This Has Been A Good Year For Cinema That Is Driven By The Voices Of Women
Somewhere along the year, 2016 has created an echo chamber for women’s voices, with films made by women that go beyond speaking just for women, just as a film made by a man, Pink, speaks for and to women (and most importantly, to men). Out of the four films made by women, three are by debutants and explore issues, themes and territories in styles that are strikingly personal. In that sense, they are not confined to an echo chamber. The themes range from women’s repressed sexuality, the search for sexual identity by a transgendered actor, a mother’s determination to educate her daughter and the fractured lives of an increasingly dystopian megacity. These four women film-makers could not be more different.
There is the established Leena Yadav (though her Shabd is eminently forgettable), who has done the festival route extensively with Parched. Ananya Kasaravalli has transited from actress to documentary film-maker to feature with an astonishingly assured and sensitive exploration of a Yakshagana actor’s gender identity, in the Kannada film Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari). Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary pays cheery homage to a hardworking, determined mother in the inspirational, feel good Nil Battey Sannata. Ruchika Oberoi experiments with Island City, a collection of three short stories, that is interlinked by an overarching view that connects three disparate stories set in the Maximum City that condemns its denizens to an atomized existence.
Parched has word of mouth publicity working for it, along with curiosity — prurient, going by the gangly teenager sitting beside me in the minuscule theatre — roused by leaked images on YouTube. Be that as it may, Yadav tells a gusty, earthy story of three women linked by deep friendship, as they battle abuse in a patriarchal, rural society that could be Kutch or Rajasthan. She spices the grim tale with raunchy humour (with a female subversion of the ma behen gaalis) and the unexpected discovery of what a vibrating mobile can do to aid a sexually frustrated woman. Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow with a surly, horny teenaged son Gulab, for whose marriage she has mortgaged her house to pay the bride price for an educated, 15-year old Janki, from a neighbouring village. Her best friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is branded barren by her chronically drunk, abusive husband. The third in this trio is Bijli (Surveen Chawla), the swaggering dancer whose performances — including a desi pole version — have men drooling. She also entertains paying customers afterwards — but her reign is threatened by a younger rival. She is not only more worldly wise but knowledgeable too, about a man being infertile. Bijli introduces Lajjo, whose burning desire is to be a mother, to a fantasy figure of a cave-dwelling sadhu, whose lovemaking is tender, sensuous and a homage to womanhood. Presto, Lajjo is pregnant — and thrashed by her husband, who knows his inadequacy. Another helpful figure, Kishan — not a fantasy figure — is an NGO worker who provides an income to the women, skilled in traditional embroidery. There you get the full range of ethnic crafts kept alive by women. Shot by Oscar winning cameraman Russel Carpenter (Titanic), the colours and moods of the designer ethnic chic of the location add a sheen that stops short of the exotic as a selling point. Even if it capitalised on the exotic, so be it. The serious flaw in Yadav’s storytelling is the lack of any grey in her characterisation. All the men in the village, with the exception of the sadhu and Kishan, are stereotypes of various degrees of evil. The worst offender is Gulab, the son, who is so coarse, selfish and ruthless that it is unbelievable. Yadav gives no explanation as to why this young man is so resentful, violent and vicious. It is a convenient ploy for Rani to bond with the young daughter-in-law and set her free. Feminism doesn’t mean you make men into caricatures of cruelty in order to expose the rigid patriarchy that denies women their needs, wants, worth and dignity to live as individuals. Feminist discourse has moved beyond these stereotypes decades ago.
In contrast, Ananya Kasaravalli brings underplayed sensitivity and empathy to her film, set around the environs of Udupi, where Yakshagana is fighting for survival. It is based on a story by Gopalakrishna Pai. The framing device is not new, but is effective. A pair of documentary film-makers, a young woman and her long-haired man-bun sporting cameraman, probe a Yakshagana troupe about the reported suicide of a young man called Harischandra (Shrunga, who conveys somuch through body language and expressive eyes), popular for playing female roles. Three segments unspool, where the hero is called Hari, Chandru and Kumar by different people who entered his life at different stages. We first see Hari, with long hair loosely knotted, wearing a lungi and shirt. His mother wants to get him married when he is home, a periodic pause in a peripatetic life. He is rejected for following an unstable vocation where he is away for months at a time. He cuts off his long hair in defiance and visits a woman known for being “friendly” with actors. She sees his soft hands and tender manner, and finally says that only a woman can understand another woman. Hari flees from the encounter in despair. He confesses to a fellow actor: am I a man playing a woman (during an all-night performance) or a woman playing a man during the day? The confusion leads to Hari wearing long skirts and being mocked and humiliated, not just by people in the village but his own mother and younger brother, who cast him out.
