Note: Spoilers of multiple movies and series ahead! Proceed at your own risk.
Off late, the whodunit as a sub-genre of crime, mystery and thriller has evolved to such heights that it has overtaken the genre on its own. As the genre, collectively, has registered a dilution of the philosophical good and bad divide, it has also ignited a shift in the traditional plot structure of these stories. The supposed victim is the criminal (‘The Invisible Guest’), or the murder that the hired help was desperately trying to solve was a suicide (‘Knives Out’), or the suicide has to be proven as a murder (‘Maharathi’) or the person investigating the ordeal does not exist in reality (‘An Inspector Calls’). And when it comes to a closed room drama with a room full of suspects and a hired detective for help, something that immediately comes to my mind is Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, originally written in 1934.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ cleverly used the awareness of the readers/viewers about whodunits to its best benefit. The deception was not in any of the characters or clues that the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, was investigating but in the mechanisms and structure of the genre itself. We understand the genre’s dynamics and range, and we know that the killer would be one, two, or three people at most. This preconceived notion about how whodunits work served as the ultimate red herring in ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which ended up deceiving us. Who knew that all of the suspects in that one damned train were collectively and consciously guilty as co-conspirators? In this case, we were responsible for our own misdirection.
After being adapted for the screen and remade several times, the most recent version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ to hit the screens was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also played Hercule Poirot in this 2017 version of the film. ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ was recently released on Netflix, and ‘Drishyam 2’ has just debuted on Amazon Prime while still running successfully in theatres as director duo Abbas-Mustan and Sujoy Ghosh mull over which French, Spanish or Italian film to remake next.
One might ask now, how or why is this relevant for the piece on Reeldrama’s ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ that follows. I will say, this is only to highlight the changes in the genre and the plethora of content that the people are exposed to in the recent times. It is also to compare the attempt made by ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ to deliver the suspense with some recent releases of the season.
Written and directed by Anupam Kaushik Borah, ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ follows the mysterious death of Padma Lochan Baruah, an influential businessman and social personality who had summoned his entire family under one roof for an important announcement. His family includes his two sons, their wives and one grandchild. In addition, he had also called for a private investigator, Rudra Dowerah, for yet another undisclosed reason. However, without addressing the concerns, Padma Lochan Baruah mysteriously dies in his workplace, carrying the purpose of the gathering along with him. And Rudra Dowerah arrives just in time to investigate the death. Detective Dowerah now has a dozen suspects to choose from, and you might or might not be able to guess who did it.
The delightfully eccentric aristocratic characters of the Baruah family in ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ are played by Pranjal Saikia, Bibhuti Bhushan Hazarika, Monuj Borkotoky, Neetali Das, Anupam Kaushik Borah, Mintu Boruah, Diksha Khaund, and Srishti Sharma in this star-studded production.
Rudra Dowerah, played by Tapan Das, is unlike any other on-screen detective we’ve seen. He doesn’t have a twirling moustache or smokes a pipe. He never dons a formal, or a tough appearance, nor does he take a radical approach to things. However, he brings in the necessary flair and a dominating presence to the role, which goes with the personality of the character. He is calm, cool and collected. Without being loud, he demonstrates a quiet superiority that asserts his dominance over the situation. Dowerah is assisted by a ‘Watson-like’ accompanist named Neel, who is a journalist, and together they track down the culprit of the story at the end.
Dowerah questions his suspects in a way that is more conversation than questioning and his humour is usually in the form of tasteful put-downs. For example, before questioning Baruah’s shady personal assistant, Kabir Bhuyan, Dowerah notes that both of them share some similarities. But it is only after Kabir describes himself as an observer in order to justify some given information, that Dowerah outsmarts him by saying: “I knew that we had a lot in common. Even I observe people.”
As for the family, dysfunctional in its own ways, all the members act in more or less suspicious ways. Baruah’s sons are openly at odds with him. One wants to sell their ancestral properties to build a hotel against Baruah’s wishes, while the other is in life-threatening debt. Baruah’s daughter-in-laws have their own secrets with him, and his granddaughter has a friend who is miffed with Baruah to violent extents. And now that the issue of inheritance of wealth has arisen due to Baruah’s ill health, anyone’s morals could go wrong.
Here’s something I noticed while watching ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’: while the characters are given individual motivations for how Baruah’s death could benefit them, the characters aren’t diverse enough. If they are good, they are all placed on a similar scale of good. If they are bad, then they are all clubbed in the same category of bad. The famous troupes of the genre of laying out diverse personalities for misdirection are not well exploited here.
