Caution: potential spoilers ahead.
It’s not quite your average lust-at-first-sight encounter. An elusive drug dealer has emerged from the shadows to pick up a companion at a tawdry brothel in Mumbai. He is presented with a series of bodies, but his interest is piqued only when one of them appears to have a brain too.
They set off into the night, her escalating anxiety only further keying him up. Their coitus gets interrupted when she reveals that she is actually an undercover police constable. When Bhumika (Aaditi Pohankar) turns her gun on Sasya (Vijay Varma), he is surprised as well as aroused – a dance that helps the first season of the Netflix series She maintain its poise even in its frequently unbalanced moments.
Profane games abound in the seven-episode show, which has been created by Imtiaz Ali, co-written by him and Divya Johry, and directed by Arif Ali and Avinash Das. She marks Imtiaz Ali’s streaming debut and a shift into uncharted territory for a director best known for popcorn romances. Co-director Avinash Das made the stirring Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), about a dancer’s struggle for justice and dignity.
Freed from the constraints of what is considered acceptable in the movies, the creators roll out the dirty talk, the lustful deeds, and the suggestion that sexual slavery is a precondition for the liberation of body and soul.
Bhumika is pushed into weaponising her gender by her boy scout handler Fernandez (Vishwas Kini). Fernandez wants to know whether Sasya and his boss, Nayak (Kishore Kumar G), are planning something big. The constable turns out to be a suitable, if somewhat awkward, soldier. Her husband has rejected her for being sexually frigid. Her sister appears to be turning tricks to support the family. Her hypochondriac mother is a drag, both in Bhumika’s life and in the series.
Bhumika’s thawing begins with her initial, fumbling encounter with Sasya, which, although it barely qualifies as erotic, touches her in ways that she hadn’t anticipated. Sasya’s crude observation especially resonates with Bhumika – you have a scorpion between your legs.
Described as a master of disguise and multiple identities, Sasya also has the fevered imagination of the excitable scriptwriter looking to add extra layers of flesh to the crime thriller template. He is Mills & Boon with lashings of S&M. You have no idea what I am going to do to you tonight, he tells Bhumika when they first meet. Another Sasya pick-up line for the ages: nobody looks at you as I do.
Is the bait going to become the baited? Will Bhumika’s newfound desirability improve her self-esteem and free her of her reserve? Her predicament holds for about four episodes before the plot goes off the rails. By the time Bhumika finally meets the shadowy Nayak, She has collapsed into a regular drug bust exercise with the added insight that power is the best aphrodisiac.
The idea of sex as a weapon and then as an equaliser has been explored with varying degrees of sophistication in the movies. The arthouse exploitation drama The Night Porter (1974) daringly explores the taboo romance between a Nazi jailer and his Jewish prisoner. In Out of Sight (1998), Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney burn up the screen as a marshal and a bank robber.
She also fleetingly resembles Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), in which a young woman set up as a honeytrap develops feelings for her target. Lust, Caution was filled with graphic love-making scenes, which, apart from raising temperatures, also helped make sense of the tortured relationship between hunter and hunted.
In She, lust is mostly verbalised and caution marks the encounters between Bhumika and the men she meets. A police interrogation acquires the flavour of foreplay, and an investigation becomes a waiting game towards the promise of an unbridled romp.
Voyeurs expecting the material to embrace the seamy side of Bhumika’s secret mission will be disappointed, while viewers worried about the potential violence to which Bhumika is repeatedly exposed will be spared. The feminine pronoun that has inspired the title also has another connotation in Bhumika’s native tongue Marathi: it means distaste, especially about sex.
The erotica-with-clothes-on effect is underscored by the shooting style. The jangly and jumpy camerawork and repeated flashbacks undermine the build-up of sexual tension ever so often. Bhumika’s transformation into a working-class temptress in chintzy clothes is doled out in a hurried series of montages. The first encounter between Sasya and Bhumika is replayed until it loses its thrill, just as his comparison of Bhumika with a sheathed scorpion is blunted through repetition.
The series is carried along by an unerring central performance. Aaditi Pohankar is riveting as a woman who seeks freedom via entrapment. As Bhumika gradually replaces inhibition with abandon, Pohankar unlocks her character’s complexity in much the same way as Bhumika takes unsteady steps towards her new bold and brave self. Pohankar brings out Bhumika’s watchfulness and strong survival instincts, especially in her soppy encounters with Nayak.
Bhumika shares her name with Smita Patil’s character from Shyam Benegal’s 1977 movie of the same name. Both women seek meaning through relationships with controlling men, but by the end of the first season of She, only one has realised just how self-defeating and limiting this exercise can be.
Vijay Varma, the talented actor from Pink and Gully Boy, is equally riveting as Sasya. Varma exudes seedy charm as the floppy-haired drug dealer who slyly weaves a psychological web around Bhumika from which she struggles to emerge. It’s a shame that the series pushes Sasya to the sidelines after using him to set up the events – yet another instance of promising dangerous lust and then replacing it with abundant caution.