Director: Mayank Sharma
Writers: Bhavani Iyer, Vikram Tuli, Mayank Sharma
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Nithya Menen, Amit Sadh
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
To understand how fundamentally bad Breathe: Into the Shadows is, it’s important to understand how morbidly effective Breathe was. The first season starred R. Madhavan as a football coach who begins to murder organ donors so that his terminally ill son is bumped up the recipient list. It also starred Amit Sadh as a haunted Mumbai cop who, after the death of his own daughter, decides to track down this mysterious “serial killer”. The twisted premise worked because Madhavan’s character turns the series into a morality thriller. Firstly, he doesn’t kill the donors directly – he comes up with creative ways to make their deaths look like accidents or suicides. Secondly, the victims are innocent. They aren’t presented as hateful scum to make us empathize with the dark protagonist. And thirdly, Madhavan is the sort of noble-faced actor whom we don’t expect an edginess from. When he marks victims with the irrationality of a desperate parent, it’s both the actor and the character weaponizing our perception of them. His inner conflict feels real, and this in turn feeds the ambiguity of whether this is a supervillain origin story or a tragic family drama.
But Season 2 – a thematic sequel that retains the brooding Crime Branch inspector tracking a new desperate parent in Delhi – refuses to retain any other merit of the 2018 series. Alokananda Dasgupta’s creepy original title theme, too, is “reworked” for no good reason. The replacement of the nuanced greys with stark blacks and whites almost feels deliberate so that the actors aren’t burdened with complex scenes over 12 (!) long episodes. In anatomical terms, it’s like all the vital organs have been cut out so that the pretty body doesn’t move too much. For instance, this time, the father here (Abhishek Bachchan, as Avinash) is a high-profile psychiatrist who doesn’t kill by choice. Their six-year-old daughter is abducted by a masked man with a limp, and it’s this kidnapper who demands from Avi the murder of certain people – according to the ten negative emotions represented by Raavan’s ten heads. Because what’s a serious Indian web series without a mythology hangover? Avi isn’t a single parent either; his wife (Nithya Menen, as Abha) is an accomplice. As a result, the murders – which exploit the victims’ anger, lust, fear, attachment and so on – are far more literal in form. (A germophobe is led to a garbage dump, a gay woman is seduced by Abha). Avi films them and sends the explicit clips from an anonymous number to national news channels. If the kidnapper believed in mobile phones, this could have been a private exchange of favours instead of a public spectacle that alerts the Crime Branch. Given that the couple receives their tasks on a specially delivered iPad, this convenient aversion to technology makes little sense.
Secondly, the victims are not innocent. Tacky flashbacks soon reveal that each of them has made a mistake in the past, which makes the motive personal. This caters to India’s inherently tribal belief that revenge is justice. In short, they deserve their gruesome fates. This robs the plot of any opportunity to challenge the viewer’s moral core. Thirdly, the writers somehow amplify the few flaws of the first season by doubling down on the tangents and supporting characters. Now Inspector Kabir has not one but two unnecessary sub-inspectors, so that their goofy banter (“Why did Kabir sir do that?” “Kabir sir, what are you thinking?”) can keep the viewers up to speed about the case. Then there’s an annoyingly optimistic wheelchair-laden girl (Plabita Borthakur) who serves as Kabir’s distraction in Delhi, and whose brief seems to be: Be Like Geet But Paralyzed. There’s a totally inconsequential female inspector (Shraddha Kaul), who only exists to sit in her boss’ office, judge Kabir with her eyes and handle media briefings. And last but not least, there’s a sex worker (a striking Saiyami Kher) that the series only remembers to utilize in the last few episodes. Till then, she struts around in leather jackets like a lost dominatrix. To be fair, the actress’ previous film was called “Choked”.
But most importantly, the grand twist in episode 5 turns Breathe into a long-form Abbas-Mustan movie. And not in a good way. This twist reveals the identity of the kidnapper, and the next seven episodes resort to ridiculous expository techniques and DD-style backstories to justify the twist and feature a cat-and-mouse game between Inspector Kabir and the masked man. The revelation is so silly, on both a psychological and narrative level, that one can’t help but wonder if the makers just stopped trusting their performers midway and instead altered the script to manipulate the myths of mental illness. A condition is customized, and its rules handpicked, to suit the suspense of the script. A better director might have committed to the twist, but everything after this episode becomes an epic copout. The craft is reduced to damage control. A menacing score – which sounds like Judwaa’s Mukesh Rishi took to a harmonica instead of a flute – punctuates the appearance of the kidnapper. We start to hear elaborate mental voiceovers to move the story forward. The camera angles magically start framing him differently now that his mask is off. The body language becomes more pronounced.
The contrivances, too, become extraordinary. When Kabir is on the verge of walking in on a live crime scene, an old lady in an elevator stalls him. A potential victim automatically becomes a smoker who needs to light up outside a seedy motel at the dead of night so that we see a chance meeting with Avi. A “hacker” is hired to dilute the police records so that the DNA angle is eliminated. Not to mention the incompetence of the Delhi police, who have no leads about the girl’s disappearance nine months later, mostly so that we trust in Avi’s decision to obey the kidnapper and take the law into his own hands. Amidst all this, everyone – including the series itself – forgets about the little girl, who is locked up somewhere in a shady basement. A few flimsy escape attempts are thrown in to remind us of the stakes.
Abhishek Bachchan is cast as Avi for the same reason R. Madhavan headlined the previous season. He has a kind face, and a gentle voice that belies the powers of a psychiatrist who plays mind games. The hybrid accent, too, comes in handy because Avi seems to be a man who thinks in English. Yet, the role is beyond him – for reasons that have more to do with the binary character arc than his own artistic limitations. Nithya Menen and Amit Sadh have fascinating screen presence, but there’s only so much they can do in a whirlpool of 80s-Bollywood tropes. If critics had the liberty of discussing spoilers – a twist pretty much defines the mediocrity of this series – I’d have at least 500 more words of criticism to offer today. But maybe it’s best to stop at saying that the best thing about Season 2 of Breathe is Season 1.