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How Are the Morally Gray Characters In 'Killer Soup'? Killer!

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

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(Spoiler alert for 'Killer Soup' but also go watch it if you haven't already!)

In Vikram Vedha, the ‘villain’ Vedha asks SSP Vikram a question – who would he punish, the one who committed an act or the one who ordered him to do so? He essentially asks SSP Vikram to decide who acted more immorally. In a way, this judgment of morality is at the root of cinema – it’s why we see one person as a hero and another as a villain. For decades, this distinction in mainstream cinema was as clear as day and night. But we’ve really started to embrace morally gray characters, haven’t we? Maybe there is something intriguing about a character whose motivations are more complex than a binary ‘good’ or ‘bad’ deed. Maybe that is also why writing such a character can be a challenge.  

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

But Abhishek Chaubey’s Killer Soup manages to achieve that…with multiple characters. The name ‘Killer Soup’ can mean two obvious things – the soup becomes a weapon for murder or that it is, in slang, ‘killer’ or bloody good. In the show, it is neither. Instead, the ‘soup’ becomes a symbol for the protagonist’s ambition – Swathi Shetty (Konkona Sensharma) presents her paya soup to anyone willing to try it and harbours a not-so-secret desire to one day own a restaurant. Swathi has perhaps the most obvious markings of a gray character in Killer Soup. 

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She has one goal that she wishes to achieve and will clearly stop at nothing to achieve it. For the most part, the death that surrounds the film actually happens ‘around’ her. She is rarely seen actively killing someone – her game is one of the mind. What is most striking about Swathi is that she is as tragic of a character as she is ‘villainous’ – her arc is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which isn’t surprising considering this is an Abhishek Chaubey show).

Her ‘evil’ rises mainly from the fact that even with the remorse she feels, she does little to right the wrongs. And eventually, the remorse starts to pale in the face of her finally starting to achieve her dreams. Like most gray characters, they aren’t evil for evil’s sake.

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

Swathi, Umesh and Social Standing 

Swathi’s marriage is nowhere close to perfect – her husband is clearly lying to her and both he and his overbearing brother Arvind (Sayaji Shinde) belittle her abilities. Swathi, herself, is having an affair with Umesh Mahto (Bajpayee) who has a striking resemblance to her husband. 

Umesh is another intriguing character in the Killer Soup world – at first, his love feels almost like devotion; a green flag if there ever was one. He is willing to cross any lines to make Swathi happy, despite the fact that he too uses her money to support his gambling addiction. In a role reversal of sorts (when it comes to mainstream Bollywood), Umesh becomes the character through whom we actually see Swathi’s immorality play out. Swathi is manipulative to a fault – in the world she lives in, brute force cannot be her way out so she uses her mind. She frequently manipulates Umesh into doing what needs to be done to save her own skin.

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

Chaubey also brilliantly uses these characters to explore the nature of violence and power. Swathi is not a “good person” but both she and Umesh (who is also wanted for murder back home) are affected by their social standing. Umesh is visibly uncomfortable when people around him often unfairly dismiss him as ‘just a servant’. On the other hand, Swathi is often on the receiving end of violence from men – the men around her do not hesitate to slap her when she is in an altercation with them. Both characters can’t escape the circumstances of their social identity, even as they morph into villains. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

The part that power plays in ‘evil’ is impossible to miss (and it’s done without excusing the protagonists’ behaviour). Despite all her schemes, Swathi is still a vulnerable character in her world. Umesh’s quality of life improves when he replaces Prabhu but the way he has been treated his entire life is always just a minor argument away from peeking out the curtains. Oftentimes, this sort of nuance is absent from cinema, especially with hyper masculine morally gray characters (or “anti-heroes” if you will).

