Raj Acharya’s eight-episode series, adapted from Jerry Pinto’s novel, works best as a generational character study of masculinity

Raj Acharya’s Murder in Mahim, the eight-episode police procedural streaming on JioCinema, suffers from an adaptation problem, the most unfortunate flaw currently ailing Indian long-format storytelling. The story, about the violent murders of lower-class sex workers, is adapted from Jerry Pinto’s eponymous novel and the show is helmed by Vijay Raaz and Ashutosh Rana, two formidable acting powerhouses capable of elevating any script.

On paper, this is essentially the kind of project that you’d likely put your money on. Yet, it is also on paper — somewhere between landing a compelling source material and truthfully translating it on screen — that Murder in Mahim comes undone. The result is an uneven show whose potential is restricted by its own worldbuilding.

Deviations: Sub-plots and an adversary

Set in 2013, the year India recriminalized Section 377, six years before the Supreme Court would eventually strike it down, Murder in Mahim is a social commentary that unfolds as an investigative thriller. When the corpse of a male sex worker is found in the public toilet of the Mahim railway station, the case is assigned to Shiva (Raaz), a conscientious police officer and Firdaus (a sincere Shivani Raghuvanshi), a closeted Muslim junior officer.

As the duo start investigating the case, they are forced to confront the realities of homosexuality in a society known to ostracize the LGBTQIA+ community while reckoning with the complicity of the country’s police force in punishing queer men and women. As more corpses rack up, Shiva’s paths cross his estranged friend and former journalist Peter Fernandes (Rana), leading them to race against time and bureaucratic corruptions to apprehend the killer.

The eight episodes of Murder in Mahim isn’t exactly a faithful rendition of the book. The makers (Mustafa Neemuchwala and Udai Singh Pawar are credited for the screenplay) deviate from the source material to invent sub-plots and an adversary. So there’s a lot of parallel tracks breathlessly running through the course of the investigative thriller: a commentary on class structures, two parents fearing their son’s sexual orientation, a lesbian romance thwarted by tragedy, two sets of families coming undone with corruption and murders, and a rocky father-son relationship affected by a past humiliation.

Queer protagonists as a narrative device

But the show’s central focus is the fault lines of homophobia and the innumerable innocent lives the stigma claims. Yet, for a show that centers itself on homosexuality, the proceedings never quite immerses itself in a way that it can afford to give viewers a peek into the loneliness and shame that accompanies being queer in India. For most of the show, it feels as if the writers focus more on seeing its queer protagonists as a narrative device so that the show’s two male leads can attain elightenment.

That approach would have worked had Murder in Mahim boasted the kind of assured storytelling that was invested in showing rather than telling. The show is instead more focused on sermonizing and verbalizing to a point where most dialogue feels devoid of any meaning or emotion. The first four episodes for instance are awkwardly staged and performed, especially when conversations around homosexuality and gay sex take precedence.

The runtime feels unbearably stretched as well, in the sense that a five-minute scene is dragged out to contain an entire episode. Even when the show picks up steam from the fifth episode, the makers rarely allow scenes to breathe, cramming so much action, reaction, and melodrama that their after-effect has no opportunity to linger in the viewer’s minds as subtext. There is no reading between the lines here, what you see is what you get.

A generational character study of masculinity

And what we get over the course of the eight episodes then is a show that falls short in conjuring specificity and interiority of its milieu, characters, or their unfulfilled backstories. In fact, it works best as a generational character study of masculinity. Take for instance, one standout moment that revolves around two police officer fathers taking two drastic approaches in reprimanding their young sons after catching them reading a pornographic magazine.

The brief moment stays with you because dialogue isn’t used as decoration here, rather to convey a past and a supposed future of two father and sons. A more competent show would have been stacked with such moments. The best that we get from Murder in Mahim is its efficient casting. Raaz, for one, is pitch-perfect in his role as the short-tempered cop with father (and friend) issues. The actor’s chemistry with Raghuvanshi and Rana proves to be the show’s silver-lining.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Rana’s turn, which at times does get slightly on-the-nose. Then again, these three actors aren’t given much to work with in terms of their characterization which plays safe, resisting from presenting them as too unlikeable. If a show being watchable is the only metric of it being worthy, then Murder in Mahim certainly passes the test. But it’s worth considering the misfortune of having a show led by Vijay Raaz and Ashutosh Rana end up as just that.

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