Chapter three sees Hari in a different place, finally comfortable wearing a sari and a short bob combed in a feminine style. An older Yakshagana actor, Devanna, takes him under his wing, shares his house and life story, and they perform a dual act to tiny audiences. Is Hari a transgender, but not gay? The film leaves it ambiguous, though there is a prolonged shot of Devanna caressing Hari’s arm with a tenderness that borders on the sexual, but they are interrupted by unwelcome visitors. Their unconventional lifestyle invites the villagers’ wrath. They want Hari to be thrown out and summon the local cop. Kasaravalli combines the myths that go into traditional performance with the personal tragedy of a man hounded for preferring to dress as a woman in real life. After performing the story of Amba’s curse upon Bhishma before immolating herself, we see Hari in close up, stark face clean of stage make up, drowning inch by inch in the river. Water is a pervasive presence in a film that is rooted to its setting, nuanced in the use of local dialect and stage rhetoric, and finely attuned to the suffering of an actor made an outcast — a fine debut fitting her legacy, since Ananya is the daughter of Girish Kasaravalli, who has won numerous national awards, starting with the landmark Ghatashraddha. Her film has been selected for Busan and featured in MAMI.
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary sets her heartwarming film in Agra, and one of the delights is the local inflections given to Hindi. Chanda (Swara Bhaskar, finally in a lead role) is a single mother slaving at multiple jobs so that her 15-year old daughter gets an education. Maths is the bugbear for daughter Apu, and Nil Battey Sannata tells you how Chanda cajoles, threatens and finally enrolls in the same government school to challenge the reluctant learner. Tiwary doesn’t make it a preachy tract, by infusing fun, credible characters and situations to weave the whole uplifting tale into an engaging film. Chanda is not the treacly, teary mother familiar through the ages. She is gutsy and fierce, eager to learn so she can challenge Apu to do better. Ratna Pathak Shah is wholly in character as the doctor for whom Chanda cooks, not just helpful in dealing with obdurate school authorities with her breezy nonchalance but really motivating the maid to disprove the adage that a Bai’s daughter will be a Bai. Chanda proves to herself and society that a Bai’s daughter can dare to dream of being a collector. Tiwary’s casting of major and minor characters is spot on, and her humour — though forced on occasion — hits the right key most of the time. A personal note — the film is not just a cheery fable. My maid, who worked for 20 years with me, put her only daughter through college and made her a chartered accountant. Such ambitions do come true.
Island City is a brave triptych that stays in the mind, posing unanswered questions. Ruchika Oberoi sees individuals as lonely islands floating in an impersonal sea, where connections are fragile, doomed before they have a chance to grow. Dystopian visions of society are rare in our cinema, unlike the West, where futuristic depictions are of a postapocalyptic world. A heroic figure emerges to bring some kind of ethical order and notions of honour in the scramble for survival. Unsurprisingly, the films gain a cult status. A prime example: the Hunger Games series, which saw Jennifer Lawrence emerge a huge star with a following among pre-teen and teenaged girls.
It is not Hollywood that shows its influence on Island City. The director goes back to the mother lode of such futuristic scenarios — Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis. Robotised workers were tethered to an underground, a relentless machine that chained them. Here, in the savagely satiric Fun Frolic Festivity story, the milieu is an aseptic, dehumanized corporation; the bleakness of existence is not measured out in spoons, but timed to the beep of electronic devices.
The second story, The Ghost in the Machine, is the most engaging at an emotional level. Sarita (Amrutha Subhash) is a middleclass Maharashtrian housewife who gets a job she loves after her husband — a gunned down Systematics employee — is in a coma. She, her mother- in- law and two sons soon find their alternate reality in a TV soap, Purushottam. In Contact, the third story, Aarti (Tannishta Chatterjee) slaves away at a printing press, enduring her loutish fiancé, who thinks he is doing her a favour. Aarti’s life is changed when she starts getting anonymous letters that are odes to her inner beauty.Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak) is the guinea pig chosen by the system as the weekly winner of enforced fun, where he is transported to a mall (where else?) to complete his quota of coupons that give him balloons, candy, a ride on the merry go round and assorted clothes. Desperate to come back from this joyless fun, he is forced to finish the set hours and given a new set of coupons — the twist being, the coupons get switched. Suyash gets the instructions meant for a terrorist strike and the other lands up with the said balloons etc. After assembling a gun with expected impassivity — Pathak makes the deadpan look subtly expressive in the best tradition of silent comedy — he comes back to carry out the final command: shoot randomly at his shocked fellow workers. The overbearing boss he reports to collapses, bewilderment writ large on his moon-like face that used to bark orders. A teaser: is Suyash so incapable of making decisions once he has been made an obedient robot that he carries out the order to shoot as yet another command? Or is it is revenge on an Orwellian system that has reduced him to a cog in the wheel?