Danny Mascarenhas: he should probably get a "Father of the year" award; too bad his son Josh only has 6 months to live. Also, he kills people. Breathe, Amazon Prime's new original web series, is sort of, kind of India's answer to AMC's Breaking Bad, with R Madhavan demonstrating how the road to (Christian) hell is paved with good intentions.
Madhavan plays the aforementioned Danny, a widower and doting father to six-year-old Josh, who requires an urgent lung transplant to save him from a fatal disease. While he’s fourth on the organ transplant receiver’s list, he has less than 6 month to survive. So what’s a father to do? If you answered “wait and be glad since in a city of nearly 20 million people at least three organ donors will statistically pop it within six month”, you’re probably not going to be penning a murder mystery any time soon.
As Danny, with growing alacrity, begins to prepare a ‘kill list’ of organ donors in Mumbai, we are introduced to an alcoholic, but brilliant, police inspector whose life in shambles following the tragic accidental death of his own daughter and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage to Pia (Sapna Pabbi). Senior inspector Kabir Sawant, a deductive whiz kid whose star was ascendant before his daughter’s gun related death (the show constantly shows how woke it is whether through discussions on demonetization and farmer suicides or online ordering of sex toys; very on the nose, Amazon) struggles to find some measure of comfort, or at least sedation, from his grief in the depths of a succession of bottles, refusing to let go of the past.
Breathe truly belongs to Madhavan, as the actor loses himself in his role of doting dad turned crappy (but improving) criminal. Whether he's plotting death in a dusty warehouse with only a stray dog for company or having one-sided conversations with his wife's grave or bumbling (initially anyway) his way through crime, he is the beating heart of this crime drama. That's not to say that the rest of the cast is idling away. Every actor in the show manages to deliver a nuanced performance, whether their role is peripheral or integral.
Amit Sadh's Kabir is the very antithesis to a seemingly sensible and well-adjusted Danny. He reeks of alcohol and regret, his eyes bloodshot and baggy, and he never goes anywhere without his hip flask (this last affectation is stretched to breaking point, in that there are scenes in which he literally has a glass of booze in his hand but invariably ends up swigging from his flask in the middle). His evident bitterness is palpably sweetened by the presence of his devoted but irreverent sidekick, sub-inspector Prakash Kamble (Hrishikesh Joshi). Joshi, as Kamble, is the quintessential middle-class Indian male, with a penchant for office-chair philosophizing, eschewing his wife's packed tiffin for kebabs at local dives, and a little too concerned about his malfunctioning "machinery" at the approach of middle age and 16 years of marriage. Together, Kabir and Kamble make for an arresting investigative team (pun totally intended), and are my personal favorites in the show.
With the narrative mainly switching between Danny and the dynamic duo, everyone else is relegated to secondary roles but make the most of it. What's notable is that, despite their limited screen time and lines, the female characters always beautifully underline how the men in their lives are basically petulant children who refuse to grow up. So a special shout out to the ladies, especially Sapna Pabbi who is luminescent as a mother and wife dulled by grief and the ever-graceful Nina Kulkarni, who plays Danny's mother.
Indeed, it's the cast that carries you through the various pot and plot holes in the script and direction of the series. For instance, Danny commits ALL his crimes without even attempting to alter or hide his face because apparently we live in a world where omnipotent cameras and recordings aren't a thing. And his god-damned smartwatch has more screen time than several key characters, serving as the visual centerpiece for far too many scenes. Tempus fugit and all, but product placement isn't always the best way to demonstrate it.
In any case, Amazon followed an interesting stratagem with the screening of Breathe: its first four episodes released simultaneously late in January, with the remaining four being released one at a time over the next four weeks. In an age in which we seek and find constant instant gratification (specially on the internet, ahem), this might seem slightly contrarian, but it’s actually rather shrewd.
The first three episodes of the show uncoil lazily like a snake in the sun, carefully establishing the stage and the players that er, breathe life into it. This slow burn is then sharply turned up to boiling point from the fourth episode, as Kabir finally realizes that something is rotten in the spate of organ donor deaths even as Danny hones his killer instincts and skills, a snake rearing up for the strike, to continue the allegory. And then you’re hooked, having already become invested in the characters and story, and wait for the next installment on Friday. With the series wrapping up by the end of this month, it gives you enough time to catch up before the conclusion. Just don’t forget to, you know, breathe.