Shailender Vyas’s show, JL 50, the four-episode miniseries starring Abhay Deol, Pankaj Kapur, Ritika Anand and Piyush Mishra, begins on a splendid note. Some boys are playing football up in the hills, when lightning strikes and the street dogs begin to get shifty. It becomes overcast in a matter of seconds, and everyone on the field stops and looks up at the sky. We all know what we’re going to see (given the show’s title), which is why we’re half-expecting a tacky looking VFX shot of a plane losing altitude. Instead, we see the shadow of a plane passing over the football field, as the kids stand around and gape at it. The shot is reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre (2006), where we’re almost looking forward to how the makers will recreate the visual of a plane crashing into a skyscraper. Instead, Stone shows a New Yorker spotting an aircraft on a glass pane, a split second before it crashes into the WTC. It’s a smart way to play with the audience’s expectations.
News of the plane’s crash in the northern part of West Bengal, and of another missing plane set the stage for intrigue. The crashed plane, JL 50, went ‘missing’ about 35 years ago on August 20, 1984, and its crash site has just been found in 2019. Meanwhile, the missing plane, AO 26, is seemingly hijacked by a radical communist group wanting to separate Bengal from the rest of India. (A welcome break for the ‘Muslim terrorists’ in Hindi films). The case of the crashed plane, and why it’s so far away from its flight course is to be investigated by CBI’s blue-eyed boy Shantanu (Abhay Deol) and his homegrown Watson, Gaurango (a permanently likeable Rajesh Sharma). Meanwhile, the hijackers of AO 26 are demanding the release of their leader from jail in exchange for the hostages.
It’s a lot of plot, and the showrunners may have done great disservice to the material by compressing all of it into about 150 minutes. So bizarre are some of the narrative-jumps, that it doesn’t seem unfair to speculate if we’re looking at a longer series that was cut down to a feature-length film and then re-edited to look like a miniseries. For example, Shantanu and Gaurango see the wreckage of JL 50, and discover that the one passenger who didn’t board the plane, Prof. Das (Pankaj Kapur), lives in Kolkata — all in the span of one scene. Even for a film that wants to play around with time, this comes off as too much of a convenience. What gets even more ludicrous is how Prof. Das not only remembers everything about the flight from 35 years ago, but he even tries to convince Shantanu that this whole thing is a time-travel experiment, with a straight face.
The early portions where Shantanu and Gaurango go around showcasing their detective exploits around Kolkata, have the touch of the city’s many famous (fictitious) sleuths to them. However, the scenes feel so staged, where characters switch between Bengali, Hindi and English, that it destroys any pretence that the audience is on the same journey to the ‘truth’ as the two CBI officers.
Pankaj Kapur, an actor we don’t see enough of, is confined to playing a character he has essayed many times in his career - an eccentric academic. He tries an exaggerated Bengali accent, something the late Om Puri nearly pulled off in Mani Ratnam’s Yuva because he stayed true to it through the entire film. On the other hand, Kapur’s over-the-top accent is inconsistent. This adds to the annoyance already caused by Deol’s Shantanu, who repeatedly calls Kolkata ‘Call-kota’ What’s even more frustrating is how consistently wrong he is through the show’s entire run-time. Some might call this nit-picking on behalf of an oversensitive Bengali community, but it’s a minor detail that destroys the illusion the narrative is seeking to build. Instead of being sucked into what is an intriguing story, the mispronunciation reveals the machinations behind the storytelling.
However, Kapur’s Prof. Das does get one great scene when he’s trying to convince Shantanu to go back in time and undo all the wrongs. Shantanu is amused by Prof. Das’s barely coherent ramblings, and that’s when Das looks up at the CBI officer and says, “You don’t believe me, do you? When these things happen in America, they’re studied and thoroughly researched. It’s all the same in our country. What’s our problem,Shantanu? It’s always about the same - Hindu, Muslim, Temple, Mosque... petty politics. Why can’t we rise above these? If we see something in the sky, we fold our hands and call it God’s miracle. We never question it.”’ It’s a monologue brimming with anger, reminiscent of Kapur’s similar turn in Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut.
One of the show’s biggest casting misfires is Piyush Mishra playing the role of a quantum physicist Dr B.C Mitra. After figuring out time travel in the film, he goes around screaming “I’ve broken the code! I’ve broken the code!” which is probably the next best thing the writers could come up with besides ‘Eureka!’. Mishra’s breathless delivery that he’s patented in his many dissimilar performances ranging from Gulaal, Wasseypur, Pink to other recent films, is hilariously ill-fitting in this show. Given that it’s one of the central parts of the story, it isn’t surprising that the rest of JL 50 crash-lands like it does. Producer/actor Ritika Anand, playing the role of the JL 50 pilot, Bihu Ghosh, spends the majority of her role giving haunted stares to the people around her, almost like she was channeling her inner Urmila Matondkar.
JL 50 feels like yet another one of those lost-in-translation projects for its lead actor. Abhay Deol has been trying to find his way back to mainstream Hindi cinema, for more than a decade now. Backing first-timers, a move that paid off gloriously at the beginning (with Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under, Sanjay Khanduri’s Ek Chaalis Ki Last Local) has been backfiring for a while. Lending his name (and arguably a higher profile) to these projects, it’s time someone spoke to Deol about the distance between a fascinating script and a reasonably decent execution.
JL 50‘s budget constraints show up many times during the show’s latter parts. So convenient and ‘dumbed down’ is the show’s version of time travel, it appears as if the makers are targeting a demographic that hasn’t been acquainted with the concept at all. This is sad, because in some way you’re also talking down to a significant chunk of the audience.
This could have been a longer show, with the backing of a more deep-pocketed producer. Its ambitions are stellar, there’s plenty of intrigue, the actors are decent too, but the final product is too mechanical. As one domino tips the other, one can practically spot a screenwriter’s contrivances. Sci-Fi remains a scarcely populated genre in Indian TV, and unfortunately JL 50 doesn’t even surpass the agonisingly low bar.