1. Breathe (2018): I was hooked from the word go, when in a preamble that rivals the opening montage of the James Bond films—spoiler ahead--a young girl is seen wrapping her head with plastic to commit suicide on camera. It’s an astounding opening to a cat-and-mouse thriller packaged and executed with the panache and precocity of a Clint Eastwood cops-and-robbers films, replete with dialogues that embrace colloquialism and conceits without filtering, but with more time to let the characters and grow…and well, breathe…than allowed in a feature film. While it would be imprudent to give away the many twists and turns as the drama unfolds, suffice it to say that the production design and how the camera captures the frenzy and anguish of the two protagonists, both perched precariously on the precipice of self-destruction, is a testimony to the testosterone level that the series aspires to, largely achieves. The performances range from the outstanding to the extremely competent. There is no scope or patience for tackiness in profile personality or performance here, as one expertly executed incident supersedes another with barely any breathing space. Special mention must be made of Amit Sadh as a burnt-out cop—obviously, inspired by the genre’s swaggering prototype from Hollywood…you know, the cop who is grieving and drinking and sulking and abusing constantly? The last time an actor in Bollywood pulled off such an act with credible flamboyance was Randeep Hooda in Jannat 2.Amit Sadh imparts his own individual stamp on the part. He gets terrific support from Marathi actor Hrishikesh Joshi as his family-oriented erectile-dysfunctional partner. There is a brilliant sequence in the second episode where Sadh’s cop character visits Joshi’s home. The responses of his family to the visitor are astutely authentic and engaging. But above all Breathe is a triumph for Madhavan. As Danny, a straitlaced upright whitecollar man and a grieving desperate father who goes to shocking lengths to save his little son’s life, Madhavan expresses grief, rage, frustration, guilt, repentance and self-destruction with measured excellence. This is a showcase for an actor at the peak of his power. And boy, does Madhavan embrace the opportunity! There is an anguished plea for human-organ donation underlining the drama of dysfunctional morality. But except for one sanctimonious outburst in a hospital lobby where Madhavan tries, rather naively, to convince the son of a dying man to donate his organs with statistics thrown in for good measure, you are not subjected to moralizing in the 8-part series lot of detailing has gone into making the plot and its execution uniformly watchable. You will find it hard to resist watching the entire series in one go. But then, the beauty of a finite series is that it keeps you talking about the plot and characters until the next episode. Breathe gets that, and almost everything else, right.
2. 4 More Shots Please (2019): There’s something sexily seductive about a web series that stars only good looking sassy women grappling with problems related to their heart and, ahem, vagina. What happened to all the not-so-good looking women? Are they shooting for Ekta Kapoor’s tv serials? In one of the 10 episodes of 4 More Shots Please we have all the four chic protagonists, sitting together at the seaside shouting out the various slang that are synonyms to ‘vagina’. Needless to say, we won’t get this level of sexual frankness in our movies.No, not even in Veera Di Wedding which was an unabashed celebration of sisterhood. But did the four friends discuss masturbation and the size of men’s penis? They do in this series. Deal with it. Whether we actually WANT this level of frankness is entirely our choice. But the four spunky right actresses sure add a spark to their spiked dialogues as they throw off their high heels, get off the high horse for some serious fun. The very talented and beautiful Kirti Kulhari plays Anjana who self-admittedly hasn’t had sex since her daughter, now 4, was born. She talks to her vagina and, surprise, the vagina talks back. Monologues be damned. Intelligently attractive Sayani Gupta is Damini a no-holds-barred investigative journalist who has the hots for the friendly bartender(Prateik Babbar, suitably beefy and affable) and for the neighbourhood autumnal sex symbol(Milind Soman who looks a bit lost ). There is also a dog in Damini’s life that needs serious attention. Since Maanvi Gagroo is an overweight actress her character Siddhi is battling weight issues and her overbearing but beautiful mother(Simone Singh)’s constant attempts to get her married. This track could have been done with a bit more push and heft. It seems somewhat flat in comparison with the rest of the provocative proceedings. The most interesting of the four protagonists is Umang(veejay Gurbani), a lately-uncloseted bi-sexual who flees her conservative Punjabi home to a red-hot smouldering attraction to ageing but still-sexy actress(Lisa Ray, every bit the femme fatale). All the four actresses get into the mood of the moment, immerse themselves into preying on rather than playing their characters, enjoying every morsel of the delectable writing(Devaki Pandit, take a bow), juicing every dramatic and comic scene with a relish that replicates the closing moments of sexual intercourse. The bonding among the four friends seems credible not because they swear by one another, but because they often sweat AT one another. Close friendships are not just about sugar and honey. They can get bitter and ugly, as it often does among the quartet of friends here, played with unpunctuated breathless yet breezy expertise by Kulhari, Gupta, Gurbani and Gagroo. Ladies, you rock! The supporting cast is also very attractive. An actor like Neil Bhoopalam knows how to create space for himself. No character serves the purpose of a space filler. The episodes move at a taut but fluent pace whipping up a lather of luscious emotions, all fairly pleasant but not afraid to reach out to the darker moments when needed. Four Shots More Please addresses itself to the urges, vaginal or otherwise, of urban working-class women. In that endeavour, you may feel these smart sexy urbane women of the web serials are defiantly obliterating the reality beyond the metros. But then, who here is claiming to be a social reformer? These ladies only want to live life queen size, tequila shots on the house. More power to them.
