There’s nothing extraordinary about a web series opening with a plane-crash sequence. But it’s the visual design of this sequence, that might nudge the viewer for at-least three of the four episodes of JL 50 Our perception of the plot – which revolves around a real-world mystery, about the identity of this airplane – plays a big role here. When a CBI officer named Shantanu, who is played by Abhay Deol, from Kolkata reaches the crash site with his colleague, he assumes the wreckage belongs to Flight AO26, a regular commercial flight – carrying some important politicians – that went missing a day ago. But, when news breaks that AO26 has been hijacked by militants from ABA, a communist outfit called “Azaad Bengal Association”, Shantanu discovers that the crashed plane is actually JL50. All the elements point towards the mystical.
A shady Quantum Physics professor, whose played by Pankaj Kapur, survivors from 1984, who haven’t aged and personal items from the Indira Gandhi era. But the design is quite clever: the writer knows that the viewer is inherently inclined to look for reasons that debunk a time-travel device in 2020. The series also knows that the “staging”, of a time-travel setup, is an equally attractive premise. As a result, there are clues, that tease the pragmatism of human nature. For instance, we suspect the authenticity of that opening plane crash sequence, because of the way it’s edited – nobody actually sees the plane crash, they only see the wreckage, which could have also been staged. When Shantanu interrogates the connected characters, the camera also purposely lingers on their faces, for a split-second after he leaves, as if they might be closet conspirators. That’s also why the protagonist, Shantanu, is a brooding but level-headed young man, in a narrative full of kooky older people.
We are encouraged to view the world through his cynical eyes, constantly looking and doubting the fantastical, determined to find logical answers. Shantanu questions everything, and he always has a wry grin on his face – while listening to witnesses. It’s an expression that Abhay Deol has proven to be adept at over the years – When his superstitious colleague suggests time travel, he also rolls his eyes. When the pilot recovers and narrates her story from 1984, Shantanu sighs. You’d think Shantanu was more of a Science guy. But at one point during the investigation, Shantanu says “Scientists are artists too”: this is a clear allusion to Science Fiction, the genre we refuse to associate JL50 with. Eventually, Shantanu’s personal arc is crucial to the leap of faith, that JL50 takes. The resolution is cheesy but, dare I say, it’s also quite moving. The detailing of the series helps. Kolkata is a very good choice of setting. The cultural stillness of a city, that seems to be stuck in time – for example other than the clothes, it’d be impossible to tell 1984 from 2020 – this adds to the two-faced tone of the story. Getting Hindi film actors like Abhay Deol, Piyush Mishra, Rajesh Sharma and Pankaj Kapur, to play people of different degrees of Bengali-ness, is a performative sleight-of-hand trick. Mishra’s hamming offsets Kapur’s uncanny local gait, while Sharma’s eagerness offsets Deol’s artistic calm.
The exposition in the final episode has wonky dialogue, but it’s a necessary evil to sell an ambitious story. After all, so much of JL50 second-guesses how we, the viewers, are conditioned to think. It waters the seeds of doubt in our heads quite deliberately. Magic is false until proven true. A work of art is mediocre, until proven competent. And JL50 as we know is all about proof – of the past, of the future, and of a step in the right direction.
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