Swara Bhasker on Flesh: Our intent was to disturb, not titillate
The actor, along with co-star Akshay Oberoi, talks about the depiction of violence and trafficking in Flesh
In capturing a cruel and vicious world, Indian web-shows often end up resembling it. The blame hasn’t spared the eight-part Eros Now series Flesh, which reveals the dark realities of human trafficking through harsh bursts of violence and shock. The intent, possibly, was to make us flinch at the starkness of the subject matter. However, with grotesque sexual violence becoming an almost permanent fixture in our shows, how do you tell good intentions from bad?
We pose the question to Swara Bhasker, who plays a conscientious anti-trafficking cop, ACP Radha Nautiyal, in Flesh. “Our aim was not to make violence against women and children consumable,” Swara says. “We didn’t try to titillate the audience or cater to the male gaze. Our intention was to show a disturbing reality, so that we think seriously about what goes on in our midst and raise our voices against it.”
Flesh is directed by Danish Aslam from a story by Pooja Ladha Surti, Siddharth Anand and Sagar Pandya. Starting from Mumbai, the thriller unfurls in two tracks: in one, Zoya (Mahima Makwana), a rich NRI girl, is abducted and sold into the flesh trade. Parallelly, we see children at an orphanage get imbued into a similar network. The show provides a cross-section of the various levels at which trafficking operates: from government-run shelter homes to plush cities. Swara says it’s startling how deep the nexus runs. “We saw it recently during the Muzaffarpur shelter home case. People from all walks of life are complicit in this crime. It’s a form of modern slavery, and a damning indictment of our world.”
The urgency of the subject aside, Swara was stoked to play a spunky undercover cop in Flesh. This is the first time the actor has handled a firearm, and, by her own admission, she ‘hated’ the experience. “I’m a scaredy-cat in real life so this was my biggest challenge. First time I shot a gun, I had tinnitus in my ears for half an hour.”
As her mission progresses, Radha is locked into a cat-and-mouse game with Taj (Akshay Oberoi), a psychotic enforcer in Kolkata. The deranged bisexual villain was an experiment for Akshay, best liked for his typical ‘Bandra boy’ roles. “I haven’t played a dark, mean role like this since Gurgaon (2016),” Akshay says. “I love breaking my image as an actor. Just before Flesh, I had played a father of two kids in Hum Tum Aur Them (on ZEE5). So this was a complete 360-degree turn.”
Like Swara, Akshay feels the violence in the show isn’t force-fitted. “Audiences today are smart enough to tell an artifice. Danish is a sensible director. He has kept a good control over the material. He didn’t go overboard just because it’s a web show. He kept the violence in line with how these characters would realistically behave.”
Since his debut with Isi Life Mein...! (2010), Akshay has flitted comfortably between films and web series. Flesh is his fourth web release in 2020. The actor says he isn’t hungry for glamourous leading parts, focusing instead on unique and enriching roles. “Given the way I look, I could have easily chased after conventional chocolate boy parts. My focus, however, has been on becoming a better actor. The web space, thankfully, has been a blessing in this regard. Of late, the pandemic has also played a role in making it the most popular medium right now.”
Last month, Swara had tweeted about the media scrutiny surrounding Rhea Chakraborty in the Sushant Singh Rajput case. Several actors including Taapsee Pannu, Lakshmi Manchu, and Vidya Balan had criticised the sensationalist reporting on the ongoing investigation.
“I stand by what I said,” Swara says. “I don’t think it’s the job of us as a civil society to be prosecutors or judges. There is a whole judicial process in this country that must be allowed to do its job. I think the media, especially the mainstream media, has played an extremely irresponsible role in Sushant’s case.”