Suzhal Web Series Review: Consistent performances stand out in a visually rich and compelling whodunit
With such top talents in the series, there is no doubt that Suzhal has a lot of things going for it, and for the longest time, it does too
Some of the best investigative series in the world have centred themselves in a small town. There is something intrinsically intriguing about a crime happening in a place where everyone knows everyone else. The organic conversion of believability into suspicion is what every small-town crime mystery worth its salt heavily relies on. Suzhal is no different from some of its illustrious predecessors in this genre, such as Broadchurch, Fargo, Mare of Easttown, and of course, our very own Drishyam. However, this doesn’t mean Suzhal is any less interesting or unoriginal, but in fact, it is this familiarity that makes us warm up to the town of Sambalur and its inhabitants who all seem to harbour one secret at the very least.
Directors: Anucharan and Bramma
Cast: Aishwarya Rajesh, Kathir, Sriya, Parthiban
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Using the medium to the best of their advantage, creators Pushkar and Gayatri, take their time to develop each of their characters, and expertly weave in red herrings from time to time. There are three principal plot points in Suzhal. One, a cement factory that provided a livelihood for the inhabitants of Sambalur is burned down on a random day, and cops Regina (a terrific Sriya Reddy) and Chakaravarthy a ka Sakkarai (a restrained Kathir acing it) are on the heels of finding out what happened. Two, Nila, the younger daughter of the cement factory’s workers’ union leader Shanmugham (an effective Parthiban) goes missing, and his elder daughter Nandhini (a brilliant Aishwarya Rajesh, who gets the mass entry reserved for our heroes) returns home to support the family. Regina and Sakkarai take over this case too. Three, the traditional Mayana Kollai festivities are underway, and the town’s police force is used to provide security for the event. It is impressive how the narrative choice of Mayana Kollai being interspersed with what's happening in the investigation works so well, and it is a wonderful documentation of an event that is not often seen on our screens.
Nevertheless, with so much policing around, it is interesting how not one but multiple crimes happen in a small town like Sambalur. Over the course of eight episodes, each of these plot points is interwoven into the others to form an intricate web of lies, deceit, murder, and mayhem. The investigative drama, centred around Regina and Sakkarai, is the lifeline of the film, and it is their decisions that push the plot forward. But, both the writers and the directors never lose sight of how Suzhal is also about the supporting characters. Be it Harish Uthaman’s Trilok Vadde, the volatile CEO of the cement factory, the young actors playing Nila and Adhisayam, the performers at the Mayana Kollai, or Shanmugam’s brother and sister-in-law played by Elango Kumaravel and Latha Rao, respectively, each of these characters have a solid character arc that is well-established by the in-depth writing. A particularly important role is that of Santhana Bharathi, who has a ball playing Kothandaraman, an Insurance investigator. Almost every supporting actor playing an important role gets at least one standout scene, and they deliver brilliant performances to keep us invested in the various directions that Suzhal takes us.
With such top talents in the series, there is no doubt that Suzhal had a lot of things going for it, and for the longest time, it does too. However, there are indeed a few missteps along the way. Suzhal suffers from the case of the 'middle episodes being bloated'-itis because it acts as an information dump of sorts with one too many red herrings placed in it.
For a series that undergoes multiple genre shifts, it is imperative that the visual language of the series is maintained throughout, and Mukesh’s work in Suzhal is commendable. The look and feel of the first four and last four episodes are distinct but there is a seamless transition between the works of directors Bramma and Anucharan, who share director credits. Another winner is the music by Sam CS, and the very fact that the score, despite the presence of a few songs, isn’t distracting is a testament to the composer’s understanding of the medium. What truly helps this series stand out is the uniformly consistent performances from almost the entire team. Special shout-out to Sriya and Kathir for portraying complex characters who are at never-ending crossroads with their own instincts and beliefs. Points to the dialogues too because despite dealing with themes like magic, death, murder, suicide, police, mental health, killing etc… Suzhal is a largely rooted film.
Although there are casual asides to the prevalence of patriarchy, the importance of feminism, discussion about spirituality, discrimination among gods, and more, the writing never wants to delve deep into one particular thread and is content with telling a good story that encompasses all these threads. At the end of the day, as the credits rolled, a personal pet peeve (But I can see the larger picture as to why they did it) did rear its boring head in the picture, but it is all but forgotten only because Suzhal is a fascinating exploration of the human psyche.
With most web series not really planning for a season 2, there is that incessant need to provide closure for the happenings in season 1. With multiple threads having to be all tied up, the pacing of the narrative takes a slight beating. With instances where the focus is shifted from the investigation to the interpersonal dynamics of the characters, Suzhal is pulled down a couple of notches. However, the makers do try their best to hit us with one narrative high after the other. While most work, there are some revelatory twists in the final act that is clear from afar. But to give credit where it's due, the makers never once insult the intelligence of their audience. Be it in the foreshadowing of a couple of scenes, or the barrage of red herrings, never once did the makers want to spoonfeed us with snippets of information.
For the eyes trained by years of watching investigative procedurals, picking out certain not-so-well-hidden clues might not be a big deal, however, it is important to understand that the series is not just made for people who love the likes of Fargo, Broadchurch, and Mare of Easttown. There is a demographic of people who are slowly warming up to the idea of watching web series and 'non-mainstream' content, and Suzhal has all the trappings of being their first visually spectacular step into that vortex.