Bhumika Pardeshi is no ordinarily named girl. Bhumika in Hindi means a role or a character and pardeshi/pardesi means foreign land or foreigner. Both are rather appropriate for a story where a police constable, Bhumika aka Bhumi (Aaditi Pohankar), is forced by duty and circumstances to play a sex worker. She is playing a part and gets sucked into a world that is foreign to her.
But after a crackling first episode, She sadly flounders indecisively between genres, unsure of just how far it can go in uncharted waters. Produced by Tipping Point and Window Seat Films for Netflix, She marks film director Imtiaz Ali's debut as a web series creator. Imtiaz also serves as the film's co-writer along with Divya Johry.
When Sasya (Vijay Varma), a notorious drug dealer, walks into a brothel and rejects two lineups of women, he is presented with more â€˜exclusiveâ€™ optionsâ€” women who only work part-time when they aren't at college or at office. Sasya is about to walk away with the more conventionally attractive woman, but an exchange of words with the girl he has rejected, Bhumi, piques his interest. He is aroused by Bhumi's irreverence and couldn't-care-less attitude.
But we know soon enough that she is not who she seems. Bhumi is an undercover cop who is being watched by a team from the anti-narcotics cell, led by Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini). Jason has been chasing Sasya for a long time and is hoping this honeytrap works. Just when they think their operation is successful, Sasya forces Bhumi into his car, leaving her to her own defences. She keeps her cool, manages to save herself from him, and ensures he is nabbed by the cops. But not before the awkward fumbling around with him leaves her feeling unmistakably aroused and powerful. It's a thrilling moment for her, and equally so for Sasya, who gets obsessed with the woman who managed to get the better of him.
During the interrogation, Sasya agrees to cooperate but insists on only speaking to Bhumi. Desperate for a breakthrough, her bosses agree to use her as bait, problematically masking her lack of consent as her duty to the nation. Sasya quickly spills the beans about his legendary boss Nayak (Kishore Kumar G) who is the real power behind the cartel. Nayak is the Voldermort of the drug worldâ€” a man who has been making big plans for years while living like a ghost in the shadows.
Rather conveniently for the tale, Nayak is also hooked to sex workers since he has an overactive brain and uses the female company to 'de-stress'. Her male superiors decide Bhumi is best suited for this mission, having already helped them capture Sasya. They sit in an all-male roundtable and discuss the measurements of her bust and buttocks in a business-like manner while adding that she is not actually very good looking, which apparently is Nayak's â€˜typeâ€™. The issue of whether she will actually have sex with him, given that she is posing as a sex worker, is discussed off and on. However, since Sasya assures them that Nayak is impotent, Jason isn't very worried. This part is strange because, on the one hand, Sasya claims no one really knows Nayak well at all, he is an enigma, etc and yet, he is certain the man is impotent.
As Bhumi tags along with Jason's planâ€” at first, unwillingly and then, because she needs her salaryâ€” pretending to be seductive flips a switch in Bhumi's mind that she just can't turn off. Contrary to what she has labelled all her lifeâ€” frigid, masculine, unattractive, coldâ€” Bhumi awakens to the fact that beauty and sexuality are empowering, not embarrassing. Presumably, like most Indian girls, she has been raised to stay inconspicuous, not attract attention to her body, not dress â€˜provocativelyâ€™, not act â€˜too sexualâ€™ or verbalise what she wants in bed. This, coupled with incidents of sexual abuse from her childhood, have left her virtually asexualâ€” till she has to pretend to be a sex worker.
Sadly, the show rapidly and lazily resorts to sleaze to keep its male-dominated drug cartel track going. In fact, the whole 'Bhumi becomes sexy' track could have been an amazing subplot to the main story of a film noir-based tale which conventionally has a detective and a sex worker or femme fatale. But this show makes her the protagonist and then abandons her halfway, replacing characterisation with shiny clothing and slow seductive walking. One moment she is flirtatious and seductive, the next she is a deer in the headlights. It's an uneven and indecisive characterisation, but Aaditi commits to the role completely and tries her best to do justice to the poorly-written part.
While we do see some of Bhumi's backstory and her everyday struggles with an ailing mother, sharp-tongued sister and makes-your-skin-crawl ex-husband Lokhande (Sandeep Dhabale), we never get a chance to really see what sex means to her.
Why hasn't she been able to enjoy it earlier? What changes when she realises men find her attractive? The makers show her pose in front of mirrors to admire her bustline and waist and make eyes at men who have never given her a second look, but beyond these moments we never see her everyday attitudes change in any way. Why doesn't she walk into a store and try on lingerie? Why doesn't she try to masturbate or arouse herself in any way? Why doesn't she stand up to her husband and get closure after four years of tolerating his abuse?
Power, sexuality and libido are a function of the mind, not the body alone; the show's biggest flaw is Imtiaz and Divya's reluctance to dig deep into Bhumi's psyche and unearth the many real barriers that stand between a woman and her ability to enjoy sex or feel sexually attractive.
I kept coming up with ideas and options on what this show could have been because the potential is all there. It would have been amazing to just see a senior female cop posing as a sex worker in her desperation to catch a man she has been chasing for years. It could have been the story of a sex worker who is hired by the cops and starts enjoying putting men who have hurt her behind bars. Or, like the American Crime Story: Unabomber, She could have had a strong female protagonist whose personality dangerously mirrors the man she is trying to find, which also leads to her attraction to him. The list is endless.
In fact, this show remains watchable because of Aaditi, and the fabulous Vijay Varma. Vijay devours every scene he is in and it is hard to take your eyes off him. While your brain is telling you to hate him, Vijay gets so deep under his character's skin, complete with facial twitches and the Hyderabadi Hindi, that I kept waiting for him to appear on screen. Though he is saddled with repetitive lines about having violent sex with Bhumi, that starts sounding really crass after a point, Vijay is an absolute delight to watch. I wish they had done away with this Nayak business and just let him and Bhumi battle each other.
Also, I am not keeping count (I am actually) but this is the second female character on a Netflix show this month (Guilty had Kiara Advani playing Nanki) and third this year, including a contestant on the show What the love! where we see or hear a woman talk about being abused as a child. While incidents of abuse and inappropriate touching are painfully common with young boys and girls across the world, I sense that this is becoming a convenient backstory device for makers to then give their character adult complications and make the story 'edgy'. Abuse is not a rite of passage that makes a female character interesting or edgy. We need to be careful not to use the creative freedom of OTT platforms to continue stereotyping women, just differently.
She could have been the show that redefined how women, their bodies and sexuality are represented in cinema and television. Sadly, it creates another tale where a woman's sexuality is defined by its utility to a man. There is a scene at the end of She where a couple (not revealing who to avoid spoilers) starts making love. The man takes off the womanâ€™s sari pallu and the camera lingers on close up of her chest for five seconds too long. Itâ€™s a completely unnecessary shot, one of many where the same womanâ€™s breasts are squeezed, lifted with a pushup bra and captured at awkward angles. Just goes to show that we may be breaking the rules but we really aren't changing the gaze.