Director: Mayank Sharma

Cast: R. Madhavan, Amit Sadh, Sapna Pabbi, Atharva Vishwakarma, Neena Kulkarni, Hrishikesh Joshi, Shriswara

The first episode of Breathe involves the establishment of the show’s two protagonists. The stakes are defined, and identities (explicitly) drawn. It soon becomes clear that writer-director Mayank Sharma isn’t comfortable going through these ‘introductory’ motions; he’d much rather dive straight into the machinations of an intriguing plot. Consistent with the age-old mainstream disdain of world-building, Sharma, too, exhibits an affinity for impatient, stereotypical brushstrokes. Two awkward scenes stand out. Both of them take place in the characters’ homes – one haunted by death, and another haunted by the inevitability of death.

Inspector Kabir Sawant (Amit Sadh), an Al-Pacino-ish alcoholic victim of circumstances, is visited by his estranged wife. He takes massive swigs from an unnamed whisky bottle, and she hints at their daughter’s untimely death through a rather callous set of dialogue – “It took me three years to accept it, you might take thirty. Imagine that she is in a better place.” She then grabs a giant doll from the bedroom and walks away. This is a classic example of a filmmaker attempting to communicate intangible elements of a script – emotions, thoughts, regrets, backstories, the action between the lines – through an oddly confrontational exchange, almost as if the two are made to speak only to inform us about the story. It isn’t necessary, because flashbacks of the incident that derailed their marriage are scattered across the next seven episodes.

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Similarly, the complex situation of football coach Denzil ‘Danny’ Mascarenhas (R. Madhavan) is explained to us through his mother Juliet’s (Neena Kulkarni) naïve prayers. Danny’s son, Josh, has a congenital lung disorder called cystic fibrosis, and might not live for more than six months. He is fourth on the organ recipients’ list because of his rare blood group. “Tax the rich to help the poor; if the living can help, why can’t the dead?” Juliet mutters, before wondering out aloud why the Prime Minister doesn’t make organ donation mandatory. “I can’t hope for the donors to die fast, can I?” she tearfully asks – a moment that is designed to trigger the formation of Danny’s twisted moral mindscape. In effect, such scenes are meant to serve as apologetic guidebooks for characters that don’t need the blueprints of rationalism. Danny, whose psychopathic motives are built upon a parent’s inherently unsound love, cannot be explained. Kabir, whose grief forces his brain to take solace in an invisible and morbid case, should not be explained.

Yet, if it’s commercial storytelling that threatens to dilute the personality of Breathe, it’s also commercial storytelling that bolsters the psychology of Breathe.

For example, the pilot begins with a hook: a girl records her own gruesome suicide on her phone. The pilot ends with a shot of Danny breaking into the doctor’s office to seek a specific sheet of four AB –ve organ donors (names like Dilip Vengsakar, Nandita Das and Saif Ali Khan surreptitiously pepper the primary list). We sense the inexplicable: Danny wants them to die so that little Josh jumps up the recipient list. The non-linear narrative forces us to mentally connect the two scenes – will Danny really “convince” his victims to kill themselves for his son? How on earth will Kabir recognize this pattern of foul play? Suddenly, we overlook the flimsy setup and look forward to the answers of these very fascinating questions.

A common grouse I’ve had with genre vehicles that empower common men/women to go on a vengeful rampage is not so much the ‘vigilante’ ideology as it is the sudden slickness and cold-bloodedness of its wronged protagonists

Not all of the answers are convincing. Over the next seven episodes, we see Danny progress from googling “How to make a person brain-dead?” to “How to have a heart attack?” in order to execute a bunch of perversely dark but far-fetched plans. We also see Kabir’s intellectually inferior sub-inspector (Hrishikesh Joshi) unintentionally – but too obviously – provide his brooding boss with the required brainwaves (“What a coincidence! Only organ donors seem to be dying…”). There’s a peculiar benevolence to Danny, in that he chooses to go after healthy donors rather than dependent Josh-like recipients – a low-functioning Robin Hood of sorts, he loots the privilege of power to enfranchise the disabled.

