It’s a good thing that Hotstar isn’t branding its own content as ‘Hotstar Originals’ anymore. Because the streaming service’s second show, Criminal Justice, is far from original. Not only is it literally a remake of a remake - the ‘original’ UK Criminal Justice was adopted in America as The Night Of - but it is narratively similar to so many murder mysteries we’ve seen before, all in a good way.
Three episodes were made available in advance, and this should be considered a review of those three episodes only. The hope is that Criminal Justice maintains the solid start, and doesn’t derail in later episodes, as the plot becomes more convoluted, and the twists more winding.
It takes around 10 minutes for it to be made abundantly clear that Criminal Justice can’t be compared to its ancestors - despite their common DNA. But once we’ve made peace with this, it can be enjoyed for what it is - an adaptation of a proven property, which makes the smart decision to retain what worked, and doesn’t make needless attempts to reinvent the wheel.
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia, through his unfussy handling of the material, often evokes memories of the previous shows by replicating moments - both visually and thematically. Often, Vikrant Massey’s central character, Aditya, is framed in a manner similar to how Riz Ahmed’s Naz was shown in The Night Of. And while there are obvious distinctions to be made between an immigrant Pakistani family living in New York, and a middle-class Indian family in Mumbai - Dhulia and writer Shridhar Raghavan tap into the stories’ universal themes - corruption, bureaucracy, and class.
I am ashamed to admit the sheer pleasure I derived from watching Jackie Shroff in his element, sat there in his trademark neckerchief, with words like ‘bhidu’ and ‘darling’ flowing trippingly off his tongue, almost as if he uses them in regular life.
His performance is excellent, equal parts menacing and reassuring, much like Michael K Williams’ in The Night Of. And it’s a sign of Pankaj Tripathi’s dependability that even the show’s insistence on slotting his character as comic relief - he enters scenes, more often than not, accompanied by goofy background music - doesn’t get in the way of his nuanced performance. As always, Tripathi is rather understated, despite his character - the street-smart lawyer Madhav Misra - almost begging for an over-the-top portrayal, what with all his quirks.
Misra is perhaps the show’s most successful attempt at cultural translation. Unlike some of the other characters - and indeed, thematics - the amoral chicanery of Misra seems to be rooted in what some of you might have seen in our courtrooms.
While ‘The Night Of’, in particular, had strong political subtext - it was also a takedown of the American legal system, and a blunt critique of post 9/11 racism - Criminal Justice doesn’t quite make the most of the opportunity to discuss class in India, and the appalling lawlessness of our prisons, which can sometimes house dozens of inmates in the same cells.
So instead, the show is more heavily reliant on its actors than usual. While both the original UK show and The Night Of had other things going in their favor - bigger budgets, a grander scope, the honorable stamps of the BBC and HBO - the burden of maintaining Criminal Justice’s grip on the audience falls mostly on its trio of leading stars.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Vikrant Massey as a murderous psychopath - even more so than the similarly angelic-looking Ben Whishaw and Riz Ahmed - but this is not a Jekyll and Hyde story. Instead, it deals with the same themes that director Konkona Sen Sharma attempted to unpack in her debut, A Death in the Gunj. I mention that film purely because it was also told through the perspective of Massey’s character, and dealt with the psychological unraveling of an introvert. Watch trailer;
It would be unfair to criticize Criminal Justice for its rather on-the-nose storytelling. I suppose that is a part of the adaptation process. There is still a long way to go, but simply the fact that we’re now officially remaking stuff instead of shamelessly lifting material is a win.