Creator: Imtiaz Ali
Directors: Arif Ali, Avinash Das
Cast: Aaditi Pohankar, Vijay Varma, Vishwas Kini, Shivani Rangole
Streaming on: Netflix
Bhumi, a lady constable, finds herself oddly aroused during a covert mission in which she poses as a prostitute at a seedy brothel. The entrapped thug, Sasya, (Vijay Varma), agrees to divulge the secrets of a nationwide drug ring – but only to Bhumi (Aaditi Pohankar), because “there’s something about her”. He calls it a “scorpion” between her legs, but she knows what he means: She has been frigid all her life, and he views her as the ultimate challenge. Vile men love unresponsive women. Yet, training as a honeytrap requires Bhumi to weaponize her body. To take ownership of it, to feel empowered by it. The more she goes undercover, the harder she finds it to resist the power of her dormant physicality.
The premise of She – Netflix India’s latest show – is so promising that nothing less than an absurdly confused narrative with no sense of timing and tone might have messed it up. Enter Imtiaz Ali: Creator, co-writer, and storyteller whose recent form makes Sourav Ganguly’s 2002 tour of New Zealand look like a purple patch in comparison. If Highway dramatized the psychological awakening of a sexual abuse survivor, his streaming debut, She, fetishizes the sexual awakening of a sexual abuse survivor. Captivity is the instrument of liberation in both cases. But whereas Highway’s Himalayan-kidnapping sojourn informed its sheltered protagonist’s mental gasp, She’s device – of a fruitlessly deceptive procedural thriller – literally hijacks the series, leaving the sexual-liberation thread to appear like more of an aggressive Penthouse afterthought.
The entire series hinges on the honey-trapping of a shadowy drug lord named Nayak. Bhumi’s amorous streetwalking life is fashioned to exploit his weakness for prostitutes.
The crime branch nerds recruit her, gaslight her, train her as if she were Alia Bhatt in Raazi, and then become inexplicably incompetent at their own surveillance jobs. So much cognitive bandwidth is wasted trying to make Mumbai look murky-cool through them that Bhumi’s everyday moments of erotic awakening reek of overcompensation. For instance, in one scene, she seduces a waiter who is staring at her – she leads him to an alleyway, letting him squeeze her breasts before she rubs his crotch and walks away. In another, she teases her sister’s sleazy boyfriend with her deep cleavage and brazen body language. She grins wickedly through these moments, like an evil dictator finally being handed the nuclear codes.
Even the smarter subtexts – for example, equating the stature of sex workers in society (Bhumi, too, is ready to do “anything” to keep her job) to that of female cops in a male-dominated police force – are fetishized by the makers. The narcotics officer (Vishwas Kini) “tests” Bhumi’s Red-Sparrow aptitude by taking her to a shady bar and challenging her to pick up a random man. I understand the motivation behind the scene. It wants us to start perceiving the police as that abusive man who gets off on the sight of his girlfriend sleeping with other men – or, as the home that is more morally bankrupt than captivity (the criminals she attracts). Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the baddie turns out to be this enigmatic, intellectual lover who looks like he has accidentally stumbled onto the set of Before Sunrise. Her conflict: Soft villains or heartless heroes?
This obsession to construct an elaborate plot around the girl’s “coming”-of-age story is her, and She’s, ultimate downfall
But the execution of the narrative – the cheesy cop-planning sessions, her training montage, her sister’s desi spunk (almost expected her to croon “Main apni favourite hoon!”), the incoherent flashbacks – is too cringey to examine the complexity of Bhumi’s transformation. Aaditi Pohankar’s performance is brave but uneven; she struggles mostly because she has been directed (by Arif Ali, Avinash Das) according to a script rather than her character. You almost wish that her trigger was limited to her first experience with the creepy Sasya: Vijay Varma reprises his Gully Boy persona with such filthy panache that the writing feels all the more banal for misusing his coiled-up character. His interrogation sequences often suggest that the makers are planning to go Usual Suspects on us.
But that never happens, and I suppose the point of killing the suspense of the chase is the show’s way of telling us that it was never about the thriller; it was always about the girl waking up to the concept of thrills. Which is why the abrupt change of perspective accompanying the introduction of Nayak is self-defeating – it only dilutes Bhumi’s point of view and distracts viewers from the underlying genre of the seven-episode season. This obsession to construct an elaborate plot around the girl’s “coming”-of-age story is her, and She’s, ultimate downfall. Not to mention the climax, which has my wholehearted vote for this year’s “Bad Sex In Fiction” award. That’s when the sheet truly hits the unsuspecting fan.