‘Murder in Mahim’ series review: A cut below the rest

Vijay Raaz and Ashutosh Rana in ‘Murder in Mahim’ 

Jerry Pinto’s richly observed crime novel, Murder in Mahim, was published in 2017, a year before the Supreme Court finally read down Section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality. The book — a noir murder mystery — took a gritty yet empathetic look at gay life in the Mumbai underbelly. Seven years on, it’s been turned into a web series on JioCinema. The series, directed by Raj Acharya and adapted by Mustafa Neemuchwala and Udai Singh Pawar, has the benefit of hindsight, and it shows. Pinto sought to patiently delineate the repression, ignorance and homophobia that formed the basis of a draconian provision like Section 377. The series, releasing in marginally freer times, can afford to look virtuous, even didactic.

Murder in Mahim has the most literal start — indicative of the bland and business-like filmmaking Acharya will mostly rely upon. In the male public urinals of Mahim station, a mutilated body is found. The victim is discovered to be a young gay sex worker; soon enough, another sex worker turns up dead. A grisly detail ties both murders: the victims’ kidneys were forcefully removed. More troubling still, the killer — a hooded, unrevealed figure — has been leaving flagrant clues for their next target. It calls for the expertise of Shiva Jende (Vijay Raaz), who, along with assistant sub-inspector Firdaus (Shivani Raghuvanshi), wearily applies himself to the case.

The official investigation is closely tailed by a private one: that of retired journalist Peter Fernandes (Ashutosh Rana). Shiva and Peter were pals in their heyday (the characters first appeared in a short story by Pinto, in the anthology Mumbai Noir). When Peter is informed that his son, activist-y college-goer Sunil (Rohan Verma), is on the police’s radar — his phone number had turned up on the victims’ call records — Peter sets about seeking some answers. All the while, we see him nervously speculating about his son’s sexual preferences.

As Peter warily investigates, he gets an up-close view of the city’s underground gay scene, a world of masseurs and “personal trainers”, young boys pulled to prostitution through a mix of poverty, prejudice and police corruption. The series maps the fragility of gay rights in India — and the problems of class and social exclusion that attend queer existence in a city like Mumbai. The show is set in 2013 when the Supreme Court — overturning an earlier Delhi High Court ruling — upheld Section 377 and continued to do so for five more years. The legal stigma is reflected in common everyday attitudes: Peter and his wife, Mille (Divya Jagdale), though educated, empathetic parents, react with typical heteronormative discomfort at the possibility that their son might be gay.

Murder in Mahim (Hindi)

Director: Raj Acharya

Cast: Vijay Raaz, Ashutosh Rana, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Divya Jagdale, Smita Tambe, Ashutosh Gaikwad

Episodes: 8

Run-time: 40-45 minutes

Storyline: A cop and a retired journalist investigate a string of grisly murders in Mumbai 

The writers adhere closely to Pinto’s novel, faithfully reproducing its convolutions and its vast array of characters. There are lines quoted almost verbatim, though I missed the colloquialisms and street-speak — including a crude yet utterly commonplace slang for gay sex — that Pinto speckles his prose with (the show’s proffered alternative is not as stinging). Some of the secondary characters do not come alive as vividly as they do in the book. For instance, colourful socialite Leslie Sequeira (played here by Rajesh Khattar) is largely reduced to a sideshow. Also, Firdaus — who isn’t there in the novel —represents a feeble attempt at introducing an author-backed queer protagonist.

Vijay Raaz as Shivajirao Jende in ‘Murder in Mahim’

Vijay Raaz as Shivajirao Jende in ‘Murder in Mahim’

In a clever twist that deviates from the book, Peter and Shiva are introduced to us as estranged friends: twenty years ago, the journalist reported on a story that resulted in Shiva’s father losing his job. This not only lends a dramatic snap to their reunion — funnily captured in a seaside drinking scene, Raaz’s exaggerated hand gestures bouncing off Rana’s reserve —but also allows us a glimpse into Shiva’s personal life. The haggard police officer with anger issues is shown struggling in his many roles — as son, parent, husband. It underlines a central theme: the burden of perceived ‘manhood’ in Indian homes.

Murder in Mahim lacks the subtlety and craft of a Dahaad or Pataal Lok — sturdy crime dramas that persistently probe a deeper malaise. The opening of minds and changing of hearts in the final episodes feel rushed; even if Peter’s evolution over the course of his encounters is credible, is Shiva’s too? Characters wind up in neat boxes of black and white, as foes or allies. It skirts the fascinating greyness and humanity of Pinto’s book, which evokes Raskolnikov: “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”

Murder in Mahim is currently streaming on JioCinema

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