Maybe a conscious decision of the writer-director to save the series from clichés, but it certainly didn’t work for me. Because sometimes clichés work. Like Christopher Nolan went out and loud with the spy-fi genre with ‘Tenet’ or Rajamouli showcased unapologetic super-heroism in the massive ‘RRR’. Similarly, in ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’, I expected one of the characters to be crude and selfish, and the other to be stylish and indifferent, while someone is portrayed as timid as another one appears vile and gravely rude. If one is insufferably loquacious, then the other refuses to cooperate with the ongoing investigation. These troupes make the investigation more challenging which I, as a viewer, would have definitely wanted in a whodunit. There are mild shades of such attributes in the existing characters, but it couldn’t provide many diversionary opportunities when storytelling of the series itself is considered. They failed to tease the audience’s search for the killer.
Both ‘Knives Out’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ can be cited in this regard. It cleverly utilizes the staple characters of a whodunit for misdirection which further broadens the prospects of dedicating the necessary inventiveness towards its structure.
In ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’, the misdirection of the illegal smuggling worked in parts for me. It’s very evident that Himangshu Gogoi’s character is not Baruah’s killer but I had also assumed that Baruah might somehow be directly connected to the illegal smuggling. Yeah! The series got me there. Actually, it would be wrong to call it misdirection. After all, everyone is involved in some or the other form of bad business. If one secretly funded a political campaign, the other had a childhood trauma to conceal. If one is involved in illegal activities, the other used forgery to get to where he is now.
Actually, ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ was more concerned with the back stories of the characters than the actual investigation. Firstly, we were not provided with enough clues that would lead the viewers to believe that a certain person was guilty. Secondly, the story majorly follows the point of view of the Baruah family members. It is through them that we are introduced to the death and the investigation.
Therefore, we do not know how detective Dowerah connected the dots but we do know what the characters of the house discuss before going to sleep at night. In fact, once Dowerah leaves the house after questioning, we are no longer part of that narrative of investigation. We are not with him to witness his challenges of figuring out the case from his point of view because we are with the characters in the Baruah mansion.
A whodunit works best when we, as audience, are able to match footstep with the investigator and solve the mystery in our own way. But ‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ puts us in the shoes of the members of the family as they debate over property, secrets, and prestige of the family. So, if we see the flip side of this, then the series is a good character-driven drama about a mourning family supporting a private investigator’s quest to solve the murder of the patriarch. But it is not about a shrewd detective and his reporter friend on a mission to solve a complicated murder mystery. It is the family’s story more than the detective’s.
As a result, the actors get to perform. Veteran actor Pranjal Saikia’s portrayal of Padma Lochan Baruah is deliciously hammy. Bibhuti Bhushan Hazarika is tremendous as the stiff upper lipped son of Baruah who is unaffected by the death of his father. Anupam Kaushik Borah exhibits a wide range of emotions as a person who has a lot of professional issues to hide, from his father, from his wife and people in general. Monuj Borkotoky is well-composed and unpredictable as the dead man’s secretary. Diksha Khaund as the younger daughter-in-law is consumed by her own situation and is mostly detached from the situation while Neetali Das as the elder daughter-in-law brings out the situational helplessness of her character perfectly.
But all of the characters, who are immediate family of the deceased, appear unemotional and muted, with no sign of the emotional toll and loss of a murder being committed inside their house. Such was their disgrace for Padma Lochan Baruah! To note, although nefarious in her own ways, a sense of redemption was reflected in Srishti Sharma’s character as the granddaughter of Baruah. But she doesn’t have much to do in the story.
It may have been difficult to depict such a large supporting cast without putting too much emphasis on any one character. But Anupam Kaushik Borah’s writing and direction gives balanced emphasis to each of the other key characters.
To write about the ending, Rudra Dowerah successfully connects a deceased man, his inheritance, a few corpses with missing organs, and an old photo with a shirt cufflink and the Baruah family. The conclusion is satisfying even if we couldn’t see it before. It works even though the story of the missing cufflink and an autopsy report were kept away from the audience until the last minute. It works because it makes Rudra Dowerah appear brilliant as he ties everything together at the end. This revelation feels fulfilling.
But then, if we see it the other way, the discovery of the killer is also based on circumstantial evidence. Just because one person failed to do his job of disposing some bodies properly, Rudra and Neel got enough leads to could connect the dots. The series would have been more interesting if such a turn of events didn’t occur. What if the bodies, that were supposed to be disposed off, were not discovered? What if the missing cufflink was not found in the body? How would Rudra Dowerah and Neel track down the real culprit responsible for Baruah’s murder then? Let this serve as food for thought tonight!
‘Rudraneel Uttarpurux’ plays by the decent standards of a whodunit. It won’t surprise you but it won’t disappoint you either. You can almost expect to get the expected! The eight-episode long series now streaming on Reeldrama also stars Himangshu Gogoi, Parikshit Tamuli, Biplob Borkakoti and Siddhartha Mukherjee in various roles. Special appreciation also goes for the stylistic opening credits of the series.