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Aussie Benjamin Jasper’s visual artistry lights up the desi adaptation of the popular British series – Beyond Bollywood

Though the main antagonist, it is Anil Kapoor who headlines an intriguing espionage drama. At last, Aditya Roy Kapur shows some talent. The Tillotama Shome show grips your imagination.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3/ 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

US president Joe Biden informed his guest Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, that since neither of them drinks, as per custom, they must raise their wine glasses [filled with water] with their left hand. PM Modi perhaps didn’t hear it. So, he raised a toast with his right hand. The teetotaler Modi can’t be faulted for the odd frame. He, however, hasn’t done anything odd.

Out in the reel, Aditya Roy Kapur’s Shaan Sengupta/Joaquim Sequeira loves his wine, but he is the only one in the Sri Lankan beach resort to raise a toast with his left hand. The southpaw is truly the odd man out in the gathering. The former Indian navy lieutenant, former night manager of The Orient Pearl [Shimla] has turned into an Indian spy who is out to expose and bring down the empire of illegal arms dealer Shailendra Singh Rungta aka Shelly [Anil Kapoor].

An official adaptation of the British TV series of the same title, creator-director Sandeep Modi has given a desi flavour to the late novelist John Le Carre’s classic. The production values, though, have global appeal to it. The seven episodes have been divided into part 1 containing four episodes, with the balance episodes forming part 2 that is set to stream on Disney + Hotstar from 30 June.

We haven’t seen the British series, but the sheer business [illegal arms trading] got us curious as to how Sandeep Modi, co-director Priyanka Ghose and writer Shridhar Raghavan were going to place this in the Indian scheme of things. Illegal arms dealer! That is perhaps the stuff of Americans, Europeans, other Western states and even Arabs until we heard the name Abhishek Verma. Son of former journalist and Indian National Congress leader Shrikant Verma, the billionaire arms dealer and his wife were accused of corruption in the Scorpene Submarine deal. He was later exonerated by Indian courts in 2015.

The Night Manager [2023] has nothing to do with Verma, but we are curious about the clientele of Shelly Rungta.  Sandeep Modi’s The Night Manager opens with the Rohingya crisis, where global pressure has prohibited Myanmar’s government, military from procuring weapons. We’re then taken to a Bangladeshi five-star hotel where Shaan Sengupta [Aditya Roy Kapur], former Indian navy lieutenant, is now working as the night manager. Sengupta is disturbed with the potential threat to Safina [Arista Mehta], the 14-year-old high profile guest in the Dhaka hotel.

Two years down the line, Sengupta has turned into a fugitive. He killed a Himachalee policeman during a successful escape. Sengupta flees to Sri Lanka under the name of Joaquim Sequeira and is now working in the nearby restaurant close to the very resort where Shelly and his men have taken refuge. He’s knocked out cold, all bloodied when Shelly learns that this man had rescued his son from the clutches of local robbers/kidnappers few minutes ago. 

The kidnapping was all part of the Indian intelligence plot, but Shaan Sengupta demanded that he take a real beating. The fake kidnapper merrily obliged busting Shaan’s face with a solid pan. How else would the dangerous Shelly believe Shaan? It would be few days before Shaan opens his eyes.

The mere child-saving act though isn’t enough, as Shelly and his best pal Brij Pal [Saswata Chatterjee] do a thorough check before coming to conclusion that Shaan/Joaquim is no threat to them.

Though an espionage thriller, The Night Manager engages the viewer with the pulsating drama/espionage, tension in the Sri Lankan resort.  It is an agonizing wait for Shaan to get incriminatory info, while a tedious wait for Shelly and co. to decide on their next business move, and also build confidence in Shaan. By the end of the part 1, Shelly is beginning to lose patience with BJ, and there is a belief that Shaan could be the guy to replace his best pal.

Part 1 streamed in February. Four months later, you perhaps expect Shaan to further prove his allegiance to Shelly. However, a murky business deal compels Shaan to take swift action. As a viewer, you feel that there was scope to add more tropes, twists, drama. The original British series has just six episodes. Sandeep Modi has added an extra episode to the desi adaptation.  It concludes with a fitting finale, but also leaves the door open for further expansion. Even it doesn’t, a viewer isn’t left in any limbo.

One is intrigued by the politics surrounding the illegal arms business. The Myanmar military, Rohingyas, African rebels are apt clients for an Indian arms dealer. Sandeep Modi and Shridhar Raghavan are smart to use Covid-19 in their favour. The pandemic has not only restricted movement, but also made it near impossible for Shelly to serve Western clients. Having them would have perhaps pushed the series into the realm of fantasy. Besides, it would have been counterproductive to India’s largely positive global image.

Espionage dramas tend to have a sense of déjà vu to it. Being an adaptation, one can’t expect The Night Manager to drift vastly from the original. It’s not the spying, nor the limited action, guns, but the desi characters and their individual turmoil that builds engagement.

