Cast: Aaditi Pohankar, Vishwas Kini, Shivani Rangole, Sam Mohan and Suhita Thatte
Director: Arif Ali
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of 5)
SHE is back. The question is: has She evolved beyond being the puppet that She was in the hands of her Mumbai Police Crime Branch superiors and the criminals that She was made to honeytrap in Season 1?
Police Constable Bhumika Pardeshi (Aaditi Pohankar) has indeed made some progress in the grimy, dangerous and dark alleys of the Mumbai underworld. It is manifested in the fact that, over the 7 episodes of She Season 2, she grows steadily in confidence, acquires something akin to a self-assured air, begins to enjoy the 'physical' perks of the job assigned to her and even registers a significant first that proves to be a crucial turning point in her game of one-upmanship.
Another question: does the transformation that Bhumi undergoes in She Season 2 arm her with something that she lacked in the past? It does indeed. Bhumi stumbles upon a truth about her slimy ex-husband - it restores her faith in herself and helps her gain the upper hand.
Season 2 of the Netflix series that gave Pohankar a major career boost in 2020 works slightly better than the first outing because her encounters with Nayak (Kishore Kumar G.) in the criminal mastermind's lair now push her further and further away from where she had begun.
Created and written by Imtiaz Ali, directed by Arif Ali and lensed by Amit Roy, She Season 2 starts off with explosive action - a veritable carnage - before it settles into steadier storytelling methods, mounting and deploying the components that the screenwriter has conjured up for the purpose of steering the Bhumi-Nayak story in a new direction.
The show has many scenes of extreme violence (in several of them, Bhumi is at the receiving end) and several action-packed police raids on criminal hideouts and drug warehouses that result in high body counts, but the focus of the seven episodes stays squarely on Bhumi, her police bosses, the sex workers she draws into her larger, long-term plans and the slippery and unfathomable modern-day Mephistopheles who would have her believe that killing someone you love gives you "real power".
Will Bhumi sell her soul to the devil? She is indeed after power. She is no longer the self-effacing lower middle-class girl from a Mumbai chawl who was shoved into an assignment that was a whole world and a mile out of her league. She figures out that she is on a one-way street. She hunkers down to learning to find her way around as an undercover agent.
The provocative garb of a streetwalker that she has donned in order to bust a cartel of cocaine smugglers spearheaded by a man nobody outside the circle of his closest aides has ever seen, in person or in photographs, puts her at grave risk and exposes her to a world where survival demands the wiles of a predator.
She still lives with her Aai (Suhita Thatte) who frets over her long absences from home and her sister Rupali (Shivani Rangole), with whom she has serious disagreements that threaten to snowball into a permanent falling-out.
As Bhumi develops personal ambitions and begins to respond to the dictates of her own mind, her loyalties are in danger of wavering and yet she manages to retain her composure and mask the gradual shifts that occur in her scarred psyche and influence her actions.
The transformed lady is still looking for endorsement from the men around her, but with some of her agency restored to her owing to the fact that she has come a long way from the starting point of the mission, she is able to string even the formidable Nayak along.
To that extent, She Season 2 represents a marked break from the past. The power dynamics within the police force - between Bhumika Pardeshi and her immediate bosses, ACP Jason Fernandez (Vishwas Kini) and the new Crime Branch head, DCP Khursheed Alam (Hyderabad theatre veteran Mohammad Ali Baig) - and the games she plays with Nayak with an eye on satiating the desires of her body and serving the demands of her mission liberate her to a significant degree.
The season follows Bhumi as she navigates the risks that are inherent in her impulsive moves that place her at variance with the man she reports to - ACP Fernandez. The latter calls her his "greatest achievement" and exhorts her to "do her best" even though he isn't quite sure anymore what she is up to.
At one point, Bhumi is a mental and emotional wreck after an act that she would rather not have committed. "This is not me," she says to ACP Fernandez. She clearly isn't comfortable with violence of the physical kind.
She Season 2 embraces the norms of a psychological thriller less fiercely than Season 1 of the series did. It forays instead into the domain of an inquisition into the minds of an invincible criminal and a woman who forms a dangerous and unlikely liaison with him because she probably sees in him an opportunity to change her destiny and force an end to the years of oblivion and rejection that she has endured while being gaslit into blaming herself for her plight.
Clearly, Bhumi Pardeshi acquires layers that were conspicuous by their absence in Season 1. The gap between who she is and who she must become in order to survive in a tough big-stakes game is what imparts a certain degree tensile energy to the story. However, her encounters with Nayak sink into a repetitive loop that weighs down the narrative.
There is, of course, a lot of skin show here to spice things up, but these sex scenes are unlikely to dial up the sizzle factor. When Bhumi jumps into bed with the 'enemy', the scenes, when they are not cheesy and groan-worthy, are terribly stolid and self-conscious, devoid of genuine passion and fire. The fault probably lies not so much with the actors as with the manner in which the sexual encounters are envisioned and executed.
Aaditi Pohankar gets into the skin of Bhumika Pardeshi with total conviction and taps to the fullest the complexities of a woman in a bind. Kishore Kumar G. casts the arch-villain in the mould of a philosopher peddling toxicity with the sangfroid of a cocky rebel convinced of the justness of his cause.
Vishwas Kini's role allows him to traverse a range of emotions that screen cops rarely come withing striking distance of. He makes the most of the opportunity.
Verdict: She Season 2 is an Aaditi Pohankar show all the way, much more so than it was the first time around. That, however, does not help the show break free from the limitations of the male gaze.