It’s not uncommon for performers to become bigger than the stories they are placed in and Sreehari Nair would happily pay to watch Isha Talwar and Paramvir Singh Cheema riffing on love, bad life choices, psychology, rhythm, and oven-baked Kulchas in Chamak.
There are times when an actress and an actor are so perfect for each other that each ends up raising the other’s game.
So it was with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.
So it was with Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs Miller.
So it was with Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao in Badhaai Ho.
So it is with Isha Talwar and Paramvir Singh Cheema in Rohit Jugraj’s Chamak.
Chamak has six episodes of about 50 minutes, but when Isha Talwar is not on the screen, both the show and its leading man hang heavy.
He is Kaala, a kohl-wearing, Keds-tapping rapper who sneaks out of Vancouver, reaches Amritsar, and reignites interest in a long-standing murder case.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of the Punjabi music industry where stars are created and dismembered every day.
It is also a story where dewy verses, peppy music, sadism, self-deception and heartfelt swearing commingle.
Paddy fields and daddy issues appear to be some sort of a double bill this month but let us rest with that.
Suffice to say, that it’s into this inflammable mix that Isha Talwar’s Jazz (short for Jasmine, but obviously) gets flung into. And Talwar is so casual and so effortless, shrugging, smiling beauteously without intimation, her hands tracing invisible patterns, that she plugs the show into a different power source.
Anybody who can act flirtatious on a dime and then look frightened and talk to herself the very next moment can play the audience in any way that she wishes.
But Isha Talwar is not a vainglorious, I-am-ready-for-my-close-up kind of actress.
She not only commands the screen as if by divine right, she also sets free the Byronic Hero in Paramvir Singh Cheema.
Those who have watched Tabbar would know that Cheema can do ‘hurt’ as tellingly as any Indian actor working today.
There was a heartbreak scene in Tabbar, where he had almost stopped time and added fresh dimensions to his features.
Yet, it was plain even there that Cheema is most affecting when he has someone intuitive to bounce his feelings off of, and on this show, Isha Talwar becomes that someone.
When Kaala is with Jazz, it is like witnessing two people with an odd sense of intensity and a slightly off-key sense of timing find each other.
He sings, she plays the dholak, and every time they are together — trading personal facts, sheepishly asking for favours, passing around sopping puppies, lousing themselves up, and finally pulling and tearing one another down (like only two people in love can) — you detect a kind of electricity.
‘Is this an instance of our most underrated actress meeting our most exciting young actor?’ I wondered at one point.
It’s not uncommon for performers to become bigger than the stories they are placed in but these two can rescue films and shows by their presence alone. I swear I would happily pay to watch Isha Talwar and Paramvir Singh Cheema riffing on love, bad life choices, psychology, rhythm, and oven-baked Kulchas.
What’s more, when he is with her, you feel protective of Kaala, and you feel protective of Paramvir Singh Cheema. I even prayed that Bollywood wouldn’t turn him into a novelty act like Diljit Dosanjh.
Yet, every time the show’s focus shifts away from Jazz, Chamak morphs into just another Web series where nostalgia and paranoia take turns to greet you.
In short, without Jazz at the helm, a living, breathing organism seems set up for taxidermy.
When Isha Talwar goes absent for long stretches, the plot becomes all about Kaala, the tortured soul and his apocalyptic anguish, and the makers don’t seem to realise that Paramvir Singh Cheema’s craft is not so conventional as to get high on himself while staring into the camera.
When Jazz is not by his side, it feels as though Kaala is being pushed around too much or he is being too pushy.
It also feels as though he is not responding to the given — which is what the frizzy-haired drummer-lady allows him to do.
Throughout the show, you see the Vancouver lad being schooled in the ways of Punjab.
For starters, he is schooled by the great Manoj Pahwa. Pahwa plays music mogul Pratap Singh Deol, a powder keg of a man, a man who first slashes and shreds egos and then studies the effects of his violence on those he has lacerated.
Lessons in Punjab and Punjabiyat are also poured on by Prince Kanwaljit Singh’s Jagga, an Anton Chigurh of the Dhaba circuit, a scary, scary beaver, with a talent manager’s eye and the vocabulary of a blood poet.
Almost everybody has their way with the restless rapper, even Mika, who comes on as a sporty version of himself, and who exits the scene with a threat directed at Kaala but aimed at all of us.
‘See you at the market!’ says the nasal godhead.
Besides Mika, there is a whole bevy of special appearances by heavyweights of the Punjabi music scene.
Wherever you look there are big names doing your bidding, ready to sing for you, and after a while, it does get exhausting.
Though exhaustion is an inescapable part of watching a Web series, a critic invariably discovers reasons for ploughing through as well as recurring eyesores.
Most Web series, for instance, can claim to have uniformly good performances (every actor in Chamak makes some sort of an impression though it ranges from Navneet Nishan who is criminally underused to Suvinder Vicky whose supposed greatness continues to evade me despite the slavish attention he is paid here).
Most Web series are unimaginatively photographed (here, too, there’s a tedious top shot that introduces each new setting).
So, if the prize for riding out any Web series should be to discover its most vital element, it’s the duty of a critic to point that element out.
And in Chamak, it is Isha Talwar’s performance as Jazz, her marvellous articulation of the arc from wide-eyed to dead-end (she displays unbelievable control as the jealous lover) that holds the show together.
I would go so far as to say that Talwar’s chemistry with the brooding hero is the lightning rod that absorbs the excesses and anxieties of the rather nervous narrative.
To tell you the truth, I did not care for the conspiracy at the centre of the show.
I did not care for Kaala’s investigation of his roots or the revenge he is shown to be plotting using marker lines, circles, and strange annotations.
And while I’ll commit the blasphemy of saying that I did not much care for the music either, when Isha Talwar and Paramvir Singh Cheema are together, there’s music in the way they complete each other’s nods.
Chamak airs on SonyLIV.
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