Blending the gritty police procedural vibe of Delhi Crime with the occasionally NSFW small-town strife and sleaze of Mirzapur, Prime Video's largely gripping Hindi series Dahaad (Roar) is a balanced mix of crime thriller and mystery, with a sobering dose of social commentary thrown in.
Set in the small Rajasthan town of Mandawa, it deals with a strong-willed policewoman's efforts to unravel a mystery: over two dozen women are found in locked public toilets all over town at various times, dressed in bridal attire and dead from poisoning (this bit apparently inspired by a real-life serial killer).
Created by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar, Dahaad doesn't waste time setting up its cast of characters in the very first episode.
There's Sub-inspector Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha, Mission Mangal), who wants to rise above the shackles of her background (as derisively put by the town's elite, she is from "a backward caste") while refusing her mother's best efforts to match her with a prospective husband.
What she treats as a minor irritation, however, is the fundamental contributor to the murders and why the killer could get away with it for so long, as Dahaad trains its guns on thinking that's mired in "tradition".
While the writers take pains to point out that India has laws to protect against caste discrimination, Mandawa – like its numerous fictional cousins on made-in-India streaming shows – is presented as a pocket of resistance that's holding fast to the old ways and hierarchies.
Anjali's station house officer, Inspector Devi Lal Singh (Gulshan Devaiah), indulges her stubborn streak for reasons that may prove detrimental to his family life; while her immediate senior Kailash Pargi (Sohum Shah) seems out to show them both up in the eyes of the politically-minded district superintendent.
The cops get wind of the larger mystery from two disparate cases that turn out to be linked. Worse still, Anjali and Devi Lal conspire (strictly out of sympathy) to help the "suspect" in one case and inadvertently put themselves in Kailash's crosshairs.
But their personal and professional troubles play second fiddle to the central mystery, with the person of interest presenting himself to the viewer early on: respected college professor Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma, who played the Tyagi twins in Mirzapur), seen encouraging an independent-minded girl in his literature class in one scene and then later trying lame pick-up approaches on random women at bus depots.
There is a sinister side to both these actions, and part of Dahaad's fascination lies in the little clues that we get to piece together over the course of its eight episodes. This is helped along nicely by Varma's magnetic, multi-layered performance (hey, he pulled off the Tyagi brothers' distinctive personalities after all) and the different masks he wears in front of the different people in his life.
He's so charming, in fact, that he wins over Devi Lal at their very first meeting, when the two dads are summoned after their respective kids have a schoolyard dispute. He's not so successful, though, at convincing Anjali, who seems at times to be written just to be inexplicably suspicious of the amiable academic.
While Sinha and Devaiah are terrific in their roles, their character arcs seem a little arbitrary and contrived in places.
It's actually Kailash who has the more interesting story, as the pressures of impending fatherhood (in a world full of horrors such as their current case) collide with his moral dilemma over the other investigation, one that may lead to his colleagues losing their jobs.
Alas, we don't see much of it in the closing episodes, and are left hoping that the thread will be picked up if there is a second season.
Similarly, the revelation of Anand's motivations and the wrap-up of his case come at a bit of a rush towards the end of the run, making this roar finish off with a mere purr.
Still, given the hints dropped about Anjali's past earlier in the show (which sharp-eared – or keen-eyed, for the subtitle-dependent like myself – viewers may have noted), her final act at the show's close could well be the cry of defiance and declaration we were meant to hear all along.
All eight episodes of Dahaad are available to watch on Prime Video.
Don't rush to judgment