The 2018 series Mirzapur, a nine-part gangster drama set in the eponymous Uttar Pradesh town, struck an initial false note. With the exception of Pankaj Tripathi, the primary characters spoke in a strange patois: the diction was synthetic, the accent inauthentic. The whole thing was embarrassing and contrived – as if some city slickers were imagining the ‘real India’. The violence felt derivative, too – the generational gang wars, the meek cops, the frequent cuss words – like Gangs of Wasseypur got a Half Girlfriend filter.
But then, the show started to sharpen its carnivorous claws – and showed signs of improvement. The dialogue delivery still remained a slight source of annoyance, but it had enough elements to keep you hooked. The story found its focus, the characters evolved, the plot-turns shocked, and the violence got absurd and unapologetic. More importantly, the show didn’t moderate its escalations – even embracing its sleazy, B-movie undertones – and consequently emerged as a drama that suited its characters’ medieval, untrammelled desires. It eventually ended on a riveting cliffhanger, opening new possibilities of vengeance, recasting the Mirzapur throne in fresh blood.
So, its sequel, which recently premiered on Amazon Prime, rekindles intrigue. The first season opened to a fabled don, Akhandanand Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi) – or “Kaleen Bhaiya” – running a drugs and arms racket fronted by a carpet manufacturing company. His son, Munna (Divyendu Sharma), a kooky, gun-brandishing man fixated on the Mirzapur crown, is desperate to earn his father’s approval. Much to his chagrin, Kaleen inducts two outsiders in his gang – Bablu (Vikrant Massey) and Guddu (Ali Fazal) – who successfully expand the Tripathi business. But by the end of the first season, Kaleen sees them as threats, wanting to eliminate them. Munna murders Bablu and Guddu’s pregnant wife (Shreya Pilgaonkar) at a wedding, while Guddu and Bablu’s love interest, Golu (Shweta Tripathi), manage a narrow escape.
Mirzapur’s second season, directed by Gurmmeet Singh and Mihir Desai, widens its shooting range right from the first episode. Kaleen’s arch-nemesis – the Jaunpur strongman Rati Shankar Shukla (Shubhrajyoti Bharat) – is dead, but his son, Sharad (Anjum Sharma), vows to take revenge, intending to usurp the Mirzapur throne. Ditto Guddu and Golu. Munna is restless as ever, determined to step outside his father’s shadow. The political tussle gets edgier, as Kaleen starts dealing directly with the chief minister, including Munna who helps the politician’s widowed daughter (Isha Talwar) in election campaigns. The show, as a result, becomes geographically diverse, cutting from Lucknow to Mirzapur to Balia (Guddu and Golu’s hideout) to Siwan, home to a new set of characters, the Tyagi gang who, dealing in stolen vehicles, become Tripathi’s business associate.
A genre piece like Mirzapur, by the very virtue of its story, finds itself in familiar terrain: the inheritance of vengeance, the legacy of violence, the shadow of duplicity. The difficult feat then is to mine the new in the old and, brick by brick, create something new. Even though Mirzapur ended with a bloody finale, its sequel finds itself in a state of inaction. Bablu is injured and hiding; Munna, feeling invincible, doesn’t have an immediate target; and Sharad, content to play the waiting game, wants to take it slow. Unlike the first season, which had an inherent compelling premise – the clash between the outsiders and the status quo, the rapid erosion of idealism, the thrilling ascent in a depraved world – the sequel, with many established characters and a predictable storyline, is more straightforward.
When the writers (Puneet and Vineet Krishna) try to heighten tension, they resort to some contrived plot turns. At one point in the third episode, for instance, Guddu strikes a deal with a few opium traders – who already have a fixed set-up with Kaleen – trying to assert his supremacy. Kaleen is a menacing, powerful figure, yet two dealers readily agree, eluding basic common sense. (One of them, to no one’s surprise, gets murdered in the next episode.) It’s equally baffling that a local doctor, treating Kaleen for premature ejaculation, comes home to deliver the test result, knowing well that the crime lord is sheepish and secretive about his condition. Why not simply call him to the clinic instead? The doctor, not finding Kaleen home, is forced to hand over the report to his wife, Beena (Rasika Dugal), who, for her own benefit, gets him murdered. Likewise, the nephew of Kaleen’s longtime bodyguard, Babar (Asif Khan), defects to Guddu. But even after Munna sees Babar (Shaji Chaudhary) in a shootout with Guddu, he continues to meet his uncle – a bizarre decision, again, since Munna would inform Maqbool, and Kaleen would order him to murder Babar. (Which eventually happens.)
