Poacher Review: Powerful Wildlife Crime Thriller Co-Produced By Alia Bhatt

Phet Jingx

Poacher Review: Powerful Wildlife Crime Thriller Co-Produced By Alia Bhatt
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A still from Poacher . (courtesy: aliaabhatt)

Unsung government officials going about the onerous and painstaking job of protecting Kerala’s wildlife are at the centre of Poacher, a solidly crafted eight-episode Amazon Prime Video series written and directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Richie Mehta and executive produced, among others, by Alia Bhatt.

As the forest rangers wage an arduous war against elephant poachers, the overstretched (and sometimes conflicted) men and women tasked with bringing the criminals to book prefer not to blow their own trumpets. They chip away with intent as the stakes rise steadily, as do the risks involved in stirring a hornet’s nest.

In addition to everything else that makes Poacher a highly watchable show, the series offers a refreshing respite from the hollow bluster and empty rhetoric that the cops and spies, gangsters and terrorists and traitors and patriots that we see in Indian web shows (and movies) usually indulge in.

Poacher, restrained and focussed, is a powerful, precisely delineated wildlife crime thriller that segues seamlessly into an urgent ecological cautionary tale. It works flawlessly as both.

It lays bare the brutality of poachers, the vulnerability of the magnificent tuskers that they hunt, and the tenacity of the investigating forest officers who struggle to juggle work and family.

The series does not negate its genre trappings. The protagonists are on a mission to bust a network of tusker hunters and illegal ivory suppliers, traders and end buyers. They will do anything it takes to achieve their end.

They are heroes in the making. But even as they operate within a good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative construct, these people, real and relatable, do not resort to bombast and pulpy grandstanding.

The multi-location, multi-pronged manhunt that Poacher revolves around – it spans from the cities, villages and wildlife sanctuaries of Kerala to an art gallery and secret storehouse in Delhi – is tense, immersive and suspense-filled.

The forest officers and their associates conduct surprise raids, set up stakeouts, gather intelligence and analyse all available call records data pretty much like secret agents and crime investigators do, but what unfolds in Poacher is only tangentially similar to the plot dynamics of police dramas and espionage thrillers.

Poacher (Malayalam, English, Hindi and a bit of Bengali) is, by all reckoning, far more compelling than most Indian crime drama on the streamers are.

It presents an impeccably mounted fictionalised account of true events that unfolded in 2015 around the investigation into the country’s biggest-ever elephant poaching case. It is a procedural mounted with an acute sense of place and purpose.

A young Indian Forest Service officer, Mala Jogi (Nimisha Sajayan), is pulled out of a bird sanctuary and reassigned to the elephant poaching case when a confession by a contrite gang member throws open a can of worms.

She has a pressing personal reason for jumping headlong into the mission but it has got nothing to do with the relationship that she has just ended. Her worried single mother frets over her daughter’s personal well-being.

A more seasoned officer, Neel Banerjee (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), an Indian Intelligence cadre man with an anti-terror operation in Kashmir behind him, leads the anti-poaching drive while having to reckon with serious health issues, a rocky marriage, intra-departmental lethargy and the complexities of dealing with multiple agencies.

Alan Joseph (Roshan Mathew), a computer programmer employed with a wildlife protection NGO in Delhi, is roped in to analyse the call records data of suspected poachers and the accomplices. He, too, works round the clock, often at the cost of his duties as a husband and father.

In the initial moments of the series, Aruku (Sooraj Pops), a forest watcher of 30 years’ standing, shows up at a forest department outpost and confesses to the killing of 18 elephants. In an accurate reenactment of the way it played out in real life, the official he complains to does not take Aruku seriously.

A subsequent botched raid on the hideouts of suspected poachers exposes deep-rooted problems in the forest department and lands forest range officer Vijay Babu (Ankith Madhav) in a soup. He is placed under suspension. But such is the nature and scope of the operation that ensues that the man continues to play an on-and-off part in it.

The professional challenges that the forest officers face cause complications on the home front, making the arcs of the key players that much more complex and the plot that unravels around them that much more layered.

Mala, Neel and Alan emerge as rounded individuals who grapple with emotions that the audience can relate to even though they are, on one level, cogs in a sprawling narrative wheel swarming with people, places and details.

With its steady writing, robust execution and top-notch performances, Poacher draws us deep into the world of the forest officials and their areas of operation. Nimisha Sajayan, Roshan Mathew and Dibyendu Bhattacharya, spearheading a great ensemble cast, deliver outstanding performances.

Kani Kusruti (in a truncated appearance as a Thiruvananthapuram-based official who pays the price for being unbudging in her commitment) and Sooraj Pops as the forest guard who blows the lid off an illegal ivory trade are first rate.

The characters in Poacher and the actors who play them are in perfect sync with each other, lending to the series a degree of authenticity that elevates a crime-and-punishment story to the level of an essential chronicle of India’s biggest-ever anti-poaching operation.

The tuskers and their habitat as well as the other wonderful creatures of the wild that inhabit the jungle are a sustained presence in the series. One slain elephant, shot in the head by the kingpin of the poachers, gradually rots at a poaching site and ants, maggots and vultures feed on its remains until the dead animal is hollowed out and reduced to dust.

Almost all of the eight episodes open with the camera hovering over and around the site of the horrific crime – it serves as a potent metaphor for the extent, nature and consequences of the threat that the pachyderm population faces in Kerala’s forests.

Working with his Delhi Crime technical team of cinematographer Johan Heurlin Aidt, editor Beverley Mills and composer Andrew Lockington, Mehta orchestrates a fantastic demonstration of how to blend fact and fiction in the service of a drama designed to entertain, engage and provoke.

Poacher isn’t given to excesses but throbs with life. It packs a massive punch and knows exactly when, where and how to land it.

Cast:

Nimisha Sajayan, Roshan Mathew, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Ankith Madhav, Kani Kusruti, Suraj Pops, Ranjita Menon, Vinod Sherawat, Snoop Dinesh

Director:

Richie Mehta

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