All show and no substance: that is the sum total of Sultan of Delhi. A period crime drama that ambles leaden-footed through the dregs of a troubled city in the years following the carving up of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, it is a right royal trudge.
It is about a Partition riots survivor who seeks to work his way out of the horrors of history and fight for a foothold on a slippery heap where gain and loss, friendship and animosity, go hand in hand.
Sultan of Delhi, created and directed by Milan Luthria from a screenplay by co-director Suparn S. Varma, is a blood-soaked tale all right, but its depiction of a city and its underbelly is far from full-blooded.
The Hotstar Specials series is ambitious in scale – it is a story of loyalty, ambition and treachery set in the first couple of decades of free India – but the execution is anything but grand. Tepid, if not turgid, the show lacks the energy and momentum to rustle up moments that hit home.
Sultan of Delhi makes its lumbering way through a string of gunfights and slugfests, hints of perfunctory romance (and loads of bromance, too), a whole lot of toxic masculinity (of desperate men who believe that the world is theirs for the asking) and an overload of riddles (which are posed by a robber-baron to begin with and then assume the nature of a mind game between him and his accomplices and adversaries).
The series revolves around Arjun Bhatia (Tahir Raj Bhasin), who, 17 years after the Partition riots, has learnt to live down his past and go for broke in a dog-eat-dog world. He is a master-mechanic driven by a passion for cars that enable him to zoom into the big league in a hurry.
With his loyal friend Nilendu alias Bangali (Anjum Sharma), the young hustler works for Jagan Seth (Vinay Pathak), a businessman with political ambitions. Arjun falls in love with a wealthy man’s daughter Sanjana (Mehreen Pirzada) but his path, as he is to find out soon, isn’t strewn with roses.
Sultan of Delhi begins with a meeting of a half a dozen ageing men whose writ runs over the city’s underworld. The convener of the gathering of rogues is Farooq Mastaan (Anil George), who advises the gang lords to work in unison and names Arjun as a first among equals, the man who will henceforth call the shots.
A couple of the old fogeys do not take kindly to the prospect of a rookie being handed the reins of their operations. Arjun whips out a gun. Cut. The rest is more hysteria than history, peppered with exploits of men going all out to change their individual and collective destinies.
Arjun has his own way of dealing with tricky situations such as the one in the opening sequence. There is worse ahead. His principal foe is Rajinder Pratap Singh (Nishant Dahiya), son of a businessman who made his fortune by profiting from the misery of refugees.
The lines separating good and evil are not only blurred but completely eliminated as Rajinder, egged on by Shankari (Anupriya Goenka), the manipulative mistress he has willingly inherited from his father, conspires to push Arjun off the pedestal that Jagan Seth has given him.
The lacklustre show does away with the layers that are an integral part of the book it is adapted from – Sultan of Delhi: Ascension, written by Arnab Ray. The narrative vacuum that is created as a result is hard to offset.
The titular city, the tumultuous 1960s and the tough men who joust for control over a crime network run by slimy businessmen and smarmy politicians are mere cardboard pieces in a haphazard jigsaw that does not quite add up.
Many of the crucial elements of the plot, especially the setting, are short on authenticity. Neither the milieu nor the period creates an impression. Nobody in the show lives in real homes. Everybody owns a mansion that sprawls across of acres of land in the middle of nowhere.
One does not see enough of Delhi, barring establishing aerial shots of Qutub Minar at different times of day and night. These feel more like stock footage than fundamental parts of the visual design. The streets, the houses, even a ritzy hotel and its environs – nothing bears any resemblance to what the city might have looked like back then.
Early on, Sultan of Delhi offers glimpses of a Lajpat Nagar refugee camp, where a boy ends up with his father after the rest of his family has been wiped out in Lahore. It also takes the audience into Chawri Bazaar, Paharganj and other parts of Old Delhi. They are akin to drop-in settings, as counterfeit as the show’s general depiction of people, places and politics.
Parts of Sultan of Delhi play out in Calcutta. Here too, one sees nothing of the city. The show’s understanding of leftist political activism of the 1960s is limited to the presence of a filmmaker simply called Roy Babu. He masterminds bank heists. It isn’t robbery, it is rebellion, the man insists. The money belongs to the poor, he asserts.
In Delhi, too, all that it takes for a moneyed man to get an election ticket is a threatening phone call a cocky coquette makes to a political party supremo. The lady believes that she holds all the aces. She isn’t wrong, but the show is determinedly male-dominated and allows her limited play despite the sway she apparently has over the men around her.
If only the script had allowed her the room she deserves – Anupriya Goenka plays the role with a mix of controlled intensity and come-hither allure – Sultan of Delhi may have found some meaningful narrative spaces to explore.
The script metes out pretty much the same treatment to Mouni Roy, cabaret dancer at a Calcutta nightclub who catches Bangali’s fancy. Her existence depends entirely on what the men are up to in an exasperatingly bland filmed version of a novel.
The men on the screen do their bit, with Tahir Raj Bhasin and Vinay Pathak holding their own in a show that gives them little scope to display their wares beyond the strictly superficial. Anjum Sharma and Nishant Dahiya, too, have meaty roles in a bare-bones, formulaic rendition.
Pulp fiction paraded as a chronicle of a time of immense import, Sultan of Delhi is a rather desultory adaptation of a passable book that has undeniable a sense of history. The show’s understanding of that aspect of the story is at best rudimentary.
That, more than anything, prevents Sultan of Delhi from being either regal or rigorous. Not a washout perhaps, but it is too wishy-washy to hold any water.
Tahir Raj Bhasin, Anjum Sharma, Vinay Pathak, Mouni Roy, Harleen Sethi, Anupriya Goenka, Mehreen Pirzada and Nishant Dahiya