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A new TV show about a likable Punjabi clan turns into a hard, unflinching look at the dark side of good old Indian ‘family values’


The final episode of the gripping new series Tabbar – about a Jalandhar-based family in escalating trouble – opens with a flashback. Much of the show is centred on retired cop Omkar Singh (Pawan Malhotra) and his wife Sargun (Supriya Pathak). But here we see their younger versions, bantering during an early meeting. ‘I don’t trust policemen,’ young Sargun says, ‘They get so busy protecting other people, they forget about their own families.’ In response, he makes a grand yet intimate gesture — taking out a page from a notepad, writing ‘I, Omkar Singh, will always protect my family,’ and handing it to her.

Shy smiles are exchanged; a relationship is about to be solidified. But there is something unsettling about the scene. And that isn’t because a viewer like me remembers the younger versions of Pathak and Malhotra (two of our most likable character actors of the 1980s) and can’t relate to the faces in the flashback. It’s because Tabbar has by now given us a dark demonstration of what it might mean to ‘look after your family’ – through a series of events that the Singh clan has become unluckily caught up in, but to which small transgressions have also contributed.

The idea of familial unity has been so diluted that you aren’t sure whom to root for. In fact, the flashback itself ends with a cut to Omkar and Sargun returning from a horrific night-time drive, after a tragedy that made nonsense of another promise he had (very sincerely) made to her.

From unobtrusive beginnings – a mix-up involving two bags, one of which turns out to contain a drug stash – Tabbar builds and builds, one incident begetting another, one small lie necessitating a bigger one, with moments of tension located in such details as a red smudge on a shirt (explained away as beetroot juice). Unlike most other Indian series I have watched, it remains consistently engaging by focusing on a relatively small group of characters: the four-member Singh family living in their ‘Happy House’ (Omkar and Sargun have two sons, Happy and Tegi); a nosy neighbour; a cousin named Lucky, a diligent young cop; and the potential antagonist, the politician Ajeet Singh. It finds the right pacing, and the right level of identification, to tell this story.

In recent times, there have been a few Indian films and shows about families – dysfunctional or otherwise – falling into a vortex. Titli (2014), Gurgaon (2017) and the series Mirzapur (2018-) come to mind. But the protagonists of many of those stories are already into some form of crime, and there are enough reminders that being a united family doesn’t have to imply a good value system. Leatherface’s family in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was sanskaari too – staying together, eating together, roles neatly defined and allocated – even as they chopped up teenage passersby.

But in Tabbar, the family that ends up claiming, first, outsiders and then its own is not just innately ‘nice’ but also outside the ambit of such corrupting things as crime or politics. The man who stumbles into their lives and gets killed isn’t an innocent kid in a slasher film, but a drug-dealing brat. In such a scenario, you’d think the Singh family would be our object of concern. But something shifts along the way as they perform cover-ups and as we learn more. And this is the show’s real complexity: we never stop thinking of Omkar as a decent, humble, well-intentioned man. Yet, by the final moments, one is forced to question everything.

While Titli was about violence in a family ridden with masculine energies, the three-quarters-male family in Tabbar is more grounded and likable. But even here, there is a testosterone-driven idea of what it means to ‘protect’. Inevitably, then, the Sargun character becomes the tragic figure, taking refuge in home and hearth, but incurably haunted. Even as she loses her bearings, she seems to be the only one who fully realises how far stepp’d they are in blood.

A cynic (realist?) might say that she has seen families, and people within families, for what they are. And that madness is the only sane response to such understanding.



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