By Rituparna Sengupta
A Death in the Gunj
Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut is based on a short story by her father Mukul Sharma, in turn inspired by a real-life incident. Without providing any spoilers, suffice it to say that despite being a dramatic thriller, it is not a whodunnit and it has traces of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Boasting of an impressive ensemble cast of Ranvir Shorey, Kalki Koechlin, Tilottama Shome, Gulshan Devaiah, Tanuja, Om Puri, and Jim Sarbh that got along like a house on fire (all dark pun intended), it found its miraculous lead in the unexpected, understated Vikrant Massey. While one feels happy at the relative successes of TV actors like Rajeev Khandelwal and Sushant Singh Rajput, one can’t help feeling especially thrilled at an actor like Massey coming into his own. His lack of flamboyance and the presence of his earnest boyish charm make him an unlikely choice for any lead role, but makes him a perfect one for that of Shutu, a shy, reticent character into whose skin he slides so effortlessly. Rarely in Bollywood do we come across characters that seem so inseparable from the actors who play them.
The film is set at the cusp of 1978-79 in McCluskiegunj in undivided Bihar. With admirable finesse and at its own pace, it paints the picture of a melancholic, sleepy town (a staple setting for detective fiction), a vacationing set of family and friends, who jostle for attention and dominance in closed quarters. The nostalgia for the uneventful, quaint small town of recent colonial heritage is dismantled with aplomb. A much-needed critique of middle-class mores is provided at intervals by the ‘others’ that populate these spaces. The servants, Maniya and Manjari, who tolerate the whims and oddities of the houseful of guests, the revelling locals, whose song-and-dance session these urbanites don’t hesitate to gatecrash for some fun and liquor, and the carefully-chosen, likeable, and talented Khasi girl, who is ‘presented’ as the new bride of one of the house party. Thoughtful sequences like a puppy taken on in a fit of ‘awwy’ impulse and then relegated to the care of servants further serve to strengthen the impression of the irresponsible, shallow attachments and self-serving nature of these upper-class characters, their troubled dynamics, and their intolerance for any other perspective and way of life but their own. The supposed equality between the genders is exposed for the façade it is in crises, like when little Tani goes missing and her mother is blamed for it or when Mimi (Koechlin) meets her rival and Vikram’s wife. Two articulate and assertive female characters, which show some sensitivity and voice limited objections, are summarily ignored. For the rest, it is a joyride of personal insecurities unleashed as bullying and manipulation. The inclusion of an important séance scene is brilliant in its portrayal of an evil spirit being invoked by these people in collusion. It is an apt symbolism that stays throughout the film, albeit in a very twisted way. For this is a story not about a ghost being summoned, but about a ghost in the making.
The most important character is that of Shutu, a sensitive young man, grappling with the recent death of his father, an otherwise brilliant student who has nevertheless failed his exams and is hiding it from everyone, who has come to escape his personal failures and hurts for a while. Even when he is not the centre of the scene, it is mostly his observant gaze that we are made privy to. But he finds himself in largely unsympathetic company that thwarts and belittles him at every turn. In contrast to the brash, abrasive masculinity of Vikram (Shorey) and the matey bromance of Nandu (Deviah) and Brian (Sarbh), his sensitive nature sticks out like a sore thumb. His camaraderie with the young Tani (Arya Sharma) is a refreshing respite that takes a grave turn when she goes missing. For all his fine eye for detail that takes pleasure in the anatomy of a frog or the texture of a moth, he is unable to see clearly the larger picture and his place in the world he finds himself in, where humans are more dangerous predators than animals. In the absence of any male role model after his father, to whom he is shown as excessively attached, and in his inability to communicate with his beseeching mother (the moving, disembodied voice of Aparna Sen), he gravitates towards Tani and Mimi and is ‘betrayed’ by both. This is an anti-bildungsroman story, a story of disenchantment and disillusionment of a young man who cannot come into his own. Tani’s poem about not growing up is an apt description of Shutu’s predicament.
