In episode 7 of the Mayank Sharma-directed Breathe Into The Shadows, an exasperated Abha (Nithya Menen), a chef and wife of psychiatrist Avinash Sabhrawal (Abhishek Bachchan), says to her husband, “This can’t go on and on.” While she’s referring to the threats by a masked kidnapper who is commissioning a series of murders that the couple has to execute to retrieve their daughter, I felt Menon when she said that this can’t go on and on. Because Breathe Into The Shadows, a show that is significantly less clever than it thinks it is, is 12-episodes long, with each episode clocking over 45 minutes.
Much of the action that unfolds in each episode could’ve been succinctly narrated within a 30-minute window, a decision that’d not only make committing to the series easier but would reflect some self-awareness on part of the makers. Sure, your aspiration is a True Detective-style slow burn and you also want to end the episodes with a neat cliffhanger but it isn’t slow burn if nothing is burning in the first place. Breathe Into The Shadows gives a false sense of narrative urgency but it’s only towards the end that you realise you’ve learnt so little about the characters, the world, and the plot for the duration of time spent.
As Abha and Avinash keep executing the kidnapper’s sociopathic fantasy with the ease of a couple shopping for doormats (to be fair, that could objectively be tougher), there’s a sense of clinical detachment to their process. Even more than halfway through, you learn nothing about the nature of this marriage, their relationship outside of their morbid context. Throwing your primary characters into a dark moral dilemma is a great opportunity to explore their own complexities. But in Abha and Avinash, we get two bland people who appear as if they’ve participated in a reality show that has no actual consequences.
Ideally, as the cops (Amit Sadh) close in on the mastermind, you’d want to root for the couple to get away with it all, the punishment being to live with the truth of their dastardly actions. And yet, you actually root for them to get caught. Writers Bhavani Iyer, Vikram Tuli and Mayank Sharma fail to flesh and locate the protagonists out as real, breathing people who pause for a moment to introspect their actions. And since you don’t buy into the very idea of an everyday couple turning into overnight serial killers, any explanation that follows - and there’s a lot of psychobabble conflated with Indian mythology thrown in, sure to enrage mental health experts - rests on thin ground, the end never quite adding up satisfyingly.
And then there’s the trite writing. Everything is spelt out. Just in case you miss it, there are a dozen flashbacks to remind you what happened only a few scenes ago with that annoying echo-y repetition that almost feel disrespectful. In one scene, Menen’s Abha says, “why is he playing these mind games.” Bingo. Psychiatrist is triggered. “What did you say?” You heard her just fine, doc. Drop the drama. She repeats. What does Bachchan say in return? “I’m a psychiatrist. And who knows how to play mind games better than a psychiatrist?” I suppose it’s just good mental health advice to stay away from a show where a celebrated doctor says a line such as this.
There are subplots. The police investigation, led by a competent Amit Sadh (basic vibe: wounded cop, recovering from past trauma, needs redemption) is slightly more interesting. There’s a lowkey attempt to create a Sartaj Singh-Katekar camaraderie between Sadh’s Kabir Sawant and Hrishikesh Joshi’s Prakash Kamble, his trusted aide, but the writing never infuses any humanity into their relationship, keeping it strictly functional.
That’s the problem with Breathe Into The Shadows: it never allows its characters to be truly vulnerable. There was a real chance here to explore the parental grief and trauma of a missing child and how it chips away at a marriage, of police bureaucracy that thwarts efficiency and finally of a complex mental illness of which very little is understood, but the show is too caught up in appearing ‘intelligent’ to delve into the broader canvass.
Often, technical flourishes elevate a mediocre narrative by providing visual relief (although neither of the two can exist in a vacuum). And yet, for all the promise Delhi offered, to be looked at as a ghostly landscape that it morphs into at nights, show DoP S. Bharathwaaj makes the capital look listless and bereft of character. For a show with such an evocative title, the camera brings none of the genre qualities of noir, its gaze standard and uninspiring, capturing the drama and the city with the detached sensibility of a college documentarian.
Also, leave the Metros alone. They no longer are indicative of Delhi.
Let’s not even get started on the background score, a composition that pronounces and punctuates every feeling lest you forget to, well, feel it. The score that accompanies the kidnapper’s scenes literally say, “look-at-this-creepy-show-we’ve-made’ instead of quietly meting into, well, the background. Scenes that could potentially be more effective with silences are bombarded with a tune that reaches a crescendo where you just want to say, “Shut up.”
Finally, a word on the characters essayed by women. Always on the margins. Abha might be a chef but we hardly ever see her at work, unlike Avinash, whose work becomes the centrepiece of the narrative. She might be involved in the action, eventually, but she’s still following instructions from Avinash, never quite thinking on her own or nudging their so-called masterplan in a specific direction. That Avinash is the doc and hence master of mind games is a lazy justification to rob her character of more layers. Menen is an actor whose talents range beyond just looking harrowed and hysterical. She’s great to watch nonetheless but deserved a broader spectrum to play around with.
Shradha Kaul’s Zeba Rizvi, a competent cop, has precious little to do after the case is taken over by Sadh’s Kabir Savant. Sayami Kher, coming after a terrific turn in Anurag Kashyap’s Choked moonlights as a sex-worker but is sparsely present. The other female character, Meghna, is literally crippled. And gets to say lines such as “Pain is inevitable but misery is optional” which sound like they’ve been stolen from a WhatsApp forward sent by Uncle Annoying.
Bachchan has improved significantly as an actor. You see his sincerity and commitment to the part here but there are moments - especially the more dramatic ones - where his limitations seep in through the cracks, his face’s awkward awareness of the camera - as if it’s registering the act of being looked at - revealing itself. It’s Amit Sadh who’s the better performer here. It takes a while to get used to his character but Sadh is remarkably consistent, bringing in a sense of gravitas to a character that’s essentially an archetype.
Breathe Into A Shadow may not wear its masculinity on its sleeve but its core is rooted in male angst and its convoluted expression. Long and limping, Breathe Into The Shadows breaks Amazon Prime Video’s spell of dropping consistently brilliant shows. But after Paatal Lok, it’s hard for any show to take your breath away.