The Amazon Prime Video series Farzi carries the scent of many Bollywood stories. Take its protagonists, Sunny (Shahid Kapoor) and Firoz (Bhuvan Arora), best friends since childhood, poor and desperate, hungry for success. Sunny’s maternal grandfather, Nanu (Amol Palekar), embodies his antonym: an idealist who runs a struggling magazine ‘Kranti’. The heroes turn anti-heroes — printing counterfeit notes — and collide with a Special Task Force officer, Michael (Vijay Sethupathi). He (you wouldn’t have guessed) is a borderline alcoholic, snubs official protocols, and fails to keep his marital life intact. Michael’s nemesis — and Sunny and Firoz’s boss — is Mansoor (Kay Kay Menon), a gangster who does gangster-type things: lusts over money, conceives dangerous plans, and laughs at the wrong time.
But despite these broad similarities, Farzi is very much its own show — and hooks you hard right from the start. Directors Raj and DK nail the basics: they spotlight the characters’ desires, introduce roadblocks, magnify stakes. Nanu’s printing press, reeling under debt, is about to sink, and Sunny and Firoz will do anything to save it. First, by hook or by crook and later, when the possibility of ‘success’ buzzes in their head, by crook or by crook.
The writing (by Sita Menon, Suman Kumar, and Raj and DK) retains its flair and consistency, even when the conflicts intensify. Almost nothing happens all of a sudden. Sunny and Firoz learn how to print fake notes — they try one method, then another; they fail, recover, succeed. New characters undergo their own journeys before entering the main story, such as Megha (Raashii Khanna) — an expert at detecting fake currency notes at the RBI and deflecting her mother’s pesky marriage requests — who joins Michael’s team as an investigator.
The committed writing even made me change my mind. It took me a long time, for instance, to get into Sethupathi’s Hindi (and character). A phenomenal actor making his debut in Hindi fiction, he struggles with the language. His Hindi is tight — too tight — unfurling as a performance within a performance. Whenever Sethupathi appeared on screen in the first two episodes, his dialogues felt like a constant ‘presence’: too affected, too pressing, too jarring. But the writing persists, and we get a reason: He is Tamil. There’s a poignant conversation between a drunk Michael and his wife (Regina Cassandra) in the third episode, where an assured Sethupathi, reeling off lines in Tamil, establishes his essence: that he’s a ‘hybrid’ — neither Hindi nor Tamil, neither a celebrated cop nor a committed father.
The most enjoyable part about this series, however, is its comedy. Always a striking feature of Raj and DK’s filmography, humour is a constant season in Farzi. Not the laugh-out-loud moments implanted for effect but dry humour, organic humour, where jokes feel like afterthoughts. They are often present in tense situations, deflating — or heightening — tension. Sethupathi stands out — his ‘cutely funny’ lines sharpen his character, contradicts his professional machismo.
Farzi is, to a large extent, good company. Raj and DK know what makes a scene work, a sequence flow, a subplot land. They use real-life’s absurdities to make regular scenes entertaining. They deploy quick cuts and pulsating background scores to convey the charm and thrills of crime. They cast pan-Indian actors — or unlikely combinations — to bounce complementing and contrasting energies off each other. Khanna and Sethupathi, Kapoor and Arora, Menon and Kapoor — all unlikely pairs whose distinct acting languages meld to produce their own music. Kapoor, especially, seems to be in fine form: focused, precise, restrained.
Yet, even with all these merits, Farzi makes you feel as if something is… missing. After the first few episodes, the show runs into the limits of its limitations: genre fiction shying away from subversion. It’s not something I thought I’d feel in a Raj and DK production because even their middling attempts are cheeky and edgy. But they play way too straight here. Directorial sincerity (backed by conviction) is endearing but falls short in a story whose origins and journeys — evidenced by both old and new Bollywood — are sincere themselves.
Because if you peel off its dynamic designs — an eclectic ensemble, swirling subplots, multiple settings (India, Jordan, Bangladesh, Ukraine) — Farzi is, at its core, a stagnant show. It features surface-level collisions but lacks internal tension. Whether it’s Sunny and Nanu, Firoz and Sunny, Michael and Megha — or any other duo or trio — they share ossified bonds. Nanu and Sunny’s divergent ideologies do pop up early in the show, promising an evolved conflict later, but some convenient writing snuffs out that possibility.
It’s this lack of tension that makes the show less poignant. The writing dilutes the dramatic potency more than once. It teases an essential theme in the fourth episode: Sunny believing a lie — him wanting to continue the counterfeit currency business long after he’s saved the press (“whatever we’ve done till now is for Nanu”). But in the next episode, an argument between Sunny and Firoz douses the fire (“I’m doing it for myself”).
The makers also evade confrontations. They craft relationships that resemble house of cards — Sunny-Mansoor, Megha-Sunny, Sunny-Nanu — one careful lie over another that seems to race towards an inevitable explosion. But they either fizzle out (via a drastic plot turn) or are pushed till the next season (which, given the promising build-up, seems disingenuous).
The same anticipation, leaving too much for the end, also produces the most mediocre episode of the show. Raj and DK look less like assured filmmakers in the last episode and more like engineering students hustling to finish the syllabus a night before the exam. Several plot threads, which could have benefitted from more time, reach rushed culminations. Sunny’s abrupt transformation, even though hooked to a reason, stretches all limits of reason.
Maybe it makes sense. Because Farzi and Sunny share a crucial commonality: both begin their journeys on a note that’s identifiable, pleasant, and entertaining but devolve into something that’s barely recognisable — as if the person has vanished but the shadow has remained.
This article was first published on The Wire.