Their trauma and past is always acknowledged but we rarely get an insight into how those less privileged than them often become collateral damage. 
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For almost every gray character in Killer Soup, there are instances of humanity and there are instances where they cause harm. None of the characters are easy to put in a box. Even Prabhu’s brother Arvind, who seems to be the worst of the lot, has some of the most stirring moments in the show. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

Conversely, the rise of gray characters that aren’t hyper masculine men is often used to expose another interesting phenomenon – people really don’t see it coming! It’s like the scene in Killing Eve when a mission is carried out as a cleaning lady because nobody would suspect her or even notice her in the background.

We tend to invisiblise the marginalised – “There’s no way the woman could be behind the murder”. It’s a blind spot that even cops in many shows have when it comes to a female villain. 

On the other hand, suspicion is quick to fall upon others from marginalised communities – in this case, the police’s insistence on finding Umesh Mahto makes them oblivious to what is right in front of them. 

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What do we do with all this empathy?

It is tough when you find yourself rooting for the bad guy. It’s like the day in your childhood when you finally begin to see where Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz is coming from. In the world of anti-heroes, that’s a feeling that has become all too familiar. While Killer Soup’s makers write their quote-unquote villains well, they also create characters that are essentially moral compasses. ASI Thupalli (Anbuthasan) is one such character – the wide-eyed, young cop is perhaps one of the few innocent people in the mix and that is why his senior’s quest for justice in his name becomes easy for the audience to root for. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

On the other hand, Killer Soup has follies for both Prabhu and Swathi to present that the way they behave in their relationships is not ‘love’. This is not the Kabir Singh philosophy of ‘all is fair is love and war’, it’s more along the lines of ‘some people fall in love with the wrong people sometimes’. Umesh acts as a foil to Prabhu – he seems to respect Swathi’s ambition even if he doesn’t like the soup and is, for better or for worse, willing to stand by her. He, too, eventually resorts to threatening her with violence but unlike Prabhu, is capable of self-reflection. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.
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At the same time, it’s not like Swathi is much of a ‘green flag’ either and that is highlighted through Kirtima’s character (Kai Kusruti). Her inherent lack of malice makes her a great contrast for Swathi, who even if not malicious does tend to act with a certain disregard for those around her. 

Bollywood is no stranger to having a messed up idea of romance – ‘stalking’ is so prevalent as an ‘act of love’ and a proof of undying devotion in mainstream films. How can we forget Raanjhanaa, for instance, which should have been an episode of Crime Patrol but was instead a ‘romantic’ film? Kundan’s insistence on stalking and threatening Zoya to ‘woo her’ is excused because of the lengths to which he is willing to go for her. When Umesh almost attacks Swathi’s there is no doubt in a viewer’s mind that he is, in that moment, an aggressor but with characters like Kundan, it feels more like we’re expected to root for him rather than question his clearly questionable methods. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

We often forget that just saying, “This is a morally flawed character,” isn’t enough for that sentiment to translate on screen. Even a morally gray character, isn’t an island. Without a foil (and not just another character who is objectively ‘worse’) and a keen awareness of the consequences of their actions (for the audience, the character is free to be oblivious), a gray character becomes little less than a glorified villain.

A gray character or an anti-hero acts as a brilliant vessel for a director through which to explore things like how trauma affects a human’s psyche or how humans can react when pushed to their limit or the age-old ‘how far will one go for their goal?’ 

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But without the aforementioned aspects, these things take a backseat and it almost feels like the character’s worst traits are being glorified. While Swathi’s ambition is remarkable and truly, you want to root for her to get her restaurant, the show never presents her as a character the audience should expect a happy ending for. And perhaps that is the dilemma of loving a gray character – you want to wish them luck but they’ve really done so much wrong. 

Why would anyone go to these lengths for soup? Abhishek Chaubey's film somehow...answers.

One of the final conversations between Umesh and Swathi is the most telling. “I used to think that you and I are a hero-heroine from a romantic film but we're villains,” Umesh half-laments to which Swathi responds, “And Prabhakar and Arvind are Mahatma Gandhis?”

“They're side villains, like a painter and a carpenter,” Umesh says. A moment that perhaps lends itself more to comedy is funny in an almost tragic sense. Everything is finally falling apart and at the end, nobody is standing on a higher moral ground. 

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