When a show gets progressively worse, we tend to look back fondly on previous seasons. Maybe the last one wasn’t so bad, we think. Hindsight is a deceptive beast. But I didn’t need to see what came after Breathe (2017) to appreciate it as one of India’s more daring web originals. Breathe starred R. Madhavan as a Mumbai-based football coach who, blinded by desperation, begins to kill registered organ donors in order to bump his sick son up the recipient list. Morbid? Probably, but also wildly fascinating. The middle-class father doesn’t become a mastermind overnight – his attempts to make these deaths look like suicides and accidents are shabby at best, thereby attracting the scrutiny of a haunted cop. The show worked as a solid morality thriller, largely because the writing wasn’t afraid to present a flawed – and distinctly human – protagonist who loses his bearings. There were no sociocultural crutches: The Catholic man’s victims were in fact noble people, while he grew increasingly irredeemable with each murder.
So what did Breathe: Into the Shadows (2020) – the spiritual sequel about another father who breaks bad to rescue his abducted daughter – do? Naturally, it abandoned all the risks of the premise. The Abhishek Bachchan-starring series dumbed down the ambiguity and succumbed to the uniquely Indian aversion to moral complexity. The design stemmed from an aim to make the plot more mainstream, yes, but also from a skewed cultural belief that the actions of every parent – no matter how problematic – can be explained. For starters, the central character, a psychiatrist named Avinash, doesn’t ‘choose’ to kill; he is blackmailed into doing so by the masked man who kidnapped his little girl. Secondly, his victims are conveniently awful people; they represent the ten qualities behind mythological villain Ravana’s ten heads (because what’s a homegrown serial-killing story without custom-fitted Hindu posturing?). But here’s the copout kicker: The masked murderer is also Avinash. Three words: Multiple Personality Disorder. It’s his sinister alter-ego, J, who is forcing Avi and wife Abha (Nitya Menen) to kill everyone who had once harmed Avi. In short, the writing wears mental illness as a mask to convince us that revenge is inherently a noble emotion.
I understand the idea on paper. The parent-child exterior of Breathe is used as a smokescreen to reveal an internal journey of closure and unresolved trauma. But the treatment is offensively simplistic. Season 2 of Breathe: Into the Shadows is eight more episodes of the same. It commits to the cuckoo-fest so aggressively that the tone-deafness of the series has become its own entity. Three years after being nabbed by brooding cop Kabir (Amit Sadh), Avi is locked in an asylum, while news channels insist that J is not done yet – the “Ravana killer” has six more heads to destroy after all. (One, you have to admire how everyone in the series sincerely refers to J as a separate character in its mental-illness-for-dummies quest; two, the previous season ran for twelve episodes and covered only four of Avi’s crimes. Sorry, I mean J’s crimes). To nobody’s surprise, the channels are right. J returns, declaring that he will permanently leave Avi’s body only after their eat-pray-murder mission is complete. So this time, it’s Avi who’s taken hostage by J, and the husband-wife couple must continue their spree to liberate him. The new addition is Victor (Naveen Kasturia), a bipolar-disorder-afflicted man who becomes an eager accomplice to J. Needless to say, Inspector Kabir – who puts to shame even Al Pacino’s troubled-cop caricature – returns for the chase.
The main problem with this series is that it uses the binary language of a supernatural thriller – where good characters get possessed by bad spirits – to reframe a psychological drama. It’s no wonder that mental health isn’t recognised enough in this country. High-profile productions like these only enable ignorance; fetishizing Avi’s condition is another way of refusing to legitimise it. It doesn’t help that the filmmaking borders on the brink of farce. The background score is so determined to create false suspense that the entire season appears to be composed of buildup sequences. Even if there’s no release, you can bet that the music will reach a crescendo every two minutes. The staging – which otherwise defines the anatomy of each murder – is flimsy. For instance, when J calls up a radio station to remind his next victim of her sins on air, the RJ doesn’t cut transmission or do anything remotely sensible. She simply waits for their entire verbal joust to get over, before chiming in with a “Jeez, that must be a prank caller!”. The burden of ‘comic relief’ – a dated Nineties’ device – still rests on the shoulders of Kabir’s subordinate, a Maharashtrian cop in Delhi. And the city itself is nowhere to be found; this could’ve been shot in Chennai and we’d be none the wiser.
You might have to concentrate really hard to notice the timestamps on the flashbacks. This becomes particularly disorienting when half the narrative revels in showing a character/twist before telling us how it got there. It reaches a point where the viewer develops trust issues with the narrative – the moment Avi is seemingly outsmarted, the series does the old Abbas-Mustan-esque thing of going back in time to reveal that ‘everything is planned’. The sub-plots – featuring political powerplay (led by who else but Zakir Hussain); a new troubled girl (hint: She smokes) in Kabir’s life; the golden-hearted sex worker Shirley’s brother – are meant to be sides to Avi’s main dish. But the tangents are so elaborate that the series itself gets sidetracked. (A target is presumably so bored of occupying a wayward narrative that he offs himself before J arrives). At one point, the mission of killing a blind ventriloquist (don’t ask) is literally paused to accommodate the tension of the cops closing in. Given there’s no real twist to speak of anymore – we already know of Avi’s dual identity – the writing insists that the identity of J’s final victim is important. It’s not. Also, as if being abducted by her own father in the previous season wasn’t enough, a new victim is revealed to be the cause of the daughter’s childhood bus accident. How much trauma can a (fictional) little girl take?
A few decent ideas are blunted by this commercial chaos. The wife Abha, performed well by Nitya Menen, is the only potent character on the show, because she is a regular person who – not unlike Madhavan in Breathe – chooses a path to protect her loved ones; her motivations are never sugar-coated. Naveen Kasturia (who’s cast for the same reason Bachchan and Madhavan were: A kind face) overcooks Victor, but the character has an arc that’s more compelling than that of the protagonist. In the second half of the show, there’s a montage of paranoid strangers – all of whom once wronged Avi – seeking police protection. It’s a wicked take on guilty conscience, yet the screenplay reduces it to a ‘playful’ note. The series comes closest to being brave when one of the victims appears to be reformed and begs for mercy; he isn’t a person who’s easy to hate.
Another victim is so evil and unrepentant that Avi turns into the very monster he’s trying to escape. The blurring of lines between J and Avi is a worthy conflict, but there are two issues here. One, Avi immediately spells this out after the murder, racked by guilt for morphing into the puppet that J wanted. And two, it’s unclear if this blurring is deliberate or an inadvertent consequence of Bachchan’s flat performance. It’s often hard to tell which personality is dormant; if not for J’s limp (a visual ‘crutch’), there’s no discernible difference between the way Bachchan plays both. Perhaps that’s the intention, but if so, it’s confusing to the average viewer – because many plot points hinge on the fact that Avi is unaware of J’s control over him. I admire the actor’s ambition, but I suspect it’s this casting that has determined the broader limitations of the script.
The irony is that the creators of Breathe chose the wrong season to make a sequel to. The Madhavan character may be no more, but I can’t think of one good reason to reboot the perfectly sharp theme and convert it into this campy franchise. In other words, Breathe: Into the Shadows Season 2 is so flimsy that if it were one of J’s 10 victims, it would represent the emotion of fear. As per the show’s own design, it is an ex-criminal who is terrified of the dark.