She review: Imtiaz Ali’s bad luck spills onto sleazy, sloppy new Netflix series
She review: Even a terrific Vijay Varma performance isn’t enough to save Imtiaz Ali’s sleazy and sloppy new Netflix series.
Creator - Imtiaz Ali
Cast - Aaditi Pohankar, Vijay Varma
Sloppily directed and sleazy in tone, She, the new Netflix original series, peaks in its opening credits sequence — a noir-inspired taxi ride through the underbelly of Mumbai that is way too refined for the show that it precedes. What follows is an unevenly told cat-and-mouse thriller that essentially begins with the chase having ended.
Perhaps She, more so than even Love Aaj Kal, will finally alert audiences to the fact that we give Imtiaz Ali more credit than he honestly deserves. Ali, generously speaking, has made two-and-a-half good films in his career.
Watch the She trailer here
Ali hasn’t directed She — blame for its ridiculously inept visual style must, therefore, be assigned to Arif Ali and Avinash Das — but he is the creator and writer. And while the filmmaker certainly isn’t someone you’d associate with gritty thrillers, there is something off about his characterisation of the protagonist, Bhumi, that immediately brings to mind similarly dubious Imtiaz Ali creations such as Veera from Highway and Tara from Tamasha. These are women who make morally questionable decisions that I’m sure Ali believes is an indication of their flawed nature, but in reality is just a result of poor writing.
Aaditi Pohankar plays Bhumi, a constable in the Mumbai police who is deputised to go undercover as a sex worker, to gather intelligence about a high-profile drug smuggler. To get to the mysterious man, Bhumi must first aid in the arrest of a low-level goon named Sasya, played by the always excellent Vijay Varma.
Varma, a phenomenally gifted actor who broke onto the scene with Amit Kumar’s noir gem Monsoon Shootout and stole the show in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, is absolutely wasted here as Sasya, a sort of Hannibal Lecter to Bhumi’s Clarice Starling. His terrific performance is levelled by the strange direction.
There is no cohesion to She. It opens with its weakest episode, and wastes approximately a third of episode two on a needless flashback. By the time things begin to get interesting, half the show is over and we haven’t really made much progress.
Noir cinema is defined by its stylised visuals, more so than most other genres. The high-contrast lighting symbolises the central character’s ambiguous morality; the expressionistic palette paints the story with a layer of fantasy. The camera in She gives the impression that it has been placed on a rocking chair, jittery like a tweaker on the streets, unable to focus. On other occasions, it seems as if the cinematographer has handed it to one of his operators, and commanded them to film the scene whilst standing on tiptoes. This might sound strange, but when you watch a simple climb up a staircase filmed in five different angles, all clashing with each other, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
This stylistic crudeness is also emblematic of Bhumi, as a character. On paper, she is both a ‘detective’ and a ‘femme fatale’ —staple characters in film noir — but she never really comes across as a fully formed human being, despite Ali’s best efforts, which include giving her a domestic life and a troubled backstory.
During her nightly missions as a fake sex worker, Bhumi realises — and you may or may not react to this with the incredulity that I did — that her superpowers lie in her sexuality. Routinely undermined by the men who mock her, and, essentially abuse her to serve their own best interests, Bhumi is made aware that she has a certain allure that makes most men go weak in the knees. And then, she begins to enjoy the attention. It’s almost as if she gets off on it.
On a related note, why must character be a victim of abuse herself to be a crusader against it? This is the second Netflix project this month that falls prey to this screenwriting cliche, after the rather enjoyable Kiara Advani-starrer, Guilty.
But unlike that film, which worked largely because of director Ruchi Narain’s command over its slightly fantastical pitch, She trips over itself trying to stick to a tone, almost as if it is wearing one of Bhumi’s cheap stilettos. Take, for instance, a scene in which Bhumi horrifically recalls the helplessness she felt when a man touched her without her consent. “Would you be okay with a stranger touching you?” Bhumi asks another constable. “I would if it was a woman,” the man replies. The exchange is played for laughs.
There are two ways to shoot a scene, and the other one is wrong. So said David Fincher, the master of modern noir. Ali and co. should pay attention.