3. Made In Heaven (2019): This is the sexiest web series India has produced, no doubt about it. The love scenes, both hetero and homosexual, look real with the actors letting loose the kind of unbridled physical passion that was so far forbidden in Indian cinema. Welcome to the hormonal revolution. In fact, one of the earliest episodes of this nine-episode entertainer had the protagonist Shobita Dhulipala and her screen-husband Jim Sarbh with their hands, legs and tongues all over the screen. Such lack of inhibition is the most refreshing. Bring it on. Say hello to this bracing antidote to repression. Every major character in “Made In Heaven” is waiting to break free from one form of repression or another. Shobita’s character Tara who comes from a humble middle-class background has married into money and now ‘money’ is cheating on her with her best friend. You can’t have your diamonds without sleepless nights. Sleepless nights remind me of Arjun Mathur’s character Karan Mehra who is a closeted homosexual yearning to come out, grappling with emotional and financial problems. Together these two very fine actors, Arjun and Shobhita, plot and plan through a string of affluent weddings, lavish on both food and feud, fuelled by desire and desperation and a longing to find a more relevant core in their plush lifestyle than what is affordable to the senses. Some of these characters are wretchedly unhappy. I mean, how successful can a marriage be when the wife-to-be sleep with a Bollywood superstar (wishful casting of Pulkit Samrat) who is invited to perform at her wedding? Or a tycoon’s sole male heir (the underused Pavail Gulati from the miniseries “Yudh”) who tells his parents that his wife is no golddigger and that the child she aborted in the past was his when it was not? Lies seem to fuel the passions of these inflamed characters. A simmering discontent underlines the well laid-out drama, like a still blue pool that whirls and swirls underneath. Accordingly, the truthful moments shine brightly in the series. There is this epiphanous encounter between our hero Karan and his snoopy landlord’s zany daughter (Yashaswini Dayama, wish there was more of her in the series) when he catches her smoking and reprimands her, and she tells him he shouldn’t stay out all night. They both know each other’s guilty secrets and are comfortable in their knowledge. The writing (Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar, Niranjan Iyenger, Alankrita Shrivastava, Vivek Anchalia) is fluent and feisty. The dialogues hit the right notes without putting too fine a point on it. While the surfaces glisten with gloss, this is not a series that wallows in superficial glamour. Not by half.Issues on societal hypocrisy (Arjun runs into a lover all set to marry an unsuspecting bride who when confronted hits back with, “Will you marry me?” )A run through the series creating a tingling spine of revelations on topics that cinema refrains from exploring. The performances range from outstanding to satisfactory, and the quality doesn’t depend on the length of the character’s role. Shivani Raghuvanshi has less playing time than the other protagonists. But she nails it as a small-towner Jazz (real name Jaspreet), revelling in the life of the rich and the privileged. Though a brunt of sniggers, it is Jazz who often comes up with solutions in deadlocked weddings.
4. Inside Edge Season 2 (2019): Here in the second season of Inside Edge the momentum and velocity of Season 1 are maintained. Not once in the first five episodes did I feel the characters or the narrative were dragging their feet. The passion and energy of the cricketers, and the cricketers’ mentors and manipulators flow without any stressful push from the serial’s creators. The push, if any, comes from the drama itself. Season 2 opens with a kickass preamble where a hotshot tv journalist (no resemblance to Arnab) crosses the line while interviewing the powerful IPL baron Bhaisaheb (Amir Bashir, splendidly reined-in and enigmatic) and pays for it with his job which he loses with one text message sent from Bhaisahab’s phone, Immediately we know the pursuit of and passion for power remains uncompromised in the series even as these exceedingly ambitious entrepreneurs and sportspersons manipulate every rule in the book of life and ethics to get what they want. This riveting series of ambitious people wouldn’t have worked without the ambitious writing. The screenplay allows the characters to float freely and then drown in their own ambitions. That almost all the actors get the point, helps pump up the adrenaline level even further. I found every actor to be outstanding. But special mention must be made of Aamir Bashir, Tanuj Virwani(as a hotheaded star cricketer, get it?), Angad Bedi(playing the only morally correct character among the shortcut seekers) Richa Chaddha, Siddhant Chaturvedi(as the paranoid panic-stricken smalltown cricketer his role is here is a far cry from his cocky aggressive Gully Boys), Manu Rishi and Sayani Gupta. These are sparkling performances, that shine when applied to situations and dialogues that are dramatic without going over-the-top. Observe how Richa’s Zareen Malik manipulates her way into the powerful IPL, sorry PPL baron undermining the sports baron’s own daughter(Sapna Pabbi)’s prominence. The crackling but curbed chemistry between Chadda and Aamir Bashir blows the screen apart. You don’t have to be a cricket fan to enjoy Inside Edge 2. What this handsome series says about arrogant ambition and self-destructive pride applies to every walk of life. What this series could have avoided is an overdose of one-liner googlies.They tend to get in the way of real issues. Also, why the stereotyping of Pakistan? When Vivek Oberoi lands in Lahore to threaten/cajole/seduce the vice president of the Pakistan cricket team everything including the vice president’s shirt turns green. And the song Khai ke paan Banaras Wala is translated in the subtitles as ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’.
Image source: IMDb, Youtube/AmazonPrimeVideoIndia