These aren’t the only examples of screenwriting slip-ups; they are present almost throughout, and even though they’re not glaring enough to capsize a 10-part series, their mere presence shows a disappointing laxity. It feels as if the writers have decided a subplot’s conclusion and then contrive efforts to find intermediate scenes – efforts that disrupt smooth storytelling. Which is strange because otherwise, the show does sweat the small stuff. Guddu taking a long time to recuperate from his bodily injuries; his father (Rajesh Tailang) initiating an arduous investigative journey, trying to find a willing witness; Beena evolving into a sinister figure, waiting for the opportune moment to hatch her vicious plans. The writing is uneven then – there are flashes of brilliance, long stretches of competency, and sporadic sloppiness.
A thriller like Mirzapur creates a specific expectation: that as the series progresses, it’d escalate stakes and tension, introducing newer conflicts and dimensions, resulting in ascending explosions. The second season does up the ante in the third and the fourth episode – Guddu sends a message to Kaleen that he’s alive, Beena plans her parallel vengeance, Munna and Guddu face-off in a bloody encounter; all set to a throbbing background score – but that sense of urgency doesn’t last long. The second season also suffers from uneven pacing and scattered focus. A longish subplot, involving the Tyagis, makes the series flabby and redundant, adding little value to the big picture. The trajectory of the youngest Tyagi, Chote (Vijay Verma), for example, replicates Munna’s, in the way he feels emasculated and craves parental approval.
A new character, Robin (Priyanshu Painyuli), however, a shady investment broker, is a valuable addition. A compulsive liar and a shifty fixer, Robin makes the series funny and pleasant, converging different subplots. Even though Mirzapur fails to evoke sustained intrigue, a curious turn brings us back, making us contemplate the changed direction. That happens not because the series gets more violent or disturbing, but because it alters its fundamental nature: it becomes softer, more humane. Towards the show’s latter part, Munna, Guddu, and Robin discover the charms of love. Munna, for the first time in both the seasons, drops his guard of machismo and allows himself to be vulnerable; it’s a deft touch that renders him rounded. Guddu, too, sees a fleeting possibility of family life, far away from the cyclical confines of vengeance. But Robin’s romantic subplot is particularly tender, where he pursues an alternate life, filled with small joys and lasting satisfaction, where money plays no role.
The second season, like the first, has no dearth of acting talent. Pankaj Tripathi and Fazal, maintaining character, extend their broody selves. Sharma’s batshit nuts performance ran the risk of being repetitive, but he walks a fine line with aplomb – a feat worthy of applause. Unlike these three though, Beena and Golu undergo marked transformations. Dugal plays the new Beena – sly, secretive, manipulative – with considerable relish whose eventual triumph feels redeeming, especially in a show with an overt (at times, discomfiting) male gaze. Shweta Tripathi’s Golu – a reserved nerd in the first season, a vindictive woman in the second – is the kind of role actors long to play. Shweta Tripathi makes that portrayal even better, adding layers to an already complex character. Her Golu is assertive and vulnerable, cunning and clever – so difficult to pin down, so easy to misunderstand – making it the best performance of the series. Some notable inclusions, such as Painyuli and Varma and – surprise! – Lilliput Faruqui do a good job of varying mood and subverting expectations.
The show could have ended with a lasting bang, redeeming some of its flaws, but that doesn’t happen. The writers leave a lot of unfinished subplots for the last episode, resulting in sequential resolutions that are way too linear for an explosive end. The second season also deflates some of its own promises – Sharad’s bloody vengeance, the sustained tension between Guddu and Kaleen – making the final showdown underwhelming, devoid of a significant catharsis. Kaleen’s ultimate fate opens up scope for another season, but that choice feels more mercenary, less artistic. The devastating ticking bomb turns out to be a Diwali cracker.