The ‘daak naam’ or the pet name in Bengali culture is generally seen and shown as a marker of affection, intimacy, and light-hearted raillery, but here, it becomes menacing and belittling, as ‘Shutu’ does not graduate to ‘Shyamal’. The masculine code of conduct ordains that Shutu, as the least aggressive male around, is ticked off incessantly and browbeaten into submission, the errand boy par excellence, whose presence is taken for granted and whose absence goes unnoticed. His sensitivity is laughed off as cowardice and his inability to cope with macho apprenticeship, set down harshly as failings of his masculinity (for instance, the driving lesson scene). Between Mimi telling him he is pretty like a girl and Vikram comparing him to Tani, Shutu is emasculated at every turn. His love of literature, his talent at sketching, and his penchant for chess and crosswords are seen as inferior and, by association, further proof of his femininity in a clique that fawns over guns and ‘family jewels’. His surprising skill at Kabaddi enrages the alpha male Bikram, who transforms an innocuous game into something more sinister. But since ‘boys will be boys’, and men need to toughen up, Shutu invites perfunctory sympathy and concern and withdraws into his shell of rage and resentment. He tries to keep up by stealthily riding a bike and smoking cigarettes, but things nevertheless end in disaster for this scapegoat grappling with his supposed incompetence and internalised guilt. The scene where Shutu is shown stuck at the bottom of the ditch, unable to make his cries of help heard, is a fitting metaphor for his condition.
Ultimately, the film is an engrossing, tragic tale of values lost, loneliness, and despair. What hides behind the façade of middle-class tawdriness that makes a virtue of toxic masculinities, feminine complicity and a mutually-reinforcing medley of ruthless personal and professional ambitions? What happens when one breaks out of the charmed circle of an ill-intentioned séance? A Death in the Gunj delivers its promise of a slow, excruciating inevitable death of a person and implosion of a social order, with bloody splatter dripping from a tree bark. Predictably, and disturbingly, the film provides us with no resolution following the climax. We are to be allowed no closure, since this is not a tale we can distance ourselves from, but presents a world we deserve, one of our own making. Though feminist films have ruled the roost in the recent years, here we are gifted with an intelligent film that deals with the other crucial side of the unflipped coin – masculinities. Sad though it is that the film had very few shows across theatres, this bold piece of delectable cinema was well worth the anticipation and rewards the audience by respecting its intellect. Atmosphere, setting, characters, acting, music, silences, camerawork, and storyline – the film checks every box and presents us with the rare lucky blessing of an actor-turned-director’s painstakingly crafted and measured offering. Not a feel-good film of the triumph of good over evil, but a jolting, haunting one about everyday gender violence and the evil it nourishes. Auld Lang Syne, indeed.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
Perhaps no other film of the year divided viewers and critics as much as this film, with some gushing over it, some expressing disappointment, and still others defending its perfectly acceptable restraint from taking over the reins of a feminist revolution. Three things I will grant at the outset: yes, it is, as the erstwhile CBFC Chairman in all his wisdom described, ‘lady oriented’, as far as the term implies an inversion of the traditional male gaze into a female one. The reality of female sexual desire and the sordid prevalence of marital rape –those by themselves are reason enough to upset conservative circles. Second, it is a film that shows us disobedient women with stubborn dreams, not compliant ones satisfied with their stereotypical, society-ordained roles. That’s a big statement to make in today’s mainstream Hindi film industry. Third, the acting performances are commendable, even in some cases, superb.
My own overall response was one of feeling underwhelmed. Initially, I rationalised that I probably felt so because it wasn’t the feel-good feminist film that I was expecting it to be; perhaps its inconclusiveness was what I found so unpalatable. True that the film never promised to be a sensational one with powerful monologues and moral didacticism Pink-style (and mercifully so), and yet, there was a narrative of hope and optimism that we had been promised, that got dissipated somewhere in the course of the film. True also that we see its four female protagonists lead secret lives and dream of economic independence, moral liberation and, most importantly, fulfilment of sexual desire. But they go about it rather naively and flounder their way into their fantasies in a manner reminiscent of adolescents. So, what is wrong with this? Let us look closer at the characters.
Ratna Pathak Shah is marvellous as she switches between ‘Buaji’, the formidable middle-aged widow, and ‘Rosie’, the protagonist of the erotica she reads secretly, fantasising about a lover and later engaging in anonymous phone sex with a young male swimming instructor. Hers are undoubtedly the best scenes in the film (though exasperatingly, many in the audience laughed at, more than empathised with, her). Her hesitations, her sense of shame, her arousal, and her sexual fantasies are very palpable and relatable. Equally effective is Konkana Sen Sharma as Shireen Aslam, a resourceful saleswoman-in-secret with three children and a heartless husband, who only uses her for sex, and is unfaithful to her.
