‘Tabbar’ Tackles Weighty Themes, Depicts Sordid Realities

The Sony LIV web series isn’t as concerned with people who are good or bad, but those who are good and bad.

Listen to this article:

A new Sony Liv series, Tabbar, asks a simple yet terrifying question: What happens to a family when its inherent essence is challenged? It’s not too different from the one asked by a recent Netflix documentary – House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths – how should a family process trauma? Because if the twisted coping mechanism, according to the real-life case, is collective psychosis, then who pays the price?

Both House of Secrets and Tabbar, releasing on consecutive Fridays, share some striking commonalities. They are propelled by traumatic events, inducing a peculiar PTSD among the survivors. They are centred on families obsessed with safeguarding secrets. And are about people so used to suffocating silos that the outside world doesn’t matter. But these similarities, primarily at a conceptual level, don’t go very far. Because if the Netflix documentary is inconsistent and middling, concerned with a unit’s internal politics and insanity, then Tabbar, much more polished at the level of craft and not confined by nonfiction storytelling, strives for more. It isn’t as concerned with people who are good or bad, but those who are good and bad.

Created by Harman Wadala and directed by Ajitpal Singh, the eight-part series revolves around a family in Jalandhar. The father, Omkar (Pavan Malhotra), is a retired constable, the mother, Sargun (Supriya Pathak), a homemaker. The youngest son, Tegi (Sahil Mehta), is in school, while the elder one Happy (Gagan Arora), preparing for the IPS exam in Delhi, has just returned home. He’s also picked up someone’s bag from the train. A young man, Maheep (Rachit Bahal), comes to collect it; the bag contains an expensive narcotic, “Peela [Yellow]”, and it belongs to his elder brother, a dangerous drug lord, Bhai Ji (Ranvir Shorey), about to contest elections.

At Omkar’s house, amid the swirls of confusion, terror, and threats, a shot is fired – and Maheep is dead. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger (Happy), because post that incident, the family is forever doomed to be together: watching each other’s backs and backstabbing everyone else’s. But the series is also sharp enough to look inwards, interrogate its premise, and begin asking a fascinating question: Can cannibals ever sustain a happy family?

But such thoughts come later. The series impresses you first by nailing the basics: creating credible characters, making us care for them, trickling crucial information at opportune moments, and revering (seemingly) tiny details. The initial storytelling is committed and sincere, even stunning at times. That thoroughness is evident in other departments, too. The cinematography and production design, especially, tie the series well, eliciting the feeling that the show is always ‘alive’. Omkar, for instance, gets a lot of profile shots, especially during the night sequences, illuminating only one side of him: makes perfect sense. There’s some understated humour, too. Sargun and Bhai Ji meet just once in the series. Where? At the greatest equaliser ever, a place of worship.

What’s also remarkable is the delicate balance between the mainstream and arthouse sensibilities. The series tackles weighty themes, depicts sordid realities, but it is never above itself to have some good old fun. We get the following in the first episode itself: a menacing dog; a character introduced via his shoes; the Villain, Bhai Ji, first appearing on a campaign poster and then through a long shot, as if the makers are winking and saying, “You can’t literally touch him.” Or when the cops discover Maheep’s dead body, in the third episode, and the scene turns into a quasi-funeral, it is – of course – raining. Such tonal variations elevate the series, springing surprise, sustaining suspense.

Following the traditions of impressive longform fiction, Tabbar creates simmering subplots spread across episodes, such as, among notable others, the sweet bond between Happy’s girlfriend (Nupur Nagpal) and cousin Lucky (Paramvir Singh Cheema), a cop investigating the case; the real culprit of Maheep’s death (short answer: everyone in the family); and the fast deteriorating relationship between Omkar and his nosy friend, Suneel (Babla Kochhar). The two-pronged nature of the screenplay (by Wadala, Sandeep Jain, and ‘Mr Roy’) adds thematic depth and narrative nuance: as the show spreads outwards – Omkar’s family outwitting cops, middle-men, and criminals – it also grows inwards: the fissures among a once content unit, a dangerous addiction no longer in control and, most importantly, the eternal feeling of those suspended between two stark worlds – conscientious and flawed, sincere and dazed – one that threatens to consume them, but stops just short, dangling one final shot at redemption: guilt.

And Pathak portrays it masterfully. It’s a performance of such high caliber that it neither needs dialogues nor co-actors: It’s a one woman play. Pay close attention to her face early in the series, when the family is enjoying a relatively peaceful time: It looks perceptibly soft, a stocky diabetic woman wearing a fragile puff of cloud whose sky is a limitless blue. Notice her face again when she is wrecked by guilt: It become hard as a rock, inscribed with confessions of her crimes. One particular scene, easily the best in the series, has Pathak standing dazed in the middle of a street. An important character has just died, his family is crying, and she thinks that his daughter and wife — and everyone else around — is staring at, and accusing, her. (She had nothing to do with the death, and no one is looking at her, either.) Suddenly, her hands start to move, as if balancing a literal heavy weight, and she can see nothing but blood on them. Many actors would have tried to ‘act’ the hell out of this scene, but Pathak just… stays, producing a poetic haunting melody.

Malhotra is quite memorable, too, playing a character experiencing a vast range of emotions: innocent, cunning, goofy, scheming, protective, murderous. The other performers, comprising relatively unknown faces, are superb, too: Arora and Mehta, Kochhar and Ali Mughal (Bhai Ji’s henchman), but the one that stands out, much like Pathak, is Cheema. Playing a lovestruck junior cop, enduring the diktats of the local police hierarchy, sniffing the trails of his own family, Cheema’s Lucky is restrained, composed, and precise. He’s a house of cards in a sea of wind, and yet the pieces never fall.

But much like the central family, the series suffers due to its schizoid nature. Its first and the last few episodes, especially the multi-headed twists in the end, are clever and compelling, but it gets complacent, even sloppy, in the middle. Some parts are plain formulaic. A song in the fourth episode, for example, feels a bit too ‘cue-ey’. But the bigger misfires are contrite and illogical screenwriting leaps. Whether it’s Omkar sneaking into a forensic lab, Happy getting a job at Bhai Ji’s firm, a murder dressed up as a suicide, and other crucial plot turns, they all seem way too convenient, especially in a piece where many plot turns are controlled and considered. It’s especially disappointing, as the scenes before and after the transitions are almost always credible. It is, what I like to call, the Super Deluxe syndrome, a distended belly hanging below a chiseled face.

Even the series’ main preoccupation, the manifestation of guilt, is quite literal. When it starts to addle her mind, Sargun gets unsettling visions – a (CG) crow, blood, ghosts – compelling her to take drastic measures: scrawling on the walls, trying to electrocute herself. These stale expressions of descent have been captured in many films – Maqbool is an obvious direct parallel – diluting the original writing. Were it not for Pathak, such portions could have been embarrassingly ineffective. So, it’s fitting that in a world marked by plans, betrayals, deaths, and a fluctuating relationship with remorse, Tabbar starts and ends with Sargun, its moral spine, and keeps returning to her serene presence: a middle-aged woman worrying about the minute mundaneness of life – breathing exercises, diabetes, a malfunctioning exhaust fan in the kitchen – whose house eventually becomes her prison.