You never really know what madness hides in plain sight inside "model" housing societies until, of course, a man is murdered in cold blood right when he is about to commence his morning business. Thus kickstarts a cat-and-mouse chase, except the audience is already privy to information others are not. Not only the murder, but the audience is also aware of the victim and his killer. Sunflower, the eight-part ZEE5 original series created by Vikas Bahl, follows the many "quirky" residents of the titular housing society in the aftermath of the murder mentioned above.
A group of policemen summon the occupants one by one to narrate their version of the incident. The exposition is clever, and devotes enough scenes to establish the key players in the game. We learn that these residents are not as eccentric as they are, well, sociopaths. Leading this pack is Sunil Grover as Sonu Singh, the protagonist of this messy, upside-down universe. A devastatingly lonely but infinitely creepy sales rep, he chats up female insurance callers, anonymously orders a birthday cake for a female colleague he admires, and listens in on conversations he is not quite part of. Despite his discomfiting, questionable actions, you are compelled to feel sorry for him.
He is acutely lonely; his mother is the sole human being who checks up on him. The only messages he ever receives are system-generated. When he says his friends are over, he usually means an amiable neighbour and her friends have moved the party venue to his apartment. He has borderline obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and is often found lining up dustbins inside the complex. His cheap thrill? Buying a larger doormat that perfectly camouflages his inability to align it with the crooked checkered floor tiles. But his delusions are equally unsettling. In his make-believe world, he is desired by all, be it his vivacious neighbours, his former girlfriend or his office colleagues. He wears his "best employee" and "best behaviour" tags like badge of honour. But even when he is at his congenial best, you know he knows more than he is letting on.
This is a technicolour world that is at once outlandish and far removed yet heavily inspired from real life. The storytelling is nuanced, but the pitch of the show is at high-strung drama. Here, a sub-inspector (Girish Kulkarni) just cannot contain his macho-swagger on duty, or outside of it. He is a bit of a Rajinikanth, flicking sunglasses and striking poses while grilling suspects in style. His boss, Inspector Digendra (Ranvir Shorey) is the brains at Godbole Police Station. Their comparative regular-ness underscores the irregularity of this seemingly perfect haven of Sunflower society.
This society is one large dysfunctional family consisting of a chauvinistic chemistry professor Ahuja (Mukul Chadha) and his meek wife (Radha Bhatt), the moral police of the building, Dilip Iyer (Asish Vidyarthi), his disapproving daughter Paddy (Ria Nalavde), a recently separated from wife alcoholic Kapoor (Ashwin Kaushal), a beefed-up narcissistic watchman, a quick-witted household help, the newest tenant Justina (Dayena Erappa), and her friend Gurleen (Simran Nerurakar), who has run away from her home in Chandigarh to make a playback singing career in Mumbai. Sunflower is a ticking bomb waiting to explode any second. And it does, when Kapoor swoops in and parks his car in Ahuja's parking spot.
The madcap world extends to Sonu's office as well. Sonu's colleague Aanchal (Saloni Khanna) looks to get betrothed to 'bad man' sought by police, and proposes a lifetime of togetherness on first outings. Or a colleague who looks like he is fresh out of a Mean Girls movie. The humour is pitch-black, and arrives unexpectedly, in the bleakest of moments. Similarly, gasp-inducing plot points are mined for maximum effect, but there is no unnecessary lingering around.
Sunflower extracts the comedic juices from even the tensest situations, be it a cab driver chasing Sonu down jampacked streets for delaying his ride, or building gatekeepers struggling to transport a large dead man in an elevator. It is a hat-tip to both its dark comedy and whodunit roots.
To label Sunflower as simply a thriller is perhaps both misleading and reductive. It is also a social experiment on conflict " a fictional Bigg Boss if you may " where situations are designed to incite confrontation.
In best cases, it ends in unexpected friendships. In others, it is a cue for rivalry, sometimes even death. Damn!
The housing complex, with identical buildings and a warren of identical corridors, is deceptively unassuming as a setting. It is a heavily stylised world inside a humble setting, where suspects can be caught hanging from parapets or parkouring from one building to another. Its claustrophobic maze is a literal mousetrap; an all-encompassing sense of captivity looms large over the residents as half a dozen police are seen milling around in the parking lots, monitoring their every move.
The series is a slow burn that crackles into life once the ball is set into motion, but the wheels do start coming off at the tail end. Parallel storylines shifting in and out of the main plot dilute the intrigue and mar the viewing experience. Take for example Iyer's orthodoxy. Iyer and his cronies routinely chair panels to screen who can and cannot rent an apartment in the complex. His narrow mindedness could not be less conspicuous, but the makers insist on overexplaining his discriminatory behaviour every time he opens his mouth. The shtick gets routine and uninteresting quickly, despite Vidyarthi's pitch-perfect portrayal of a disgruntled septuagenarian concerned about women becoming "too independent" to marry, while leaning on his wife to hook his waist belt.
Nevertheless, Sunflower is funny and fascinating, with some occasional didacticism and stray plot contrivances that seem to have no bearing on main events. The cliffhangers and the unanswered questions set up tangles to be unravelled in a potential second season. But ultimately, in most absurd manner, it is its moral ambiguity that makes Sunflower immensely bingeable.
Sunflower is streaming on ZEE5.