It is the two younger women that make one pause. For they seem little but rebels without a cause. Leela (Aahana Kumra) is half-heartedly resisting an arranged marriage while carrying on with her lover, dreaming doomed dreams of a business plan and escaping small town. And Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) is a Miley Cyrus fan, whose sole preoccupation seems to be to quit the burkha and don jeans and be included in the western music band of her college. What is lacklustre about these latter two women is the pettiness of their dreams, the limited scope of their fantasies. One may well argue that women do not always need a plan; they can be as deluded and immature as their male counterparts. They can make wrong choices and defy preset moral standards for the heck of it. But can a film like this, that seeks to represent the voice of Indian Women in colourful revolt, afford to have such weak characters? One never knows what these two women really want and to what end is their rebellion? What are Leela’s priorities and what is it that really holds her back? Why is it exactly that we are supposed to feel bad for her, manipulative as she is? Has Rehana thought through her choices and the implications of her double life? The self-centredness and indecisiveness of one and the susceptibility of the other to shallow standards make them much less likeable. So do the dubious means they adopt, which takes away from them the dignity of people struggling for their agency and sense of identity.
What makes the film so specific to our times? When were sexual fulfilment and a sense of self-worth not a cause of concern for women? What about these dreams that touches a chord in the viewer? One is also left suspicious about the motivations of these characters – Shireen becomes a saleswoman and a sales trainee not because she yearns for economic independence, but because her husband is out of job and cannot meet household expenses. Rehana wants to subvert one status quo, only to conform to another one. Usha, herself middle-aged, gives in to the same youth-centric culture that will turn against her, when she glances over a similarly middle-aged man looking to marry again and falls for an attractive young man in speedos, much like a college crush. There is very little character growth that occurs in the course of the film, little meaningful self-assertion, only one voluntary confrontation – what we see are the dreams of these women crashing against a wall and lying shattered at their feet. One is unsure how helpful this is. We are left with four women cornered into a room, at the cusp of making important decisions about their lives ahead, but bleak are the prospects. Without the brouhaha over the film and its subsequent marketing strategies, it may have passed as a slice-of-life indie favourite, but the moment it enters mainstream Bollywood and sells itself as a woman-centric film, it ups its own stakes. Which is why so many of us felt so personally invested in this film, and which is why I feel compelled to share my sense of disappointment in it.
For example, let us look at the men. As has been correctly observed, the film doesn’t give the men a chance. Apart from one sweet-natured, broken-hearted man, whom we feel sorry for, we feel little but anger and disgust at the rigid male characters of the film – husband, lover or father. There is a curious lack of depth in them that is definitely disappointing. The only thing worth marvelling at here is the versatility of Vikrant Massey, who plays a brash and impulsive lover in the film, very different from his stellar performance in A Death in the Gunj. One would have liked to get a peek behind the impassive face of Dhruv Bose (Shashank Arora) or the sense of masculine impotence hovering around Rahim Aslam (Sushant Singh).
There are two important motifs in the film, present in the title itself – ‘lipstick’ and ‘burkha’. One acts as the symbol for liberation and the other, as a metonym for repression. As has been remarked by others, this indeed is problematic. The burkha alone is not reason enough for rebellion and, at least twice in the film, it comes to the (dubious) aid of two characters, in giving them cover for doing undetected what they could otherwise not be able to do, and only one of these may be read as somewhat subversive. As another friend wryly observed, what the film would probably end up doing is make people suspicious of the burkha-clad (as if people were not judged incessantly for their attire already!). Alankrita Shrivastava, in her interviews, has clarified that ‘burkha’ stands for the veiling of (female) desire and the resultant claustrophobia. But given that only two of the four main characters are Muslim and all feel societal restraints, surely a more suitable and relevant metaphor could be found? Even more problematic is the equating of lipstick (and cigarette) with female liberation. Surely, it is time to move ahead of these cosmetic freedoms! And how does smoking a cigarette automatically make a girl a woman and help her realise her fantasies? The co-option of Shireen and Usha (Pathak Shah) in a scene into the smoking gang and the pervasive presence of the jeans-toting, partying, drinking Rehana Abidi disappoint in their unproblematic acceptance of a value system driven by consumerism. Translating ‘Jeans ka haq’ into ‘jeene ka haq’ is reductive, to say the least, as is the blunt counter statement by one security guard at Rehana’s college to the effect, “I say, let’s ban the girls!” One expects more honest and nuanced engagement with such important issues from a film of this potential, made by a self-avowed feminist film-maker.
