JL 50 review: Time travel makes a bumpy landing on Indian screens
Closer home, time travel themes often don’t end up connecting the necessary dots. JL 50 is one such miniseries that had the opportunity to utilise time travel to its fullest potential but just doesn’t get the trope right.
There is perhaps no genre of film-making that can be as creatively satisfying as science-fiction. Add time travel to it, and it can be a reliable plot device. Who can forget a grown-up version of John Connor sending a cyborg back in time to save a younger version of himself from in Terminator 2, or the stuck-in-a-loop premise of Groundhog Day!
However, closer home, time travel themes often don’t end up connecting the necessary dots. JL 50 is one such miniseries that had the opportunity to utilise time travel to its fullest potential but just doesn’t get the trope right.
An airplane that went off the radar 35 years ago after taking off from Kolkata (then Calcutta) crashes a week ago in 2020, and sets off a CBI investigation — that’s the premise of the SonyLIV four-episode thriller, JL 50.
The drama unfolds in Lava, a serene hamlet in Kalimpong (North Bengal), where a group of youngsters is playing football. But in the midst of the game, the group stops suddenly and they all look skywards. The huge shadow of a plane passes over them. Nothing unusual, except that the village does not fall in the usual path of air traffic. The kids run behind the shadow, only to find that the plane has crashed in the valley nearby.
In Kolkata, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officer Shantanu (Abhay Deol) is informed about the crash of an aircraft (AO26) and asked to probe the case because it is ‘sensitive’, as the plane was carrying important government delegates. The probe leads Shantanu to Lava, where all forensic evidence from the crash site leads towards an incident that took place in 1984. The plane that had crashed is not AO26, but JL50 that had taken off from Calcutta airport in 1984 and gone missing.
As Shantanu digs deeper, he finds two crash survivors — pilot Bihu Ghosh (Ritika Anand) and a passenger Professor Mitra (Piyush Mishra) — admitted to a nearby hospital. The probe also leads him to a quantum physics professor, Subroto Das (Pankaj Kapur), who had tickets for the flight 35 years ago but never boarded it. Das claims he has aerophobia and, hence, decided not to board the flight.
On regaining consciousness, Bihu insists it’s 1984 and her plane was hijacked just 10 minutes into its flight. Though Shantanu tries to discard such “absurd claims”, he can’t make sense of a 1984-make radio found from the crash site and food boxes carrying the name of a hotel, which was shut 12 years ago but used to supply food to flight JL50 35 years ago. Strangely, there are no traces of any cellphone on the flight either, and the body count matches with the 35-year-old list of missing persons on JL50. During the probe, Shantanu also comes across a 35-year-old photo of Bihu — to his shock, it’s the same woman he had met at the hospital. The 'original' Bihu Ghosh should be around 60 now. But the girl he met at the hospital, and whose face matches with the photograph, is clearly no more than 25-30.
This intriguing premise had all the right elements of an unusual thriller and could have packed a solid punch. But it seems like writer and director Shailender Vyas made the mini-series on a wing (pun intended) and a prayer. He packs too many ideas — time travel, wormholes, radical politics in Bengal and even a secret society founded by Emperor Ashoka— into the 120-odd minutes of runtime. It even doesn’t allow the characters to develop enough; as a result, we see half-baked characters, who appear to just recite their lines from the script. By the end of the four episodes, neither does the wing soar nor does the prayer work.
The tepid script doesn’t allow much room for the characters to show their competence. Versatile actors like Pankaj Kapur and Abhay Deol have been wasted in their respective roles. Kapur’s Bengali accent will make any Bengali wince. Deol, thankfully, was spared that accent. The supporting cast includes Rajesh Sharma as Gaurango, Shantanu’s assistant, and Piyush Mishra as Biswajit Mitra, a physics professor who appears to have lost sanity.
Though the story is set in Kolkata, the makers have not focussed on making the city and its surroundings a vital part of the narrative. Barring a few scenes shot in north Kolkata lanes with houses with wrought iron grills and louvre, green shuttered windows, yellow taxis, hand-pulled rickshaws, tram, a couple of drone shots of Howrah Bridge and a chase sequence through Kumartuli-- the traditional potters’ quarter-- there’s not much of Kolkata on display. This, many would argue, is an opportunity lost.
As you inch towards the end of the series, you are left feeling that while the makers definitely designed a ‘flux capacitor’, they just couldn’t crank it up.