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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

‘CAT’ series review: Laced with dollops of dope and gunpowder, Randeep Hooda drives this twisted tale of grit from Punjab

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Randeep Hooda in ‘CAT’
| Photo Credit: MubeenSiddiqui/Netflix

In the last few years, mainstream filmmakers have discovered that Punjab has more to it than mustard fields, bawdy jokes, and belles dancing to the beats of Balle Balle. This week, writer-director Balwinder Singh Janjua paints a murky tale in the State scarred by insurgency and drug menace. The eight-episode series follows a police informant Gary alias Gurnam Singh (Randeep Hooda) who was roped in as a CAT to crush the militant groups after he lost his parents to the scourge.

Leading a mundane life where he works as a mechanic to give a better future to his sister and brother, Gurnam is called again by his handler Sehtab Singh (Suvinder Vicky), this time to infiltrate a drug ring that has his brother in its crosshairs. The cartel is being run by a powerful politician Madam Aulakh (Geeta Agrawal) and the Ghalib-spouting, scheming Sehtab has a bigger agenda that the earthy Gurnam could not fathom.

Janjua and co-writers Rupinder Chahal, Anil Rodhan and Jimmy Singh have woven the narrative around the multi-hued backdrop of militancy and drugs, creating credible characters and situations. The nexus between politicians, police, and next-door neighbours is tangible. As is the intricate web of doping in sports, gun culture, and pop music where violence is an everyday reality and betrayal a common emotion.

All the central characters have a backstory but, at times, series creator Janjua, in search of details and perhaps to pad up the storyline to last the mile, allows the narrative to meander and the pace to dwindle. It is like when you open too many windows, and the computer hangs. Some of the subplots and flashbacks are stretched beyond their value to the story. Of course, Janjua picks up the threads again, but it gives an uneven feel to the series and there are portions where you start searching for the remote.

The good thing is that Janjua doesn’t lose the poignant beat of the story amidst the relentless sounds of gunshots, bloodshed, and Punjabi pop. You can always sense a throbbing heart beneath the chaos. Through Babita (Hasleen Kaur), the police officer who strikes a chord with Gurnam, the writers also touch upon the Dalit face of Punjab, but don’t delve deeper into the social mess.

Randeep is the centripetal force that keeps the series on track. He imbues the gritty Gurnam not just with brooding intensity, but also nurtures his resolve with flesh and blood. Be it the twirl of the moustache or the grease on the edges of the nails, he methodically internalises the transformation of Gurnam from an obscure mechanic to the Man Friday of Madam Aulakh. But, all along, Randeep also makes sure that he doesn’t decorate the stoic Gurnam with the frills of popular cinema. He doesn’t let us forget for a moment that Gurnam was forced by circumstances to pick up the gun, and that he is being used by the powers that be for their gains.

In the beginning, Randeep seems to be surrounded by lesser actors but as the series progresses, the earthiness of the characters renders a raw appeal. Suvinder aces the part of the two-faced police officer, Dakssh Ajeet Singh is absolutely believable as the sportsman-turned-criminal, and Abhishant Rana delivers the goods as the young Gurnam. So does the ever-reliable Pramod Pathak as the slimy cop. The performances are in sync with the locations, dialect, background score, and editing pattern and have not been dressed up to match the perceived global taste of the streaming audience.

With Janjua leaving clear hints of a second season, this ferocious CAT is still not fully out of the bag.

CAT is currently streaming on Netflix

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