Tabbar on Sony Liv is an uneven mix of gritty realism and dramatic convenience

Supriya Pathak and Pawan Malhotra in Tabbar, streaming on Sony LIV. Image from youtube.

Supriya Pathak and Pawan Malhotra in Tabbar, streaming on Sony LIV. Image from youtube.

I didn’t know how much I missed Kanwaljit Singh until I saw him in Sony Liv’s Tabbar. A mainstay on 90s TV, starring in some of the biggest hits of the time such as Family No. 1 and Sansa, Singh plays a ruthless realtor named Indraji in Tabbar. Despite his limited screen-time in the series, the assurance he brings to the screen is not common. Like in episode seven, the way he flashes a shrill smile at a political rival’s proposal, “Tu late ho gaya, ahuje” and leaves. It’s one of the few old moments on the show where we get hints as to what it could have been. Like Indra’s influence on the plot, tab bar In the end there is little to remain memorable for its audience. It’s a real shame because it’s not a bad show.

The title roughly translates to ‘family’ in Urdu, so the Singh family featured prominently around a live-in setting in Jalandhar. It begins on an ominous note, where an elderly couple: Omkar (Pawan Raj Malhotra) and Sargun (Supriya Pathak Kapoor) perform the last rites of a dead body stuffed in the boot of their car. The air is heavy with guilt and religious motives; All the episodes start with a poem by Baba Farid. The couple undergoes a religious procession, where Guru Nanak posters stare them in the eyes, making them more anxious and impatient. There is some obvious intrigue: who did they kill? who was that person? What are the consequences of this?

Barring this opening sequence, a major part of the first episode is spent introducing us to the dynamics within the Singh family. Omkar and Sargun seem like a couple who are becoming dependent on each other. Even though the family is struggling to meet their needs, they seem content with their below-the-radar existence. Omkar runs a grocery store, he has an elder son who is enrolled in a UPSC coaching class in Delhi, the younger son is deep into hip-hop music and Sargun loves to feed him gobi parathas. Just another middle-class family in suburban Punjab, except they are not.

Onkar is a former cop, and he is regularly haunted by images from his past life. Happy (Gagan Arora) seems like the ideal elder son of the family, who dutifully bows his head before his parents and gives advice to his younger brother like a parent. However, there is more to him as we come to know. Tegi (Sahil Mehta) who frequents his friend’s house for ‘homework’, we later learn that he is smoking, to bring a new ‘flow’ to a rap song. Sargun (by design) is inconsistent in his behavior, which is an arc that takes its natural progression toward the end of the show.

Produced by Harman Wadala and directed by Ajitpal Singh, Tabbar boasts a rich mis-n-scene and a stellar ensemble (courtesy: Mukesh Chhabra). At the end of the episode some events lead the ordinary family to extraordinary circumstances. It’s not the most novel plot, in fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Tababar is somewhere between Jeetu Joseph’s Drishyam and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. How far will you go to protect and feed your family? It seems they are asking the same question. When it becomes about the survival of yourself and your loved ones, how far are you ready to go?

However, while we’ve seen Walter White’s masterful transformation into Heisenberg over several seasons, here’s where we see members of the Leo family do things that go against the grain of their natural state. The desperation doesn’t seem natural, and the way the family is trying to cover up their criminal footprint is a strange mix of a mastermind and some terribly amateurish decisions. Sure, people behave irrationally, but their decisions here are governed by narrative convenience.

Being a former police officer, Onkar knows how the investigation works. Pawan Raj Malhotra is brilliant in some of the opening scenes where he behaves stone-cold to hide the massive amount of terror. However, as the show progresses the gaps in Omkar’s track get bigger and bigger to ignore. For example: He’s blacked-out drunk in one scene, and linearly in the world of the show he’s fighting a threat to his life a few hours later. How the character moves from one part of the city (especially on the outskirts) to another becomes increasingly unclear. The intention seems to be to show how a ‘normal’ man slowly turns into a tiny little man under the guise of ‘protecting his family’. However, the end result looks like a mish-mash of Malhotra’s serious desperation, and he dominates some characters with a ‘this-my-plans-all-together’ look.

The acting in the show cannot be blamed, even the minor characters are excellent for their part. A goofy neighbor (Babla Kochhar), Ranvir Shorey plays the fifteenth version of a gangster in a night cloak, who sips scotch in his palatial living room. Like many shows inspired by Mirzapur, Shourie’s gangster has a right hand (Ali Mughal), similar to Jaideep Ahlawat. Happy and Tegi are well represented in an industry that rarely portrays young adults with nuance. Supriya Pathak Kapoor’s spiral is Shakespearean, for which the actor cannot be blamed.

The winning track of the show goes to Lucky (Paramveer Singh Cheema), a local cop, who is trying his best to punch above his weight. How Lucky ties the puzzles together through the most mundane forms of investigation (checking CCTV, questioning people around) are some of the brightest spots in this otherwise inconsistent show.

However, the good things in Tabbar are eventually superseded by the bad. The final scene of the show, while scintillating performances by both Malhotra and Kapoor, doesn’t do justice to the tragedy where we see a happy ‘normal’ family slowly descending into unfathomable darkness. It’s a mere coincidence that the Sony Liv original released a week after Netflix’s House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, a true-crime documentary around the institution of an Indian family and the madness inherent in them. Considering the talent on display in Tabbar, we should have shocked more.

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