After failing the Bechdel test in Guilty and Lust Stories, Netflix India makes another attempt with its new series: She, this time replacing Karan Johar with Imtiaz Ali for a ride to the streaming platform.
Ali doesn’t direct – although he usually steers the translation of his written female characters on screen as was the case with Love Aaj Kal (2008) and Tamasha (2015) – but scripts the story of a female constable, Bhumika Pardeshi (played by Aaditi Pohankar) and her dormant sexuality in the atmosphere of a narcotics-riddled Mumbai. The viewer sees Bhumika through the eyes of her sexist colleagues, abusive husband, sick mother and over-sexualised sister as a woman driven by just one thing: desperation.
An agent in the narcotics bureau, Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini), chooses Bhumi to pose as a prostitute to bring down a high-profile drug smuggler – Nayak (Kishore Kumar G) – in an undercover assignment. Bhumi quickly shifts from the Madonna to the whore – wearing skimpy clothes, heels, and has a tongue that doesn’t bite between glossy lips. Her first call of action is to trap Sasya (Vijay Varma), Nayak’s accomplice, in a brothel.
In the episode that features Bhumi’s first night as a fake sex worker, she recalls the taunts of her abusive husband, and the narrative illustrates the flashback as a gateway to her arousal. The season finale follows a similar trope: she remembers incidents of abuse during her childhood and continues to have sex with an intensified libido. Ali’s clouded judgment of female sexuality and the effects of sexual violence on a person’s psyche makes one consider just how much time he spends with other people – the lockdown was implemented after he wrote She.
One of the few commendable things about She is Varma’s performance as Sasya – a horny and opportunist criminal – tuning his accent as his role demands. Varma’s bits are crucial to the film and you cannot blame directors Arif Ali and Avinash Das for dumping all the responsibility on him to carry the season forward. Pohankar’s character – although the series is supposed to be about her – is a sloppily written poster child for female empowerment.
Bhumi appears to get off to all the attention that triggers most survivors of assault and insults her sister for using sexual prowess as an instrument – although Bhumi does the exact same. Pohankar’s translation of her leaves the viewer puzzled: does Bhumi like posing as a sex-worker?
Although Kishore barely makes an appearance in the seven-episode season, he owns every shot in which he does. The viewers can’t say the same about Fernandez. Ali could’ve helped Kini execute him better with a well-rounded character, but alas: he’s a filler.
She tries hard to urge women to claim agency of their sexuality, body and society but reduces ‘her’ to an object of male gazes of the other characters and the viewer. Once again, the men get what they want, as they ‘grant’ women the illusion of power.
Isa Ayidh is a student at Ashoka University, Sonepat who finds herself fiddling with words, and never abiding to a word limit. You can find her in places where they write long, over-punctuated sentences.