There aren’t many shows that generate the phrase “too clever by half” in our heads while we watch them, but a new heist series from India does just that. It takes a pretty straightforward premise and obscures it under mounds of storytelling gimmicks that are completely unncessary.
CHOONA: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A man lies in bed. A painting of fish starts to move. He walks through a dreamscape, hearing a voice that says “bad times will befall you.”
The Gist: Avinash Shukla (Jimmy Sheirgill) is the chief of urban development in his state, and he will do anything it takes to become chief minister. He’s superstitious, but also ruthless. When he wakes up from his nightmare, showing his wealth and power disappearing, he calls in his spiritual advisor and tells him of his plans to “overthrow the government” and become the next CM. But when the current CM calls the advisor on his cell phone, Shukla calls in his bodyguard to “drop” the advisor — off a bridge.
A narrator (Arshad Warsi) talks about six planets that are orbiting Shukla that are about to make the prophesy in his dream come true. Two of those “planets”, Yakub Ansari (Aashim Gulati) and JP Yadav (Vikram Kocchar), are about to meet in a bar over their mutual hatred for “Shukla Motherfucker.”
In the meantime, part of Shukla’s plans to take over the government is to get a big developer in his pocket. He sells them building rights to put an upscale mall on land where there is now a massive slum; he delegates relocating the thousands of residents to the local police chief.
We learn more about Ansari, a member of a small political party known more for its violence than anything else. He’s had it out for Shukla since the politician had his uncle killed. Ansari is trying to assert his power, as well, though he’s starting from a smaller base. He steals a gun off an associate and incurs the wrath of the party leader, known colloquially as Mintu Grenade (Dheerendra Dwivedi); Mintu is so short that he has to get on his tiptoes to slap Ansari in the face, but he intimidates almost everyone else.
Ansari sees the protests about the displacement of the slum’s residents and decides to take advantage; he goes to Shukla’s office and threatens to have someone immolate themselves if he doesn’t move where the mall is being built.
Thinking this confrontation put him on Shukla’s radar, Ansari manages to acquire two AK-47s and threaten Mintu as a means of leaving the party. But Mintu calls on a powerful ally — Shukla — to kidnap Ansari. After Shukla’s henchmen grab Ansari, the politician has him doused with gasoline and almost sets him on fire. He feels this is enough to get Ansari off his back.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? In essence, Choona is a heist series, along the lines of Heist or Money Heist.
Our Take: There were many moments during the first episode of Choona, created by Pushpendra Nath Misra, that we had to pause and figure out just what was going on. The actual premise is pretty straightforward: A group of near-strangers plan to steal from a corrupt, power-hungry local politician that has negatively affected all of their lives. But it’s explained in such a convoluted way, with the concept of these “planets” dovetailing with Shukla’s belief in horoscopes and planetary alignment, that figuring out that simple premise proved to be difficult.
There’s an added layer that speaks more to our ignorance of Indian politics than anything else. What we do know about the country’s politics from other shows is that it’s complex and territorial, and knowing just which positions wield what power is hard to keep track of. It does seem that the axiom “all politics is local” is especially true in India, and the fact that Shukla will kill anyone in order to become his state’s CM shows how intoxicating the prospect of that power is.
It feels like the story in Choona is setting up to be a good one, but we’re spending so much time finding out about the six “planets” that will try to bring Shukla down, complete with a narration that seems about 90% unnecessary, that we think most viewers outside of India will bail before the story really gets underway.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Two more “planets”, Baankey (Gyanendra Tripathi) and Triloki (Namit Das), discuss the payment Shukla is getting from the developer. “Choona is a wonderful thing,” Baankey says, his bare feet on Triloki’s desk. He’s also covered in white paint. “Can’t see it… and you get conned.”
Sleeper Star: Aashim Gulati’s character of Ansari is likely going to be the ringleader of this group that will make a run at Shukla, and the character seems to be sufficiently angry and bitter enough to succeed.
Most Pilot-y Line: The narration is probably where the “comedy” part of the “comedy-drama” of this series lies, but it’s more intrusive than funny.
Our Call: SKIP IT. While there’s a good story somewhere in the episodes of Choona, with some good performances, its attempts to be funny and clever obscure what is a pretty straightforward premise.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.