By Poulomi Das Jul. 11, 2020
Breathe: Into the Shadows is littered with abrupt subplots involving manic pixie dream girls who lose legs but not their chirpiness and tacky flashbacks that make a joke out of repressed trauma and mental illness. Plot twists are executed in such an incompetent fashion that it garners renewed respect for Abbas Mastan outings.
In the first season of Breathe, an anguished father (R Madhavan) hunts down and kills innocent organ donors so that his six-year-old terminally ill son is bumped up the list of organ recipients. The occasional silliness of its premise was buttressed by the fact that the show and its makers didn’t explicitly take sides – as a viewer one could sympathise with the helplessness of a father racing against time as well as his victims. That made Breathe a pulsating thriller even when the storyline wasn’t entirely convincing. Sadly, that’s not something you can say about the sequel, Breathe: Into the Shadows, starring Abhishek Bachchan.
Breathe didn’t fetishise the very nature of violence. The “serial killer” at the centre of its proceedings was ultimately an ordinary man. His inner turmoil about turning into someone who derived perverse pleasure from killing was etched out with precision. Breathe managed to retain a moral ambiguity in its tragic circumstances that made it difficult to conclude whether its hero was really the villain or the victim of his own story.
The second season, Breathe: Into the Shadows, however, is more invested in theatrics than in being thrilling. From the beginning, it leaves nothing up to interpretation.
A series that rests on shaky ground
Co-written and directed by Mayank Sharma, Breathe: Into the Shadows – now streaming on Amazon Prime – is a thematic sequel that arrives with a new plot and cast, retaining only Amit Sadh’s grieving cop from the previous season. There’s a desperate father ready to go to any lengths to protect his child this time around as well but the journey here is shaky and irresponsible, marking the first big letdown from the streaming giant.
The reason for that primarily stems from the makers choosing to repeat the one-line premise of a rule-abiding citizen committing crimes against his wishes, retrofitting a tragedy that forces brutal killings. Unlike the first season however, the circumstances are neither novel nor gripping.
The protagonist in Breathe: Into the Shadows is Avinash Sabharwal (Abhishek Bachchan making his digital debut), a diligent, high-profile psychiatrist whose daughter is kidnapped by a man with a limp. Nine months into the kidnapping, Avi and his wife Abha (Nithya Menen, wasted in a thankless role) start receiving mysterious instructions from the kidnapper.
He demands that Avi kill a set of people, video-record their gruesome deaths on their phones, and then send that video to news channels in exchange for the safe return of his daughter. Initially, Avi is tasked with murdering 10 people, each victim cherry-picked to represent negative emotions (anger, fear, lust) that Raavan’s ten heads stand for, which as the season progresses, turns out to be an utterly pointless mythological connection. That Breathe: Into the Shadows manages to actually cover only three murders despite 12 laborious episodes (!) is testament to how ill-conceived the plot is in the first place.
Throughout, the makers go into overdrive to heighten the stakes in the season. The show unfolds as a cat and mouse chase between Avi and Kabir Sawant (Sadh), the moody cop leading the investigation. It simultaneously operates as a whodunnit, begging for curiosity over the identity of the kidnapper and the backstories of the people he wants dead. Then there’s also a layer of deception involved: As a doctor with a history of assisting the police force with solving crimes, Avi is asked to join Kabir in the investigations, effectively looking into the murders he is responsible for.
Breathe: Into the Shadows, however, is more invested in theatrics than in being thrilling.
Twisted core undone by weak writing
Yet the show reserves the fullest extent of its twisted core in the identity of the kidnapper. But the writing, weak and repetitive, is unable to turn any of these plot points into something capable of sustaining suspense or the viewer’s attention over the course of 45-minute episodes. For instance, both the kidnapper and his motives are revealed halfway through the season in a plot-twist that, on paper, had the potential to be truly sinister. On screen though, it ends up being a comically ridiculous proposition executed in such an incompetent fashion that it garners renewed respect for Abbas Mastan outings.
The filmmaking is just as forgettable. Even though Breathe: Into the Shadows makes a big deal about being set in Delhi, the cinematography – unnecessarily bathed in Instagrammable darkness – is so generic that it doesn’t give the city a chance to either stand out or inform the depravity of the proceedings. The over-enthusiastic background score often feels like a parody of itself, calling attention to itself during crucial moments just in case the viewer forgets to feel scared. The plot is overstuffed, littered with abrupt subplots involving jealous female police officers, manic pixie dream girls who lose legs but not their chirpiness, and tacky flashbacks that make a joke out of repressed trauma and mental illness.
But it’s the reluctance on the part of the writers to delve deep into the psyche of its characters that makes matters more unsatisfying. Breathe: Into the Shadows maintains such a distance from its protagonists, their motives and insecurities that even after 12 episodes, their actions come across as implausible.
From the very beginning, the show’s loyalties lie with Avi to an extent that it doesn’t miss any opportunity to justify his actions. Even then, Bachchan, a sincere actor, is not given much to work with – his is perhaps the most underwritten role where backstory is substituted for gimmicks. It also doesn’t help that Sadh, an actor with terrific screen presence, is reduced to a supporting act and his character stripped of all complexity.
Instead, the route that Breathe: Into the Shadows employs to infuse tension is an unhealthy amount of titillation. Its violence is fetishished to a worrying extent (a man is brutally mowed down in a garbage dumpyard; a dog is run over by a car) but the real danger is how it reduces mental illness to a narrative device, equating it not just with villainy but also implying that seeking professional help might be a bad thing for the mentally ill. The show’s mystery is built on the questionable mental health of the kidnapper, a reckless decision given that the writers seem blind to the seriousness of the situation. Sadly, Breathe:Into the Shadows joins the damaging trend of shows and movies that continue to exploit mental illness without actually engaging with it.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.