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Goodbye 2020: The best web-series of the year OTT platforms captured public attention

From crime thrillers to murder mysteries, family dramas to romances, we waded through the list to find the best.

Sonal Pandya

With theatres shut for more than seven months, 2020 became the year streaming became commonplace in India. Shuttered at home, middle-class Indians turned to their laptops and TVs to entertain themselves. Streaming platforms, too, showcased what they could deliver, with web-series that took us away from the dull routine of everyday life to the thrilling expanse of action and mystery with shows like Special Ops and Breathe: Into The Shadows.

We indulged in escapism with Four More Shots Please! and A Suitable Boy, grooved to the fusion of Hindustani and pop music with Bandish Bandits, and watched police officers on the trail in Flesh and Abhay. One trend that we noticed most Indian web-series adopting is ending on a cliffhanger which we certainly did not appreciate after being on edge for a resolution for most of the finale.

With so much content out there on so many different OTT platforms (from Netflix to Voot Select), it truly was hard to choose the best of the year. Nevertheless, there were a few that viewers enthusiastically recommended to friends and family over others. Here, then, are the five best web-series of 2020.

1. Panchayat (Amazon Prime)

The instrumental theme by Anurag Saikia for Panchayat is the perfect intro for this seemingly simple but layered web-series about life and politics in the village of Phulera. The Viral Fever’s Panchayat follows Abhishek Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) who arrives at the dusty village to start his term as secretary to the pradhan (chief) Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), who deflects power to pradhan pati (chief’s husband) Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghuvir Yadav).

Together, they try to ease the villagers’ lives by solving their troubles and adding a few amenities along the way. Panchayat, directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra and written by Chandan Kumar, shows the humour and heart of their machinations in a straightforward manner that is both endearing and charming.

The show is led by Jitendra Kumar who skilfully enacts his character’s frustrations and is wonderfully supported by veterans Gupta and Yadav and the ensemble cast. The delightful web-series turned the ordinary into extraordinary, and its sincere, direct storytelling stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

Panchayat review: Wonderful slice-of-life series that tackles village life and politics

2. Undekhi (SonyLIV)

Undekhi begins with two murders, one that takes place miles away in the Sunderbans in West Bengal and another in Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Both are connected, as we soon find out, exposing the rot in the system. Crimes by those with money and influence are buried while those caught in the crossfire are left out in the cold. “This is a bureaucratic democracy,” one official baldly comments in the show.

The crime thriller, created by Siddharth Sengupta and directed by Ashish R Shukla, focuses on the myriad characters caught in this web of deceit and lies, from DSP Barun Ghosh (a fantastic Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who is following a lead from West Bengal, to a conscientious eyewitness Rishi (Abhishek Chauhan), who naively believes the truth will set him free.

With the backdrop of a lavish wedding hosted by the powerful Atwal family, the pace of the series grows more tense as the stakes keep rising for the characters who are all out to save themselves in the end. The unpredictable twists keep you captivated as do the solid performances by Surya Sharma, Harsh Chhaya and the rest of the cast.

Undekhi review: Captivating drama which explores the intrigues of the rich and powerful against the law

3. Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime)

Police inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) stumbles onto a case that can make or break his career when he and his team capture four suspects who stand accused of attempting to assassinate TV anchor Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). The unravelling of Chaudhary as he discovers who the four disparate individuals are and how the puzzles all fit together in the troubling case constitute the crux of this engrossing drama.

Co-directors Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun delve deep into the psyche of the four would-be killers and even the fringe characters that populate the universe of the show. It’s the rare show that manages to connect the dots and leaves you stunned but satisfied at the end. The strong writing by Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra ensures there is never a dull moment even as the web-series tackles some difficult and hard-hitting issues.

Ahlawat, in the role of a lifetime, is determined, like his character, to give it his all. The rest of the supporting cast, from Abhishek Banerjee’s fearsome Hathoda Tyagi to Swastika Mukherjee’s empathetic Dolly Mehra, back him with fine performances. Produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, Paatal Lok was a welcome surprise.

Paatal Lok review: Welcome to the dark side of urban and rural India

4. Scam 1992 (SonyLIV)

The larger-than-life story of the late Harshad Mehta gets a closer look as filmmaker Hansal Mehta digs deep into the rise and fall of the one-time king of the stock market. Pratik Gandhi delivers a star-making turn as the smooth-talking stockbroker who goes up against the system. The actor deftly portrays Mehta’s unquenchable ambition and his hubris as he continued in his schemes before being capped in the knees.

Mehta, with co-director Jai Mehta, recreate ‘Bombay’ before it became Mumbai with the help of writers Sumit Purohit, Karan Vyas and Vaibhav Vishal and a production team that enriches the past with its detailing. Shreya Dhanwanthary is a worthy adversary to Gandhi's Mehta as journalist Sucheta Dalal, determined to expose his scams.

But the real triumph of the comprehensive web-series is the large and spot-on cast which brings alive actual individuals from RBI governor S Venkitaramanan (Anant Mahadevan) to National Housing Bank chairman Manohar Pherwani (KK Raina). The SonyLIV show, with a grooving, pulsating theme tune, has slowly become one of India’s top-rated series, based purely on word-of-mouth buzz, a feat that’s hard to achieve in this day and age.

Scam 1992 review: Crime drama based on Harshad Mehta has seamless narrative, powerful performances

5. Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar)

The world of Aarya Sareen (Sushmita Sen) is shattered the day her husband Tej (Chandrachur Singh) is gunned down. After his death, Aarya belatedly realizes some truths Tej was hiding from her as she has to join the ‘family’ business to save her family. The business, as it turns out, involves Russian druglords and a pissed off rival, both of whom are determined to make Aarya pay.

Sen, making a comeback of sorts, is poised but deadly as the grieving widow tackling all that is thrown her way. Anti-narcotics officer ACP Khan (Vikas Kumar) remains doggedly on her trail throughout. Directed by Ram Madhvani, Sandeep Modi and Vinod Rawat, the series keeps the mystery of the Sareens' survival, and the identity of Tej’s murderer, alive till the end.

Sen is surrounded by a strong cast which includes Namit Das, Manish Chaudhari and Sikandar Kher. Aarya is no wilting heroine but a determined mother whose priority always remains her children. The web-series is slickly shot with rich production design and the pace remains relentless, making this drama quite binge-worthy.

Aarya review: Sushmita Sen delivers strong, layered performance as reluctant head of illegal business

Honourable mentions

The Gone Game (Voot Select)

Filmed and set in the lockdown, The Gone Game starring Sanjay Kapoor, Arjun Mathur, Shweta Tripathi Sharma and Shriya Pilgoankar is a wonderfully paced, smart thriller that channelizes the fear and anxiety triggered by the pandemic into a taut mystery which pays off.

Asur: Welcome To The Dark Side (Voot Select)

Forensic experts Dhananjay Rajpoot (Arshad Warsi) and Nikhil Nair (Barun Sobti) take the lead in uncovering a cold-blooded serial killer in this slow-paced but absorbing thriller, aided by an effective soundtrack.

A Simple Murder (SonyLIV)

An inadvertent murder leads to a whole host of unwanted problems for Manish (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) who is trying to please his wife but digs himself deeper into a world of crime and gangsters in this entertaining dark comedy.

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Amazon Prime Video SonyLIV Disney+ Hotstar Voot Year in review