Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley: A well-made A(gatha)!

Wamiqa Gabbi in Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley. Photo: Trailer Video Grab 

Having adapted three Shakespearean plays (of which I confess I liked only Omkara and hated Haider for the pro-terrorist twist it was given) and also two stories of Ruskin Bond, Vishal Bhardwaj spreads his creative net onto Agatha Christie this time, aiming for a franchise, as the last sequences clearly indicate.

To adapt a classic British whodunit, written and set in the 20th century into the era of mobile-phones and viral videos is clearly a challenge, but Vishal Bhardwaj, in his best directorial effort (I dare say this after due consideration!!) since his debut as director, Makdee, way back in 2002, meets it head-on. For the writer and director does not hesitate to set the movie in contemporary times, using these very modern aspects to enhance the story. Of course, the plot is suitably adapted to both a much-later era and a different country (India) and our characters and motivations.

Pretty much the only aspect that jars is making a hardcore Punjabi out of the detective, Charlie Chopra (Wamiqa Gabbi), with her patent exclamation of astonishment or excitement that is translated in subtitles on screen each time as “F**k a duck!” I have no quarrel with the fact that she has been shown as a Punjabi, and I may be nitpicking, but her gimmicky character could have had a better, more inventive humorous shade.

Vishal modifies the story and yet maintains the olde-worlde British ethos of hill stations in chilly, wet weathers, lots of snow on dark nights, ancient mansions belonging to the privileged, extended families, loyal servants (this time the issue of Bangladeshi refugees is forced in, but what would be a VB work without politically posturing?) and more.

Of course, as is all Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (references are subtly made to his work here) and other good whodunits from the genius British writers, there is the cynical, almost comical and belligerent police inspector who eats humble pie in the end. The twist after the denouement is superb and, though The Sittaford Mystery (on which this series is based) is not among the crème-de-la-crème of Agatha Christie’s multifarious looks at crime, adapting it must have been easier because the detective is neither Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Having read the book in my teens, I rewound to that time and whatever I remembered about the storyline and I admit that Vishal has spun quite an engaging A(gatha), gatha meaning a story!

To my knowledge, the last Agatha classic witnessed in Hindi cinema, barely faithful except at its core idea, was the commercially entertaining suspense musical (!), Gumnaam 58 years ago, and to note that Charlie Chopra… is co-produced by Agatha Christie Ltd. makes it obvious that the rights holders have liked the way the story has been adapted.

Brigadier Meherbaan Singh Rawat (Gulshan Grover), a colorful personality with a ruthless streak and skeletons in his closet, is found murdered at his Manali mansion by his friend, Colonel Barua (Baharul Islam), just hours after a prediction of his death at a séance held in the house of his relatives in a nearby town—Meherbaan lives alone. The uncanny coincidence unnerves all, and each character, be it Meherbaan’s brother’s family, a close relative, two nephews and the younger Jimmy (Vivan Shah)’s girlfriend, Charlie Chopra are flummoxed and horrified.

The idea of any good whodunit (and as per my view, all Agatha Christie work falls in that category!) is to point the finger of suspicion at every person at different junctures, and this story is no different. Based on circumstantial evidence, Jimmy is even arrested, leading to Charlie deciding to investigate.

The script even brings in classical music though the characters of Wilayat Hussain (Lara Dutta) and her daughter Wasima (Bhagyashree Tarke), and a foreigner, Nicole (Emily R. Acland). Add-on murders and an attempted killing also come in, and just like a séance begins the tale, another deliberately-held séance ends it.

The series is replete with admirable performances, headed by the redoubtable Wamiqa Gabbi as Charlie. For her age and experience, Wamiqa is astounding! The entire Naseeruddin Shah clan is here, and while all fit the bill, Ratna Pathak Shah as Mrs. Bharucha, who is confined to a wheelchair, stands out. Baharul Islam as Barua is excellent.

Gulshan Grover as the arrogant brigadier stands out from the rest of the cast for his perfect pitch—it is nice to watch him after a long gap in the mainstream Indian entertainment space. Neena Gupta, as always, is effortlessly brilliant as Dr. Janki Rawat, Meherbaan’s sister-in-law, while Lalit Parimoo is good as her husband. Bhagyashree Tarke makes a mark as Wasima, as does Priyanshu Painyuli as Charlie’s journalist friend, quaintly named Sitaram. However, Lara Dutta and Chandan Roy Sanyal are ‘criminally’ (sorry for the pun!) underused.

The series, at a concise six episodes, is decidedly a pointer at how good whodunits should be made within the classic British template. Thankfully, it is not an anticlimax like the similar mediocre attempt in recent times—Neeyat.

Rating: ****

Sony LIV presents VB Films, Tusk Tale Films & Agatha Christie Ltd.’s  Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley  Produced by: Vishal Bhardwaj & Priti Sahani  Directed by: Vishal Bhardwaj  Written by: Agatha Christie, Vishal Bahrdwaj, Anjum Rajabali & Jyotsna Hariharan  Music: Vishal Bhardwaj Starring: Wamiqa Gabbi, Priyanshu Painyuli, Lara Dutta, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Patha, Neenak Shah, Gulshan Grover, Neena Gupta, Imaaduddin Shah, Vivan Shah, Lalit Parimoo, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Bhagyashree Tarke, Paoli Dam, Pulkit Makol, Baharul Islam, Amitabh Bhatacharjee, Ashique Hussain, Heeba Shah, Ghanshyam Garg, Emily R. Acland  Sp. App.: Richa Chadha & others







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