I'm not angry with Imtiaz Ali; I'm just disappointed.
Ali's streaming debut, the Netflix series She, that's co-written by him and Divya Johry, and directed by Asif Ali and Avinash Das, is brimming with potential but can't escape the inherent male gaze in its portrayal of female sexuality against the backdrop of the criminal underbelly in Mumbai.
This is the same Imtiaz Ali who created strong female characters like Geet from Jab We Met and Meera from Love Aaj Kal (2009). But it's been a couple of years, and Ali's outdated views on love and sexuality need a bit of a revamp (ahem, Love Aaj Kal 2020).
This is not to say that She doesn't have its moments. The drama, cinematography, slow-build thrill and performances in the series definitely make it watchable to a certain point. Bhumika Pardeshi (Aaditi Pohankar) plays a lower middle class Marathi girl who is a constable with the Mumbai Police. She is picked up by a member of the Narcotics Bureau, Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini), to pose as a prostitute to bring down a drug cartel, in the same way she is "picked up" by Sasya (Vijay Varma) in the brothel while she is undercover. The agency that Bhumi is allowed is sparse.
Bhumi struggles with her sexuality, and even though she finds it hard to use it as a weapon to capture these criminals, the only time in She that the gaze stays with the female protagonist is when she's exploring her sexual nature. How a low-ranking constable, who is widely considered to be "manly looking", uses gender politics to gather intelligence about the drug business in Mumbai, and bring down criminals, makes for the rest of the seven-part series.
To its credit, She is a good looking show. Cinematographer Amit Roy frames every episode like it's out of a noir crime graphic novel. Setting the show in Mumbai lends to the vibe organically. Vijay Varma and Aaditi Pohankar both perform their parts well, especially Varma who slips into a Hyderabadi accent with ease. His sinister character Sasya is the performative centre of the show and every time he is in a scene, the dramatic quotient only rises. Since this is Netflix, the intrigue is amplified with cliffhangers at the end of every episode, only to fizzle out in the last few moments of the season.
On paper, She has much promise. Bhumi leads a simple life, has an old and sick mother, a rebellious and over-sexualised younger sister, a nincompoop of a husband who she wants to divorce. She's the sole breadwinner of the family. But she can break free of these shackles through her tryst as an undercover agent. Apart from the exploration of her sexuality, I wish more screen time was spent in building her aptitude as an agent though shorter sub-plots and episodes. If enough time was spent on Bhumi's character, we could have ended up with a show with potential for multiple seasons. A little more insight into Bhumi's relationship with sex and sexuality would have been nice. As it stands, these details are merely touch and go.
She is too focused on the seasoning, not the meat. It throws only sporadic light on the one strong female character of the show in a narrative full of lacklustre men. If not for Vijay Varma, I would have stopped watching after the first few episodes.
With haphazard direction and one-dimensional writing, She loses all the potential it builds in the first few episodes. The series doesn't hold back on the eroticism and often becomes campy. An example of this is the episode in which Bhumi is tested for her "killer instinct" before she is recruited by the Narcotics teams as an undercover agent. The manipulation and borderline sleaziness in this episode is at the level of B-grade erotic entertainment. No elitism here; if She were to commit to one tone, it would have been better. But it tries too hard to be an intelligent thriller series in parts, with limp erotic fillers in the middle.
She is edgy enough to be watchable, and you may even binge it in one go because the pace never drops. But my takeaway from the series is that Imtiaz Ali needs to hang out with more women. I don't mind volunteering " ladies, I'll take one for the team.
Watch trailer here: