If you were to give up on The Great Indian Murder after episode one, which is possible, considering how ineffective it is, you’d miss the central hook of the plot altogether. You’d be led to believe that the new Hotstar Special is some low-rent version of the same Hindi belt political drama that we’ve seen a million times before, and not an elaborate mystery with a high-concept premise.
There’s a reason why Agatha Christie—often described as the Queen of Crime—could churn out novel after novel every week. Even though the characters were different and each new setting more exotic than the last, the blueprint of her narratives remained largely the same. This is the equivalent of a chess player opening with the same move, because they know where it’ll probably take them five minutes later.
Murder mysteries demand an airtight structure; they need to hide the clues in plain sight so that the audience can feel invested. The misdirection needs to be carefully thought out (remember how the entire kidnapping subplot in Mare of Easttown was a red herring?). Double bluffs, secondary crimes, unreliable narrators—these are all tropes that fans have been conditioned to expect. A good mystery needn’t include all these elements, but introducing a couple of them could go a long way.
Most importantly, though, murder mysteries need to avoid plotholes, because that would be cheating the audience. And cheating the audience is tantamount to disrespecting the audience. And nobody wants that, right?
But not only does The Great Indian Murder disregard the laws of the genre, it does so with the arrogant ignorance of somebody who hasn’t ever attended a biology lesson in their life, but has convinced themselves that they are an authority on the subject.
This is especially disappointing at a time when we’re witnessing somewhat of a resurgence in the genre, both in India and abroad. Just last week, the genius filmmakers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord debuted delightful Apple TV+ series The Afterparty. In the early days of the pandemic, Honey Trehan made a fantastic directorial debut with Raat Akeli Hai, which gave star Nawazuddin Siddiqui a character that he could have continued playing for a decade, in a just world.
But the biggest boost to the genre came between 2017 and 2019, when Kenneth Branagh rebooted it with Murder on the Orient Express, Rian Johnson subverted it with Knives Out, and Adam Sandler introduced it to a whole new generation with Netflix’s Murder Mystery. Incidentally, each of these films is getting a sequel this year. Each of them, you’d notice, also follows a similar template; a template that has been perfected over many decades; a template that Tigmanshu Dhulia and his team of writers perhaps aren’t even aware of.
The problems with the show make themselves seen, heard, and felt fairly early on. When the maniacal scion of a chief minister is killed at a party he had thrown to celebrate his undue exoneration in a murder case, the suspicion falls on a handful of guests, each of whom had reason to wish him harm. But you don’t learn this information until midway through episode two. Which is bonkers. Episode one simply ends with the crazy Vicky Rai—a man who becomes more despicable as the show goes along, by the way—being shot shot in the chest.
Had the show understood the art of crafting a compelling mystery, it would have made sure to introduce the suspects in the first episode. The viewers need to know who the players are so that they can begin their own parallel investigations. Remember the glorious opening minutes of the original Albert Finney Murder on the Orient Express, in which each character—each future suspect—is introduced one by one, across nearly 10 luxurious minutes? Director Sidney Lumet didn’t do this on a whim; he did this so that we remember those people when Poirot inevitably calls them in for questioning many minutes later. But in The Great Indian Murder, one suspect is introduced properly in episode six!
Forget setting the stage in an elegant manner that introduces all the characters, highlights the conflicts, and compels you to continue watching, episode one of The Great Indian Murder in no way signals that it is a murder mystery at all, and wastes its time on characters that it will never return to again. What happened to the Bollywood starlet who is an integral part of episode one and was even present at the scene of the crime? We never see her again. Nor do we ever meet the brash American Larry Page, who announces his name so pointedly when we first meet him, it is obvious that he is someone we need to remember. But no. Turns out, we don’t.
Not only does the show refuse to engage the audience by inviting them to investigate whodunnit, it positively keeps you in the dark by hiding crucial information. Most regrettably, it assumes you’d be okay with this.
The murder, for instance, could not have happened in the manner that it does. For various reasons, ranging from the perpetrator likely being stopped at the gates of the party venue, or being caught on CCTVs that conveniently don’t exist in the show’s universe, or spotted by the hundreds of guests around them when the crime takes place. Forget actual evidence such as paper trails, a digital footprint, forensic analysis, ballistics, or even a clear and obvious motive. This crime, even if it had somehow been allowed to take place in real life, would have been solved in hours.
The Great Indian Murder makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, which is ripe, because most people involved in it have claimed for years that ‘intelligent’ stories aren’t told in the mainstream, and owe their careers to broad-minded viewers who’ve grown up on streaming and PirateBay.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.