol Palekar, one of Indian cinema’s great milquetoasts, as Sunny’s grandfather – a kind heart who has no place, and may in fact be doomed to extinction, in a survival-of-the-fittest economy.)
Yet key figures don’t collide until the second half; that first-episode flashforward is reassurance that there will eventually be conflict. The intention is noble: to bulk up characters ordinarily conceived as pieces on a board. Yet this kind of plot surely relies on them being sharply etched pieces, to be moved as rapidly as knock-off currency. Here, the plot gets gummed up; nothing quite circulates at the speed it should. The writing has little of the spark – the off-the-cuff asides and gags – which elevated even routine “Family Man”; most episodes shuffle towards a shrug rather than the “Breaking Bad”-style cliffhanger that would keep you hooked.
Raj & DK have worked relentlessly since their breakthrough – they direct all eight episodes here – and it’s just possible this material offered them a way to process the doubtless unreal amount of capital they themselves have stockpiled. They remain conscientious employees, opening a door for a second season even amid the joyless bloodbath that concludes the first. Yet they seem, for the moment, to have exhausted their bag of tricks: “Farzi” is the first of the pair’s projects to feel counterfeit itself, a tired imitation rather than its own, vital thing. It’ll pass for entertainment, if you’re not looking closely. But all it’s really scattering are dud notes.
“Farzi” is now streaming on Prime Video; all eight episodes were screened for review.
Executive producer: Rahul Gandhi. Producers: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna D.K.
Associate producer: Anuradha Sharma.
Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Vijay Sethupathi, Raashii Khanna, Amol Palekar, Bhuvan Arora, Kay Kay Menon, Regina Cassandra, Kubbra Sait.