By Rachit Raj

She is a strange show. It wears the skin of a progressive idea talking about a female constable’s journey of exploring herself and her sexuality as she becomes a sex worker in order to lead Mumbai Police to mafia men who all seem to have one weakness – sex. Yet, writers Imtiaz Ali and Divya Johry and directed by Arif Ali and Avinash Das ensure that the final product on screen is a tame, regressive story with no heart and soul that works only as a cautionary tale on things that can go wrong if you take a decent idea and then doze off to sleep.

The show follows the life of Bhoomi (Aarti Pohankar), a middle-class working woman struggling to find recognition in her professional life. Personally, she is undergoing a divorce because she could not satisfy her estranged husband in bed, who is now more interested in his sister-in-law. The show comprises of Bhumi’s encounter with Sasya (Vijay Verma), and how it starts a chain of events that sees Bhumi exploring and owning her identity as a woman pretending to be a prostitute.

Reminiscent of the mediocre Red Sparrow, that saw Jennifer Lawrence playing Dominika Egorova, a ballet dancer forced into being a sex-bait for Americans during the Cold War era, She begins promisingly and for a brief moment, you are excited by the prospect of how this idea can work well in a show set in a complex city like Mumbai. After all, Mumbai is an interesting city to explore a woman’s tryst with her sexuality. One side of the city is about glamour and glitz, while the other is about women trying to find a place for themselves in a man’s world. There is a third kind of a woman in Mumbai too. A domestic woman who struggles to find a balance between being her authentic self and satisfying the needs of her family. Bhumi, in She, encompasses all three aspects within her.

The problem lies in the show’s inability to extract the conflict of her multiple identities well enough. You see Bhumi packing for a trip – a trip decidedly private in nature – and you get a peek at her frustration not telling about it to her mother and sister. But the camera does not stop at her face long enough for that moment to sink in.

Instead, the camera is disturbingly seduced by Bhumi’s body. This is where the politics of lens comes full circle in She. For a show that is about a woman’s growing ownership of herself, the camera is hinged on Bhumi’s body more like a stalker than a respectful onlooker. We see Bhumi becoming a sex-bait, and slowly it dawns upon us that the makers see her like that too. A sexual body. We are never given more about her than that she has a “bichoo” in her. She even fails the written test that would qualify her to become a secret agent. After a point, you start realizing that Sasya sees Bhumi with a lot more respect than the camera does, and that is dangerous.

Another problem with She is Aarti Pohankar’s portrayal of Bhumi. Pohankar is not bad, but she lacks the sass and subtlety that this role needed. This becomes more apparent when she is piped in front of Vijay Verma who plays another immoral character from the ghettos of Mumbai brilliantly. She would have been a better show had it been called He and focused on Sasya’s journey. Maybe that is Verma’s brilliance or just a coincidence that Moeen and Sasya are the best-written characters in Gully Boy and She, respectively.

It is a tricky thing, writing a story about a woman finding her voice and self through the road of trapping enemies into a blur of sexual desires. It can easily become more about a woman’s body than her psyche, and inconsistent writing, damp direction and a central performance that fails to stir the audience ensure that She adds to Imtiaz Ali’s dipping form, which seems directly proportionate to the way he has written his female characters post Veera in Highway.

[Now streaming on Netflix]