Director: Arif Ali
Writer: Imtiaz Ali
Cast: Aaditi Pohankar, Kishore Kumar G, Vishwas Kini, Shivani Rangole, Dawood Khan, Sam Mohan
Cinematographer: Amit Roy
Editor: Manish Jaitly
Streaming on: Netflix
To be sexy. To feel sexy. To be confident. To feel confident. Imtiaz Ali’s She in its clunky, formless blaze of brilliance tried to produce that link between sexuality and confidence in the first season, which trails the sexual awakening of Bhumi (Aaditi Pohankar), a lower-middle-class police officer with elder sibling syndrome, getting used to a slowly but steadily erecting spine. Her mousy demeanour and virginal curiosities, finally, in that climactic episode that blended profound human catharsis with b+ grade riding of the dick, produced something of a sigh. Was this the most profound show on desire? Was this the cheapest scraping of the bottom of the lusty barrel? There is such a compelling vulgarity to the show, it feels like watching dervishes spin out of control and jettison into outer space in a thong.
There is a mirror next to the bed, and Bhumi stares at her polished, preened body as it thrusts into the man who is lying horizontal and submitted. She is enjoying sex as much as she is enjoying seeing herself perform sex to a point where she is unable to make a distinction between the two. When we say we love sex, what about it do we like? That we are starring in our own porn film running in our heads?
It is no surprise that the cultural discourse has an uneasy relationship with sexuality. Show it and the questions swarm — the gaze, the intent, mansplaining attacks, the audience, the impact, the society, leering men, rape statistics, John Berger quotes, Instagram PPTs on consent, AndheriWestShitPosting’s hot, flat takes. These are all attempts to tame sexuality into our politics. But sexuality doesn’t care, that misbehaved little confection of hormones. It is not democratic, it insists on its own logic of exclusion.
She follows in the footsteps of its muse by not caring. It is a story of desire. A woman wants to be desired. She asks men how much they will pay to have sex with her. She makes eye contact with waiters who leer, pushing that interaction till its snapping point, pressing their hands to her breast. What are the limits to this? What are the threats of it? Can women discover their sexuality so publicly, so ravenously, so confidently when the air we breathe is suffused with corrosive patriarchy? Sorry, wrong question.
In this season Bhumi has to choose between continuing her work as the undercover agent for the police, strutting around as a sex worker, and becoming the lover of the Telugu drug lord Nayak (Kishore Kumar G) — the guy whose Guntur mirchi she rode into O-town in the climax of the first season. What she feels for Nayak is so dangerous, sensuous, she is willing to stake her entire job and personality to pursue it. Dick makes you do dangerous things. This is a stunning quandary, for it also shows that desire — the thing that is supposed to set you free, set Bhumi free — also makes you, makes Bhumi, a willing prisoner. There is no liberation where there is libido.
So Bhumi is now a double agent, one whose doubleness makes her constantly suspect — to the police (Vishwas Kini & co), to the gangsters, to us. Her doubleness comes across as fickle, like the desire she throws around. Sometimes it’s on. Sometimes it’s off. No tension. No planning. Burst of feeling.
There is a hot and heavy scene when Bhumi, strapped in Arun Chauhan’s sex-chic costume design, is trying to be picked up by two men in a car for their friend’s bachelor party, and instead Bhumi strikes something erotic towards the man on the passenger seat. He says he doesn’t pay for sex. She casts her doubt. The gaze lingers. She walks off. Someone will cave soon. It’s a charged moment. This season is full of charged moments, sex is always lurking under the heartbeat.
But the problem is the show, written by Imtiaz Ali and directed by Arif Ali, does not know what to do with this shapelessness of desire, other than show it and retreat. This season there is a “Randi mafia” distributing drugs like baby powder, a hijra gharana whose evil is given an explanation, and the usual headless chicken running of the police. Nayak, who wants to make Mumbai a drug capital, is given a backstory in a flashy, flash of a second montage, similar to Bhumi’s sexual reticence being explained in the first season — a three-second clip of childhood rape, a backstory that She treads over in this season giving her sexual reticence another possible reason. There is such a porn-like shadow to the show, sometimes I was shocked at the gumption of a man — Ali — writing women who ask to be punished by spreading their legs. Bhumi’s legs. Nayak’s punishment to give. They breathe on each other, then retreat. Full of such incomplete interactions, an incompleteness which initially feels thrilling, but soon, its wilful abdication of narrative responsibility grates, She collapses when it gets out of the bedroom. When the story plots itself around desire, as opposed to about desire, it has a strange, convoluted quality. Nothing makes sense. There is no progression of events, only explanations. Suddenly we are in the midst of a shootout. Suddenly plummeted 10 years into the future. Bhumi gets a wardrobe change, wearing men’s shirts and flaring but stiff skirts.
There is also the insufferable stamp that this show has come from the mind of Imtiaz Ali — the references to being “free” while having sex, a sufi-adjacent beggar with whom Bhumi speaks, chides, jousts, before launching into her sex worker shift, trying to squeeze meaning and catharsis out of every fuck and cranny. Nayak even insists that Bhumi changed him towards the end. This gets indigestible beyond a point because the ether-like quality of sex refuses such easy articulation. But Ali loves his characters to speak, and give the wordless chaos boiling inside some shape, even if it looks like something from a potter’s drunk, distended wheel.