Shrivastava attempts to give us a picture of a cross-section of small-town oppressed women daring to dream and leaves us with a confused, split narrative. In Rosie, the four women submerge all their desires and inhibitions, but fail to pick up the strands of their own stories. All their ‘freedom’ is ultimately vicarious, whether lived through the protagonist of a soft-porn paperback, or their own double lives. We are left with more warning than hope, as the cost of their daring stares them in the face. And this is not just to leave us with open-endings, but I feel also because the stories cannot sustain themselves; their foundations are so precarious. The women can’t move ahead further, because they haven’t thought far enough and they sublet their dreams to their alter egos. And they fight lonely wars. Some moments of female company and solidarity are sprinkled throughout the film; one wishes that there were more of them and makes one fondly recall last year’s Parched. The result is a dull climax that lets one down. Their sense of identity is still in flux and we, the audience, are unfairly ditched as if midway, with no hope of any progress (however temporary) or access to the characters’ interiority.
Ultimately, the film is more like last year’s Angry Indian Goddesses; it suggests extremes when it comes to overcoming the repression of women in a patriarchal society. There is no room for negotiation or conversation; one can only be dishonest and duplicitous and pray that one’s cover lasts. These naïve strategies are rather pitiable. Such stories may indeed be told, but they are not the stories we need to hear today. It is disingenuous to argue that art can stand for its own sake and not make a statement, especially given the context of gender debates raging in the country and conscious attempts to make gender-sensitive films and, also, given the particular context of this film’s release. As the last scene of the film, which is briefly cathartic, tells us, it is stories that give one the strength to dream big. But as fictions go, this one is unfortunately diffuse and unambitious, with too many loose and dead ends (Leela’s mother’s history, for example). The film is neither about women’s empowerment nor about communities realising the rot in their midst. For those of us acquainted with the charm of a Queen or the sensitivity of a Masaan or A Death in the Gunj, it is much noise and less depth.
Hansal Mehta’s usual films are serious, even tragic, and have strong male protagonists (his current favourite actor being Rajkummar Rao). With Simran, he ventures into the tricky domain of a film with a female lead who pervades its every frame and that, too, a film with generous dollops of humour. One can understand why Mehta says that he had Kangana Ranaut in mind when he decided to make this film, as this is another in a string of roles that the actress has made completely and indistinguishably her own (controversially or not). The film is based on the exploits of Sandeep Kaur, ‘the Bombshell Bandit’, who made news a few years ago for robbing a succession of banks in California, Utah, and Arizona in a five-week crime spree, unarmed, and who is now serving her prison term. The film made several departures from this true life-story and made some interesting choices in the process. For instance, the protagonist’s name is Praful Patel and she belongs to the NRI Gujarati community, which gives her reckless pursuit of money that extra edge. Praful, a thirty-year-old divorcee, who works as housekeeping staff at a hotel, is lusty and materialistic, and determined to move out of her parents’ house. Importantly, she also imbibes the peculiar optimistic individualism that America lures its immigrant communities with.
The most endearing aspect of Praful is that she is such an unabashedly unapologetic character. In lieu of a smooth American accent, she has an atrociously hilarious Gujju one, is rather clumsy and uses cringe-worthy pick-up lines, but feels she has a real ‘talent’ for wooing men. Yes, she is sexually liberated, but in a non-sentimental way that mercifully is not toted by the film to be a statement of feminist triumph (Lipstick Under My Burkha, anyone?!). In this context, two scenes clearly stand out. In one, she converses with her affluent cousin who has a posh job, about being an ‘independent’ woman. Her cousin confesses that she has chosen to get married because she wants a conventional life with a partner to share it with, unlike ‘independent’ Praful. When Praful points out the differences in their social stature and wonders aloud how she can be the more ‘independent’ of the two, we are meant to deduce that ‘independence’ (here, taking responsibility of one’s life and not getting shackled to an evidently dissatisfying relationship) is in one’s frame of mind and not tied to social or financial privilege. Again, in a well-framed scene, Praful spends the night over at a female colleague’s place and in the following morning, as she is leaving, she stands at the threshold of the room where her colleague is playing with her children; but she declines to come in, marking her out as a self-appointed ‘outsider’ to the domestic sphere.
