There is no other way to say this: Flesh, the eight-part Eros Now web series, which reveals the bare flesh of its trafficked humans in disturbingly violent ways, is a flinch-fest. I often had to close my eyes. But this also has to be said: I was compelled to keep returning to the proceedings because I wanted to know how things would pan out. Flesh smartly manages to maintain that very tough balance, between showing us repulsive, depraved people doing repulsive, depraved things, and keeping us watching, despite ourselves.
Pretty teenager Zoya (Mahima Makwana), the daughter of a permanently bickering NRI couple Shekhar and Reba (Yudhishtir Urs and Vidya Malvade), goes missing. As her distraught parents start doing the pillar-to-post thing with the Mumbai police, a parallel track shows the working of a vicious gang which runs a profitable prostitution racket. Once a girl is sucked into these bowels, it’s hard to uncover any trace: the path is well-oiled with bribes and threats.
The anti-trafficking department, led by Inspector Radha (Swara Bhasker) and her colleagues Naman (Siddhant Behl), and an affable code-cracker, swings slowly into action. Meanwhile, we see another gang which lifts prepubescent children: both sets of innocents — the teenage girls being transported from one end of the country to the other, and the little kids –are frequently bruised, battered, beaten and brutalised. It is sickening. And it’s quite clear that this is exactly the intention of the makers of this series (written by Sidharth Anand, Sagar Pandya and Pooja Ladha Surti, and directed by Danish Aslam) to make you unsettled and uncomfortable: just as things roll over into the dangerously gratuitous territory and threaten to stay there, there’s a change of track, and you get the time to breathe again.
We are familiar with enforcers who keep the new entrants in line through drug use, rape and violence in our movies. Here, because there is plenty of time, we get a whole battery of monsters: a scrawny truck driver who uses his fists and feet on his cowering victims, a plump fellow addicted to gambling, a foul-mouthed woman who slaps and kicks the kids, a well-dressed man who turns on the menace, and many others. And the guys on top of this ugly pyramid: a Kolkata-based wealthy businessman Shuvo (Uday Tikekar), and two claimants to his throne, an uber-twisted psychotic fellow (Akshay Oberoi, eye-catching), and the other, a polished goon (Sayandeep Sensharma), whose appetites run towards whips and leather and S&M.
Yes, Flesh revels in all its wickedness, sometimes with too audible a slurp, and if you scare easy, this one is not for you. There are several places in which you find it hard to swallow the all-too convenient connections random characters — a couple of too-gullible NGO types who work with children, and an on-the-warpath wife of a murdered man — are able to make, to show up for the kill. The camera often lingers on those who are hurting, and those who are doing the hurting too long, and too often. What saves it is the space it gives over to its saviours, regular working cops who are invested in what they do even though they are aware of the constraints that bind them. A couple of interesting folk — a safari-suit-clad middle-aged gent who wants to lure Radha to a shadowy agency which is busy saving the world, and a gorgeous woman with an accent, who claims she is an escort, but is actually a staunch anti-Mata Hari figure — pop up as well.
But these come and go. The beating heart of the series is Inspector Radha Nautiyal, a conscientious policewoman whose fluent use of coarse language hasn’t coarsened her: she cannot sleep, and uses that fact not to invite sympathy, but simply as a characteristic. Her relationship with Naman is interesting too, but nowhere does she lose sight of the fact of herself as a professional first and foremost. ‘You are a good cop, and I am a very good cop,’ she says. She’s not boasting. Radha Nautiyal is truly a good cop, and Bhasker plays her with acuity and awareness: there are many things the dense, multi-layered plot makes her do which stretch credulity, but she manages to keep Radha real. In a skilful build-up, we get to know her more with each passing episode: her backstory is the stuff of nightmares, and we finally discover why she cannot sleep.
Finally, this has to be said too: the only reason we sit through the bad stuff — the pawing and the beating, the casual and deliberate sexual violence, the chopped fingers and the bleeding body parts — is because we know that the good cop, who is on the side of the angels, will come calling.
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