JL 50 Web Series Review: A riveting flight with slight turbulence
A solid sci-fi thriller that aims for the stars but with its feet firmly in quintessential Indian emotions
Indian sci-fi films don’t always work because the premise is either too dumbed down or we bring in so many other layers into it that the sci-fi element is watered down. Sony LIV’s latest original, JL 50, is one of those solid sci-fi thrillers from India that doesn’t shy away from aiming for the stars but has its feet firmly grounded in quintessential Indian emotions.
Halfway through the film, the quantum physicist Professor Das (a brilliant Pankaj Kapur) asks sceptical CBI officer Shanthanu (a restrained and effective Abhay Deol) why he doesn’t believe in time travel even when there is overwhelming evidence for it. “When it happens in the West, it is called a phenomenon and money is spent on research. Here, we call it a ‘story’ and look past it. We never ask any questions, and assume such things to be an act of God.” A valid outburst from an academician who has spent all his life trying to develop the formula for finding wormholes that facilitate time travel. What brings together this CBI officer and the wizened old physicist is flight JL 50, which went missing in 1984, coming down crashing in 2019 with just two survivors who haven’t aged a day — co-pilot Bihu Ghosh (Ritika Anand) and passenger BC Mitra (an enjoyably over-the-top Piyush Mishra).
However, Shanthanu has his reasons for his scepticism. There is a revolutionary group involved in the hijacking of a flight AO 26 in the present-day. The same group was, in a way, part of the JL 50 flight too. What if it is all a staged ploy by forces against the country? No wonder Shanthanu takes his time to get behind the idea that an angry mad scientist actually achieved the unthinkable. We do too, and in these portions, the writing and pacing give us time to get behind the concept. JL 50 works more as an investigative thriller in these scenes, and the plot unfolds in a lesiurely manner, which is refreshing. It also helps that the four-episode web series is set in Kolkata, a city with a lethargic old-world charm to it. The city beautifully lends itself to the investigative portions of the film with its narrow bylanes and old-fashioned houses, picturesquely captured by the lens of Bradley Stuckel.
With minimal characters in play, writer-director Shailendra Vyas gives himself the necessary space to convince the characters and the audience about the rules of his world. JL 50 is constructed around simple rules, well explained by Pankaj’s Dr Das. For any action, there is a particular reaction, and JL 50 remains true to its self-written rules. Now, are these rules too simple? Yes. Are these timelines confusing? No. Is it enough to qualify as an engrossing attempt at the sci-fi genre? Most definitely.
There are some blatant issues with the film, mainly some glaring continuity errors that might have cropped up while making what was essentially a 2-hour film into a four-part web series. Certain scripting decisions feel a bit too convenient. However, Shailender and team are true to the premise in hand, and such missteps can be brushed away as minor disappointments in a series that otherwise carries itself carefully, knowing it will surely be subject to scrutiny.
The thing is we, as an audience, heavily fed with sci-fi films from outside India, tend to be dismissive of similar homemade attempts. These are either dismissed as plagiarised or given a cold shoulder because they don’t measure up to content produced on a much bigger scale. Although these reservations are valid, Shailender Vyas deftly marries the genre-specific content with solid Indian emotions to take us on an engrossing, if intermittently shaky, ride.
As we finally land, and the worlds of Shanthanu, Dr Das, Bihu, and Dr Mitra seem to be wrapped up with a neat bow, Shailender Vyas teases us with a sweetly-poised cliffhanger that piques our interest for a possible second season and hopefully... a more assured flight.