Given his track record, frailties, it is a gamble by Sandeep Modi to pick Aditya Roy Kapur as his spy.  We watched part 2 before part 1. This is arguably your finest career role, and you should have nailed it but we see the familiar, bland, unenergetic Kapur in part 2.  48 hours later, we watched part 1, and realised why the character is so restrained. Shaan Sengupta was all jovial and happy as the night manager before that traumatising day in Dhaka.  A restrained Kapur, though, works to Modi’s advantage. Though he largely cuts a straight face, Kapur is sharp in his reply to Shelly, especially when the latter gets suspicious. One has to admit, this is a rare measured act by Kapur.

The veteran Anil Kapoor has played grey character before most admirably as the poker-face wife killer in My Wife’s Murder [2005]. He was the baddie in Malang [2020]. In a way, he was the antagonist in Slumdog Millionaire [2008] too. Sinister, though, is a word that we don’t associate with Kapoor. It’s an altogether different Anil Kapoor that we see in The Night Manager. Shelly Rungta means business. (The Rungta name is popular in Indian cricket circles.  Obviously, there is no bearing whatsoever to Sandeep Modi’s Rungta).

Shelly goes by his instincts which explains the volte face at the eleventh hour. That first frame where he suspiciously walks into the Dhaka hotel, phew this is a man not to mess around with. He has a warmer side to him, particularly when he is around with his little son Taha [Shrenik Arora]. Shelly, though, is intensity personified.  He uses his words carefully, but doesn’t hold back in his lavish lifestyle. Don’t be fooled by the exterior. Shelly himself says later, “It’s better if you don’t meet the man behind this expensive suit”.  One is a little surprised that given his clout, instincts, how could a man like Rungta not call out Shaan’s bluff? Though an antagonist, it is Anil Kapoor who bosses the screenplay.

Solve the conflicts peacefully, and who do the Western arms manufacturers, now even China sell their hi-tech arms to? The Rungtas are perhaps mere creations of the politics behind the global [illegal] arms race.

Sobhita Dhulipala only enhances her reputation as a promising talent. Kaveri [Dhulipala], the former Miss India, sticks to her role i.e. to love Shelly. She imbibes the sensuality of a Bond-girl, but Kaveri also has an emotional side. In one scene, a sneaky Shaan accidently sees a naked (back) Kaveri. He apologizes to her later [second time] to which the lady replies, “I don’t care if one sees me naked, but I do care if one catches me crying”. It’s also a moment where Shaan senses that Kaveri could be the door to open Shelly’s can of worms.

When you want to take down an arms dealer like Rungta, it is so convenient to have a glamourous, classy intel head.  Tillotama Shome’s Lipika Saikia Rao looks any thing but. She comes across like an ordinary clerk in a government office.  But hey, how many of us are familiar with real intel officers? Shaan is the eyes, hands but it is Lipika is who is the mind, heart and soul of this mission.  As she gets heavily pregnant, Lipika adds another shield to her character. You are mesmerized by the physicality, the body language, and the tone of Shome.  She is this very unassuming, David-like pregnant lady who aspires to take down a powerful Goliath-like Rungta. Phew, the mere image of a pregnant Lipika risking her unborn child and her life is so empowering.  Shome’s performance is a sheer tour de force.

Boogie Woogie fame judge Ravi Behl makes a rare appearance in a drama series. He’s happy to sport his white hair, beard and does an amiable job in his limited screen space. Overall, Sandeep Modi has a fine cast at his disposal. The unheralded Vikram Kapadia is impressive as Lipika’s boss Mitter, one who repeatedly orders Lipika to stick to the protocols.

If Shelly is the shrewd antagonist, Freddy Rahman [Resh Lamba] is the psycho from Dhaka. Lamba revels in the debauchery of his character.

After watching the two parts, we found that as a story, narrative, The Night Manager [2023] has a sense of déjà vu.  The Disney + Hotstar show, though, sucks you into every frame – courtesy the visual artistry of its experienced Australian DOP Benjamin Jasper and well aided by Anik R. Verma [Additional Director of Photography].  No, we don’t have any opulence (grand palaces) or CGI creatures, avatars, yet every frame captured in this espionage drama is so well defined and immersive. Jasper has previous experience in Bollywood too – Bang Bang [2014], War [2019].  The Night Manager wouldn’t be as half good if it wasn’t for Jasper’s excellent visual story-telling. Jasper completements Sani Johray, Madhusudan N’s equally impressive production design. For all its engaging story, ensemble cast, we feel Jasper’s visual artistry is the real hero in the series.

The Night Manager scores on other technical fronts too with Sam C. S’s effective background score and a gripping title score by Santosh Narayanan.

Though not a refreshing plot per se, but it’s the visual storytelling that draws you to Sandeep Modi’s The Night Manager. Hindi cinema has a poor record in remakes, but The Night Manager instils confidence in Western creators to have an Indian adaptation.

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