International Debate

Kohrra on Netflix – Policing and Everyday Life in Contemporary India

August 14, 2023 754
A still from the series Kohrra shows actors  Suvinder Vicky and Barun Sobti in police khakis and with pensive looks
Barun Sobti, left, and Suvinder Vicky portray police inspectors in the Netflix hit Kohrra (“Fog”).(Photo: Netflix)

Even Social Science Space bloggers occasionally have downtime when they log in to Netflix and crash out. One of my favourite themes is foreign-language crime fiction. Sometimes this helps to keep up a language skill, although my French is often challenged by the slang! Sometimes it is about seeing how a nation represents itself as a backdrop to the plot. The French have two staple locations – rural with lots of forests, naked bodies of young women, and vague echoes of horror movies; and housing projects in Paris or Marseille where racial tensions are paramount. Spain seems to deal more in modernist architecture, official corruption and the debauchery of the rich, which also mark Latin American series.

Occasionally, there are real oddities. Who knew the Luxembourg countryside was so pretty but infested with drugs and human trafficking? Kohrra falls into that category. A routine police procedural set in the Punjab, switching between Punjabi, Hindi and English as the plot unfolds. I picked up a recommendation from social media and became fascinated by a representation of India that is rarely seen on Global North TV.

In the UK, at least, TV coverage of India tends to be dominated by two tropes. First, there is celebrity tourism, focusing on the scenic and the exotic, interspersed by carefully choreographed interviews with colourful locals. Second, is poverty tourism, where a commentator with a social conscience on their sleeve picks their way through some setting calculated to induce outrage among well-heeled viewers. If we include cinema, we might add the Merchant-Ivory versions of the lush lives of privileged groups under Imperial rule.

Kohrra is exceptional in its flat depiction of everyday life in India today. Of course, there is dramatic compression, but the action moves seamlessly from property developers, night club owners, nail bar technicians and American-style diners to the dormitories of day labourers or the lock-ups of street prostitutes – male, female or trans – and the realities of Sikh funeral rites in an ancient cremator. Policing rests on an undercurrent of violence and fear, much of which is probably a legacy from colonial times. The interrogation techniques would not survive judicial scrutiny in the UK: equal opportunities means hiring female cops to beat confessions out of female suspects!

Through this backdrop move Balbur Singh, a Sikh sub-inspector, and his assistant, Garundi, with compelling performances from Suvinder Vicky and Barun Sobti. Balbur is a classic aging detective, damaged by the compromises that he has made throughout his career and troubled by the failures of his family life. But he is the moral center of the story as he comes to terms with social change in India and the door is left open for his final redemption, should he choose to walk through it. Garundi is a much younger man, wise to the ways of policing but looking to move on from the struggles and conflicts of his farming background. Their mutual caring and affection are exquisitely played out.

The pair are challenged to solve the murder of Paul Dhillon and the disappearance of his friend Liam Murphy. Both have some kind of work in finance in London. Paul is an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) from a Sikh background, who has returned for an arranged marriage. Liam is to be his best man. Paul’s murder lifts the lid on a complex web of jealousies, rivalries and conflicts in the community. Liam’s disappearance makes the matter one of interest to the higher echelons of the police, who do not want pressure from the British Embassy. Balbur is under pressure to get a result, any result, that leaves the social order of the city intact. In a pivotal scene, he diverts demands to frame a poor man by leaking material to a journalist that establishes the man’s innocence. Whatever he may have done in the past, this draws a line that shifts the arc of his moral journey.

As a plot, the story is not hugely original and regular viewers of such serials will probably figure it out well before the end. The acting is impressive: Suvinder Vicky is a master of impassive silence. What kept me hooked, though, was the representation of India itself. I have never been there, and I don’t suppose I shall ever go, but, by the end, I felt that I had seen something that was far more instructive than any of the glossy documentaries that come around regularly on terrestrial TV in this country.

The series has been highly praised by Indian reviewers, even though some have taken exception to its non-judgemental depiction of the realities of Indian policing. It would be a shame if it were overlooked by viewers outside that country simply because Netflix have not mobilized the full weight of their marketing machine behind it.

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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