Garmi Review: Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Series Generates Tempered Heat Rather Than Scorching Highs

Cast: Vyom Yadav, Jatin Goswami, Vineet Kumar, Mukesh Tiwari, Anurag Thakur, Disha Thakur, Puneet Singh

Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia

Rating: Three stars (out of 5)

Writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia, in his second web series, puts the underbelly of university politics under the scanner and delivers a drama that errs on the side of caution. The distortions of democracy that the nine-episode SonyLIV show depicts in a realistic vein are shorn of historical specificities and placed in a largely generalised context.

Garmi, more sobering than searing, is peopled by self-serving student leaders ready to play to the tune of their masters, their cynical mentors who thrive on the perks of political power without accountability and criminals who operate with impunity.

Returning to the grimy terrain that he explored in his first film Haasil, released two decades ago, Dhulia focuses on a bright but hot-headed postgraduate student who arrives in a once-thriving university that has fallen on hard days.

His is a staccato story that is clearly not of the kind that conventionally structured narratives usually tell. There are points in Garmi when the flow of the tale isn’t smooth. That is exactly how the screenplay would have it, like it or lump it.

The young Political Science graduate aspires to be a civil servant. Circumstances deflect him from his avowed path. He is sucked into a corrupt world of truant professors and students, a smarmy police inspector who sees himself as more than just a guardian of the law, greedy contractors, and politicians and power brokers intent on fishing in troubled waters.

Working with many new faces, including lead actor Vyom Yadav (last seen in Badhaai Do), Dhulia examines the confused psyche of a lower middle-class boy caught between his academic ambition and his compulsions on a campus where matters are rarely in his control.

Allahabad/Prayagraj aren’t mentioned by name in Garmi – the city that large swathes of the series play out in is Trivenipur – but the setting is pretty apparent. Arvind Shukla (Vyom Yadav), son of a retired headmaster (Harish Shukla), makes the 130-km bus trip from his town to Trivenipur only to have his hopes dashed by a miasma of personal setbacks, political chicanery and bruising brushes with the law.

Dhulia’s script mines the upheavals in Arvind’s life and on the campus for drama and emotions, but its principal focus is on the interlinked dynamics of caste, class, language and power as they manifest themselves on the day-to-day conduct of affairs of the university.

A police inspector, Mrityunjay Singh (Jatin Goswami, in fine fettle), dreams of nationwide Thakur domination. He gives student leader Bindu Singh (Puneet Singh), a man from his own community, all the support that he needs in order to protect his turf from his rivals led by Govind Maurya (Anurag Thakur), who represents OBC interests.

Baba Bairagi (Vineet Kumar), the head of a wrestling akhara and an influential political middleman, spots in Arvind, a Brahmin, the qualities of a warrior. Dalits on the campus see education as a way out of caste oppression, but their progress is hindered at every step.

Always on a short fuse, Arvind Shukla quickly attracts the attention of Bindu Singh (Puneet Singh), the president of the university students’ union. The M.A. first year student is frequently caught in the crossfire between Bindu and Govind, the union vice-president, a fact that costs the boy dear in the long run.

Arvind makes friends as quickly as he makes foes. Because of his tendency to stand up for what he believes in, his stocks rise among the students. But the path ahead is strewn with thorns. As matters begin to spin out of control, his challenge is to not let his family know of the trouble that he is repeatedly in.

Arvind stumbles, picks himself up and keeps running, but it always seems to be a case of one step forward and two steps backward, which is essentially the rhythm of the series as a whole. It might feel a touch frustrating at times but is generally indicative of the nature of Arvind’s struggle to stay afloat in big, deep, dirty pond.

Dhulia treads with utmost caution and refrains from naming real-life political formations or identifying colours that one associates with ideologies except on one occasion when somebody mentions “laal party waale” with reference to a quick series of targetted attacks on leftist students and leaders on the campus that is quickly swept under the carpet.

The Garmi protagonist is a difficult to fathom individual, which makes him far more interesting than fictional campus rebels usually are. Given to angry outbursts, Arvind Shukla isn’t averse to jumping into bare-knuckle fights, but his rage simmers rather than crackles and boils over. He is an angry young man cast in a mould that is markedly different from what Hindi cinema fans are accustomed to.

Arvind Shukla walks into one confrontation after another and rarely comes out unscathed. He is a work in progress. Garmi underlines that repeatedly in its portrait of a man still unsure of where he wants to stand politically and socially although his birth has already determined his position of privilege in the pecking order.

The cast of Garmi has only a handful of known actors – Mukesh Tiwari (who appears late in the series and has a role that is small only in terms of length), Vineet Kumar and Jatin Goswami. Most of the other key roles are played by up-and-coming actors (Anurag Thakur, Puneet Singh and, not to forget, Vyom Yadav) who demonstrate the sort of skill levels that should fetch them more work and fame in the years ahead.

Garmi is set in a world dominated by men, but the handful of girls who jostle their way in are no pushovers. Arvind’s orbit has two such female students – Surbhi (Disha Thakur) and Ruchita (Anushka Kaushik) – both of whom he first meets when the theatre society of the university begins rehearsals for a production of Hamlet.

Garmi generates tempered heat rather than scorching highs. It does not deliver explosive action. The plot does throw up quite a few shocks but it at most times unfolds at a deliberate pace.

The spotlight of Garmi is as much on the complex realities of the campus and the depredations of unscrupulous men working the system for personal, political and pecuniary games as it is on the messy, shifting battlelines that are drawn between the warring gangs of students.

Garmi ends on an inconclusive note, promising to return with an intense struggle (bheeshan sangram) involving Arvind and his adversaries. There is clearly another season in the offing. Worth the wait? Yes. It would be interesting to see where the conflicted IAS aspirant ends up when he masters the tricks of the trade.

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