Flesh, Starring Swara Bhasker, Is A Vulgar And Guileless Look At The Sex-Trafficking Industry

Flesh is exploitation porn at its worst. It reeks of an urban gaze that interprets realism as gratuitous violence, titillation and random shock value
Flesh, Starring Swara Bhasker, Is A Vulgar And Guileless Look At The Sex-Trafficking Industry

Creator: Siddharth Anand
Director: Danish Aslam
Cast: Swara Bhasker, Akshay Oberoi, Vidya Malavade, Mahima Makwana, Yudhishtir Urs
Writer: Pooja Ladha Surti
Cinematographer: Anshuman Mahaley
Editor: Abhishek Seth
Streaming: Eros Now

Flesh is exploitation porn at its worst. I have no patience for "gritty" shows with a glossy multiplex aesthetic. It reeks of an urban gaze that interprets realism as gratuitous violence, titillation and random shock value. Every frame goes: Look, we're showing you sex. Look, we're showing you a strong woman (one-night stands, foul-mouthed, drinks at dive bar). Look, we're showing you torture, gore and evil people. Look, Hindi expletives. Look, we're showing you the seedy underbelly of India by focusing on minors being bludgeoned to death and abused at will. Look, the camera isn't afraid to focus their body parts because if you feel grossed out then we're doing our job. Much of this 8-episode mini-series is as apathetic as its trigger-happy traffickers. Given that it's created by the director of War, written by the writer of Andhadhun and stars Swara Bhasker, its consistently tasteless tone is a minor miracle. 

I could end my review here, but I spent seven hours being subjected to the skins of Flesh. So here goes. The premise features multiple narratives – all equally cringey – that intersect at some point. ACP Radha (Bhasker), who I suspect is named Radha so that her gay colleague can answer her phone calls with "bol Radha bol," is suspended for being too ruthless as the head of the anti-human trafficking unit. A teenage Zoya (Mahima Makwana) is drugged and kidnapped by a male friend from her cousin's wedding, and held in cages with other similarly abducted women; her frantic parents (Vidya Malavade and ex-VJ Yudhishtir Urs), who were on the verge of a divorce, beg ACP Radha to pursue this case. And lastly, a 10-year-old girl and her little brother try to escape their underaged group's vile keepers – two men and a brown-faced beedi-smoking lady – in the middle of nowhere, only to find themselves back in the clutches of the traffickers. At some point, a fourth track in Kolkata featuring the light-eyed Akshay Oberoi playing a perverse Bengali kingpin named Taj emerges in the third episode. I don't understand the language, but I can still tell that his diction is terrible. Taj is the successor to his wealthy father's global trafficking ring. For some reason, Zoya is their "special package".

Now about the treatment. You might get the gist from some scene descriptions. ACP Radha is introduced as a new call girl in an undercover pimp-busting operation; the camera hovers on her bra when she changes into a dress, and a man cups her breasts while frisking and teasing her about her "Hong Kong" assets. Zoya is introduced in a hotel room, where she's video-calling with a potential boyfriend. We are supposed to understand her rebellious nature because Mark Manson's "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck" is strewn on her bed. A Mumbai cop is callous because he is too busy figuring out how to dip his biscuit into a narrow tea cup while Zoya's parents file a missing-person report. The male handlers lick their lips while watching the group of girls put on diapers before a long truck journey. Another man forces a child to watch a male handler give him oral sex. Yet another forces the crying girls to play Antakshari before he disfigures one of their faces.

Taj is introduced as a demented coke addict who, when raped by a man in a pub restroom, grins into the mirror. A Russian double agent (played by Natasa Stankovic) becomes a dominatrix to extract information from Raj's brother. Moments like these might have been fun if the series didn't pretend to be a serious snapshot of an underground industry. When the makers run out of material, characters mouth the choicest cuss words to one another so that we remember how authentic the story is. But even the grime is so designed that Flesh becomes a condescending look at a world often fetishized by the entertainment industry in the name of "chilling" truth bombs.

Swara Bhasker makes the Mardaani hangover too obvious in such roles. Her artistic choices have lately been at odds with her talent: Radha is one of the most forgettable feminist metaphors in recent times. There are only so many times I can say that her performance was crippled by clueless direction. The last straw wasn't an Al Capone reference late into the series, but a split-screen of simultaneous events to amp up the tension. The split-screen – an action-heist device in a tragic trafficking drama – is where I draw the line. That's where my pound of flesh left the building. 

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