Flesh review: Swara Bhasker and the women of Eros Now's human trafficking saga deserve better
It's not difficult to understand the intent behind a show like Flesh, but whoever's idea it was to make audiences squirm with disgust at every third scene, really needs to think about how to tell an important story responsibly.
Flesh, an Eros Now original series that explores the horrific world of human trafficking, with Swara Bhasker in the lead, should really come with a trigger warning.
This is the kind of show that could do with multiple disclaimers, because it really doesn't hold back. Whatever atrocities you can think of in a show about trafficking, Flesh has it and then some more. There's violence, child abuse, rape, gut-wenching torture and exploitation, in almost every episode, and very little nuance or sensitivity on how it is portrayed. This, coupled with misguided direction by Danish Aslam, on what type of series Flesh really wants to be (action-thriller? social drama? vigilante revenge? who knows?) results in a catastrophically vulgar show that has minimal redemption.
If you have the stomach for it, somewhere along the series, you start to realise all these details are a way to shine more light on the heroic potential of our protagonist, ACP Radha Nautiyal (Swara Bhasker). The more horrors shown, the more Radha's graph makes the viewer feel better. She's a no-nonsense, insomnia-riddled cop who says it like it is, likes to drink rum and doesn't hold onto too many human connections. You want to know more about her, but the commitment in this series seems to be to shock and jolt viewers just like a jump scare would in a horror film.
It's not difficult to understand the intent behind a show like Flesh, but whoever's idea it was to make audiences squirm with disgust at every third scene really needs to think about how to tell an important story responsibly.
If Rani Mukherji's Mardaani 2 and Amazon Prime Video's Paatal Lok had a flashy baby, it would be Flesh. Each scene is peppered with violence, torture porn and expletives, and as much as I tried to understand how this was helping the show, I just couldn't.
The eight-part series takes you on journey through the terribly traumatic world of human trafficking, showing us that the suppliers and enablers of this deadly illegal ring could be anywhere among us — a dude on instagram, an unemployed youth from Mumbai's chawls, orphans who have no knowledge of any other life or morality, and a shrewd, polished businessman who does unspeakable things to women who are trafficked.
When the 16-year-old Zoya (Mahima Makwana), daughter of NRIs Reba and Shekhar Gupta (Vidya Malvade and Yudhistir Urs), goes missing from a family wedding, the Mumbai Police sparks on a wild goose chase all the way to Kolkatta to uncover a dangerous human trafficking ring. Along the way, we are given several instances of what happens to these victims, kids and adolescent girls, but no information on where the demand is coming from. When Flesh cuts to the police procedural bits, headlined by Swara playing ACP Radha Nautiyal, you can breathe a sigh of relief and expect some thrill.
Alongside, there's Shuvo Chatterjee (Uday Tikekar), a businessman from Kolkatta who, with the help of his nephew, Niketan (Sayandeep Sensharma) and primary henchman Taj (Akshay Oberoi), leads the trafficking operations. Oberoi plays Taj with the villainous extremity of a comic-book antagonist, in a bad way. A bisexual, sex-and-drug addled, hot-tempered degenerate, Taj is, however, the only character apart from Radha, who gets the luxury of depth. Both Taj and Radha are united by one big plot twist in episode 7, which you may see coming a while back.
The women of Flesh deserve better. Starting with Swara Bhasker, who really needs her own show to continuously be able to play badass characters. Flesh cuts her potential short, which is a shame really, because Swara elevates the show by multiple levels. Then there's Mahima Makwana and Vidya Malvade, who have great screen presence but their characters only get small breaks from the atrocities they are put through. Nataša Stanković plays an intriguing escort-cum-agent but she barely gets enough screen time.
There are several other female characters through the series that are introduced with aplomb but never really seen through. Makes me wonder if all the ideas by writer Pooja Ladha Surti were perhaps twisted to make an exhaustingly lurid and gory show. Here's a writer who has previously edited and co-written films like Andhadhun, Ek Hasina Thi, Phobia and Johnny Gaddar. Flesh is an anomaly.
If not for Swara's fully realised performance and a few rare moments of thrill, I would not be able to sit through Flesh. At a time when there's so much content to watch, it is important to understand why the creators Sidharth Anand (War) and Sagar Pandya, director Danish Aslam and writerPooja Ladha Surti chose the route of maximum sensationalism and minimal nuance or depth.
If Flesh has chosen to tell us more about Swara's journey (easily the highlight of the series) or how Mumbai Police deals with human trafficking cases (their camaraderie was one of the better bits) or even the normalisation of trafficking and sexualisation of minors, instead of giving us multiple instances of exploitation, maybe Flesh would be a better watch. As it stands, I can't find one reason to recommend it to anyone I know.
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