Praful is allowed to be what is forbidden to most other representations of women on popular media – flawed. And therein lies the film’s triumph. If Rani in Queen was the innocent virginal Rajouri girl coming into her own in Europe, Simran’s Praful may well be at the other end of the spectrum: a cocky, divorced NRI whose life is shown spiralling out of her control in her own web of lying, gambling, and stealing. How the film contributes to the feminist discourse is not by showing us a woman who has figured out her life, but one who has at least taken the reins of her life in her own hands, and faces the realistic flipside to such life choices. Praful may buy into consumerist values and the glitzy American dream of rags-to-riches and transform into a Simran, but in the process she will learn how charm alone cannot get her out of tricky situations or how chivalrous men will not be at her beck and call or how trusting strangers in a drunken stupor is plain stupid, and how parents, like oneself, are not perfect people. But if she is irrepressible, she is also irresponsible and will have to learn from her mistakes. However, even as she learns to face her choices and their consequences, we are also presented with a counter-image in the form of her determined suitor, Sameer (Sohum Shah). In one honest exchange, he confesses that having to become responsible at a young age had made him somewhat hollow from inside, even as Simran pokes fun at him for romanticising marriage and his plan for life ahead. To those wondering why this romantic sidetrack of attracted opposites occupies space in the film at all, it is perhaps to show how a balance of responsibility and spontaneity is what makes life truly fulfilling.
The film has faced its healthy round of criticism for being overtly indulgent of Kangana Ranaut, the star actress, who indeed dominates the character-driven, rather than plot-driven film, and displays an impressive acting range. But that is where, for me, the story and the character merge, for they both take themselves lightly and do not follow a tight script. For instance, in the whole film, she has perhaps one scene where she mouths a poetic dialogue and that is when she speaks of butterfly wings and a lightness of being. But this too is immediately undercut in the next scene by her disarmingly ludicrous hopping about, pretending to be a butterfly that reminds one of a quirky Phoebe of Friends fame. If the humour falls flat sometimes, it is because life is not necessarily as funny as Simran makes it out to be. And yes, the film is ‘chaotic’, but without being incoherent and I read this as a deliberate choice, as mimicking the similar haphazard trajectory of the protagonist’s distracted life. The film must be given its due for its self-deprecating humour, as it pulls its protagonist a notch down, even as she takes one step up the ladder of moral high-ground or material success.
Some things I did not like/understand about the film were its title and its unnecessary songs. While we understand that Simran is Praful’s alter ego, the double life that she tries impudently to hide from all around her, but surely the film is also larger than ‘Simran’. We are also force-fed a tad too many songs that are annoyingly jarring, especially the romantic track. And while ‘Single Rehne De’ is a peppy party song that has a refreshingly non-sexist, flamboyantly female point-of-view, its picturisation like an item song accompanying the end credits belies its more important political undertones and works towards lessening some of our identification with the protagonist. For us who have seen Praful switch from de-glam housekeeper to Las Vegas hot babe Praf to purple-wigged and hoodied bank robber Simran, the glam girl image was not the one we should have been left with at the end of it all. For the rest, Simran is a light, honest, unapologetic film about someone we needed to see on screen – not a ‘heroine’, but a badass flesh-and-bones woman, taking risks, making mistakes, and owning up to them. And, indeed, this is a clear reflection of the self-fashioning that Kangana Ranaut the actress too invests in, off screen, in television shows and parody sketches. By steering clear of the ‘biopic’ genre, Mehta gives us a character not worthy of emulation, but by choosing to present this otherwise dark story with humour, he suffuses her story with humanity and that in itself is an achievement in an entertainment industry that either objectifies women as the male actor’s ‘love interest’ or places upon them the mantle of angry feminist rebellion and irresponsible defiance. Perhaps the biggest trick pulled off is not any bank heist by Simran, but that the film takes on headlong the parodic reference to the iconic Simran of DDLJ fame, who is urged by her father to go ahead and live her life. The film is full of these delightful little subversions that mark it out as an unusual statement and makes one want to overlook its flaws, like that of its character’s.
Rituparna Sengupta is a PhD Scholar in Literature at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. She reads, watches, mulls over, and writes on matters of popular culture, gender, fantasy, mythology, and adaptation.
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