Convenient as these devices may be, they still manage to keep the show grounded within the amateur-everyman realm. Danny and Kabir are flawed – and generally traumatized – enough to not become know-it-all, one-man armies. A common grouse I’ve had with genre vehicles that empower common men/women to go on a vengeful rampage is not so much the ‘vigilante’ ideology as it is the sudden slickness and cold-bloodedness of its wronged protagonists. Triggered by injustice, average citizens abruptly discover the super-sleuth-ness of perfect criminality within themselves. But with someone like Madhavan (a la SRK in Baazigar) at the forefront – his affability in fact accentuates the creep factor – there is a sense that he is never quite in charge. Though Danny starts his quest shakily, much like the show he occupies he begins to get a little more daring and professional with his subsequent moves. Of course, he does get unusually smart by the end of the cat-and-mouse chase – but there lays a weirdly Bollywood-ish thrill in him beating the odds in style.

Much of Breathe’s novelty actually relies on the fact that it is not a masala revenge drama, even though it acquires the grammar of one. Revenge dramas thrive on the pleasure we derive out of watching bad people being eliminated methodically. But Danny’s mission is anything but crowd-pleasing. Driven by the unconditional desperation of childcare, he chooses to eliminate regular, noble citizens. The filmmaker resists the temptation of equipping Danny with an arc of collateral redemption; contrary to formula, none of the victims are corrupt, loathsome or sleazy womanizers. Even Kabir doesn’t seem to be in the chase to merely fulfill his duty or advertise a romanticized Mumbai-hero spirit; he makes mistakes, barks down innocent alleys and pursues Danny out of a misplaced sense of egotism.

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The more Kabir learns about the case, the more he seems shaken by his own desensitized reactions to the warped brutality of the crimes; on some level he knows he is looking for somebody who is doing everything to not turn into another Kabir. As a result, theirs is essentially a cat-and-mouse journey of two villains who are employing the illusion of humanity to feed their growing sickness. Credit must be given to both actors for somehow making us empathize with this skewed universe – one that operates with more or less the same rules of soldiers sacrificing other faceless soldiers for the irrational love of country. Sometimes, a uniform makes all the difference. But it’s the obstacles of this particular battlefield – the contrivances of law, civilization and disorder – that keep us invested in the hunt.

Which is why it’s strange that, after consistently challenging its own principles, Breathe stops short of portraying Danny as a man who begins to enjoy the beast within. You’d think he is getting addicted to the “craft” of his methods. He has all the trappings of an urban legend that accidentally discovers a toxic love of taking lives in pursuit of saving one. But maybe this origins-of-a-serial-killer turn might have been too left-of-field – too counterintuitive – for a show occupying a culture that has been built upon the unquestioning holiness of parenthood. It is already stretching the concept of family bonds; Danny going ‘Breaking Bad’ on us might have defeated the purpose of the story’s rooted traditionalism. Given that the show indulges in indirect social activism – think of Breathe as a sadistic organ-donation campaign – the chances of it eschewing a moral stand in favour of a wildly ambiguous path were always slim. Many identically themed films, too, eventually draw the line – for fear of “propagating” a sense of reckless individualism.

Only Indian storytelling permits its freewheeling heroes to break bad with an expiry date, with terms, conditions and a conscience attached. For all matters and purposes, the cross represents the studio system and Danny is the unorthodox filmmaker who must measure his risks

There’s a reason Danny is shown repeatedly looking at the cross dangling from his car’s rearview mirror. On one hand he seems to be apologizing to God for impersonating Him, and on the other hand the storyteller is relentlessly reminding us that Danny – who is guilty of defying the doctrines of Christianity – is prepared to meet his reckoning. Only Indian storytelling permits its freewheeling heroes to break bad with an expiry date, with terms, conditions and a conscience attached. For all matters and purposes, the cross represents the studio system and Danny is the unorthodox filmmaker who must measure his risks.

In a way, this is probably why many large-scale Indian web shows may never be designed to go beyond one season. It’s why movie sequels here are not plot extensions but thematic continuations. The cross always has the last word. Breathe “settles” on a finale too – a disappointing, close-ended copout of an episode – because it feels obligated to end on a definitive note, almost as if it were compensating for daring to test our sensibilities thus far.

Perhaps it’s ironic that a weak setup and resolution is often why the language of the conflict takes center-stage. For now, though, there is merit to be found in the fact that Breathe, an eight-episode series, could have only existed on the web. There is entertainment to be found in the fact that Danny and Kabir – who might have passed off as indie, run-of-the-mill Ramans and Raghavs on the big screen – are now niche mainstream motifs of the Indian internet.

Rating:   star

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