JL 50 (series streaming on SonyLIV); Cast: Abhay Deol, Pankaj Kapur, Piyush Mishra, Rajesh Sharma, Ritika Anand; Direction: Shailender Vyas; Rating: * * * (three stars)
By Vinayak Chakravorty
A passenger plane crashes somewhere in the mountains of West Bengal and it turns out the flight, JL 50, is actually one that had disappeared 35 years ago. As the CBI officer in charge of the probe sets out to solve the puzzle, he realises there is little to doubt the validity of the bizarre accident, or its two survivors.
JL 50 comes as a happy reminder of the fact that Indian OTT is moving into areas where our mainstream storytelling normally never ventured before. The series is positioned as a sci-fi thriller. You spot themes and subtexts that would vaguely remind you of a zillion time travel tales in Hollywood, though writer-director Shailender Vyas has come up with a story that is by and large original.
Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar or Michael and Peter Spierig’s Predestination, Vyas uses the concepts of time and memory in a far less complicated manner, letting the sci-fi quotient of the plot be dominated by old-school suspense drama. Shifting from 2019 to 1984, the setting of the primary story is Kolkata — a city where, if you are smart enough to pick the right shooting locales, it is not too difficult to find areas that have hardly changed over three and a half decades.
The CBI officer helming the case is Shantanu (Abhay Deol), initially brought in to investigate a very different crash. There are reports that AO 26 — very much a presentday flight – has crashed at the specific spot, and it was carrying an important political figure. Shantanu and his investigating partner Gourango (Rajesh Sharma) are in for a shock when they arrive at the spot and discover that the flight which has crashed is an entirely different one — JL 50 — and that it belongs to a different era.
Shantanu tracks down a professor of quantum physics (Pankaj Kapur), who had coincidentally bought a ticket for JL 50 flight, but never boarded the plane. His other lead is Bihu Ghosh (Ritika Anand), pilot of JL 50 who is one of two people to survive the crash. The other survivor, we are told as the story starts, is yet to be traced.
The narrative builds the suspense and drama without getting too technical about science and logistics. The subjects of quantum physics and time that are meant to justify the ‘realism’ of this story, are swiftly dealt with in an ‘explanatory’ dialogue or two without delving into satisfactory details.
Science fiction in cinema or series anywhere in the world invariably falls short of being adequately logical, so we will gloss over such details. Strictly in terms of unconventional storytelling, though, the plot has its loopholes. Although writer-director Vyas has set up abundant gripping drama, certain plot points seem too contrived. Some more coherence in storytelling would have helped.
The show thrives on perfect casting. Abhay Deol is authentic as the supercool CBI sleuth Shantanu, although a romantic subtext added to his character seems forced. Pankaj Kapur, Piyush Mishra and Rajesh Sharma are stalwarts of their craft, actors who can be banked upon to bring alive every emotive nuance. Kapur is undoubtedly top draw in the cast. Mishra, otherwise impressive, gives in to hamming in the odd scene. Sharma is quite frankly wasted in a role that remains underdeveloped. Ritika Anand’s Bihu Ghosh is in many ways the fulcrum of the narrative. She struggles to match the demands of the character.
JL 50 is a limited series of four episodes, which actually restricts the scope of the narrative. While the concept of limited series is catching up among Indian web show makers, this was clearly not the ideal story to try out such a format. You wish this screenplay was spread across at least a couple more episodes, to fully realise its potential. Too much of a rush job goes on in many parts. The show needed some more runtime for the right slowburn impact.
Still, writer-director Vyas should be commended for creating an unusual show that intrigues. JL 50 is an intelligent entertainer despite its rough edges. A smart open ending has left the possibility of a second season. Here’s hoping that happens — we would love to see where else this time travel trip can take us. (IANS)