Masoom is a Gripping and Unsettling Story of Family Secrets and Lies

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Masoom is a Gripping and Unsettling Story of Family Secrets and Lies

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The title ‘Masoom’ is a loaded one – it could translate to innocent (as in, ‘not guilty’), or it could translate to someone who is naïve or not in the know. Both interpretations seem to apply at various points to the two opposing forces in Disney+Hotstar’s Masoom. Balraj Kapoor and Sana Kapoor, are the pillars that hold Masoom up. They are on a collision course for most of its runtime; and as long as they are, this slow-burn thriller somehow manages to feel like a breathless one. It helps, of course, that the episodes are short and there are only six of them.

Masoom looks and smells like a mystery for the most part. But the mystery itself ends up as a fairly predictable one. It is likely that the hunches you have through the show will pan out the way you expected. You would think this could be a cause for disappointment, but it really isn’t. The makers of the show weren’t looking to flex their mystery muscles here, but their drama ones. The two highest-billed names among the crew – Executive Producer Gurmmeet Singh and director Mihir Desai – have already displayed their penchant for deliciously dressing up familial theatrics into genre stories, with Mirzapur. Like that show, Masoom is about family, and is set in the not-urban hinterland of northern India. The similarities end here. There isn’t a joke for a mile in Masoom, the dialogues here aren’t particularly meme-friendly. (But never discount the genius of meme-makers.)

The biggest impact of that lie fell upon the youngest of three children

It is because Masoom is fully committed to its mood and texture. Set in a village in Punjab named Falauli, the air of the show is thick with secrets. The Kapoors are a family whose bond was smashed to smithereens years ago because of one lie, and it has never fully been put back together again. The biggest impact of that lie fell upon the youngest of three children, Sana, who was at the heart of it all. She has been a troubled child since then. Therapy, medication, the works. Sana has never been whole since the triggering childhood incident. The show begins with the death of the ailing mother, Balraj’s wife Gunwant (Upasana Singh). Sana, who otherwise lives in Delhi, is coincidentally back in town on the same day. She instantly suspects that there’s foul play involved, and her gut tells her that Balraj, her father, is to blame.

But then Balraj happens to be one of the most respected men in town, a doctor of impeccable standing. So highly regarded is he that the political bigwigs want him to run in the next local elections. There’s also a big sum of money involved. There’s also a robbery. But all of this is a smokescreen for the real mystery – the curious case of the fraught father-daughter relationship, one in which neither seems to find it in themselves to trust the other. The idea of these two characters being in the room together starts to feel like a tangible explosive substance soon after the show begins. It is this dynamic that makes proceedings consistently intriguing, flush with possibilities. While there is much about the way Masoom is written and designed that embellishes the conflict at the core of it, what I took away the most were the actors playing the father and daughter.

You want to trust him just like everyone around him does

Boman Irani plays the dubious doctor Balraj Kapoor, in his streaming debut. I don’t know whether Irani is a method actor or not, but he only needs to enter the room here and the vibe of the scene stiffens. The effect is logical for the character, but Irani is never showboating. His restraint and poise, the minute variations in body language when he is around different characters with whom he shares varied power dynamics, everything absolutely screams ‘respected Punjabi doctor and head-of-family’. You want to trust him just like everyone around him does, but something about Irani’s take on this character makes it maddeningly difficult to do so.

Then again, we’re looking at him largely through Sana’s perspective. Young Samara Tijori plays Sana Kapoor, with a profound understanding that belies her relative inexperience. Sana feels like a real person whose strength has been forged over time, by relentless mental trauma beating her into shape. While Irani is a joy to watch, much of how we see him is because of how Sana sees him. Sana is characterized by bouts of immense resilience followed by stretches of vulnerability and helplessness. Often, it was the others around her who reminded me that this girl is not really Sana, she is an actor playing her.

Not that the others on the show – Veer Rajwant Singh and Manjari Fadnis, who play her siblings for instance – are bad in any way. On the contrary, they hold up their respective ends well. It’s just that the writing of the others isn’t as intricate as Sana’s. Then again, it’s hard to imagine that the way Samara portrays her comes more from the text or direction than from the actor’s perception and understanding of this complex character. Samara Tijori is an actor I’d watch out for.

This is an intimate story, largely featuring the same family members in close

It helps in no small way that Masoom is also thoroughly competent with technique. This is an intimate story, largely featuring the same family members in close, intimate settings, but it feels immense because of the way it has been shot and cut. Scenes often play out non-linearly, effect coming before cause – to good effect. One of my favourite such flourishes was one particular phone call. While we see one character speak into the phone, we see the person at the other end in the midst of another scene. As the phone call ends, so does this second scene. Turns out, the call we’ve just heard actually begins at the end of the events in the second character’s scene. The conversation on the phone turns into a revelation as both end at the same time for the viewer. The flair is a low-key delight.

There’s also the winter the show is set in, which makes you a tad bit uncomfortable in the outdoor scenes, and washes you with warmth when you’re indoors. There’s also some gentle, mesmerizing Punjabi poetry that features on the show, written by Ginny Diwan. Masoom is adapted from a 2018 Irish psychological thriller named Blood, but it seems like a thoroughly Indian story, set firmly in Punjab. Eventually though, as it wound down, all my suspicions about the mystery element confirmed, my little trip into rural Punjab complete, it also reaffirmed my feeling that Masoom is Sana’s – and Samara’s – story first.

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