A Short Way To Go

The digital space has opened up opportunities for enterprising filmmakers to show their work; anyone with a story to tell, an idea to share and a small budget can make a short film — fiction or non fiction. Now, increasingly, well-known stars are acting in these films, and audiences are watching them on their phones.  Bollywood may not be this democratic, but when a popular film award recognizes the power of the short film, by including them in their list of categories to win trophies for excellence, it is encouraging for new filmmakers and established to push their creative boundaries.

The short film Khujli (by Sonam Nair) that won Jackie Shroff the best actor award (which he never won for a feature film), is a cheeky and funny look at the routine life of a middle-aged couple, that could be the people next door — husband, wife, teenage son, old mother, who painfully pushes her way up and down with a walker, mostly ignored by the family.

The film opens with the bed shaking, but it’s only the wife (Neena Gupta) scratching the violent itch on her husband’s (Shroff) back. They are both dressed in shabby home clothes —he in pyjamas and undershirt, she in a nightgown with a dupatta.

In the son’s absence the father discovers furry red handcuffs in his room and is shocked.  “Do you even know what these are?” he asks his wife.  Much to his surprise she answers, “BDSM.” Turns out that she and all the neighbourhood ‘aunties’ and ‘bhabhis’ have read Fifty Shades Of Grey (E.L. James’s best-selling erotic novel that brought kinky sex out into the open.)

The husband is even more astonished to discover that his wife is willing to ‘experiment’ in the bedroom, even though their first attempts are interrupted by the demands of domesticity. This time, when the shaking of the bed is heard, it’s not due to an itchy back.  Of course, the response of the parents to the handcuffs is so chilled out, because their offspring is a boy; had it been a girl, they would have been hysterical.

Ordinary housewives get their moment in the sun — or rather the drawing room — in Neeraj ‘Masaan’ Ghaywan’s short film, Juice, that won Shefali Shah the best actress trophy.  In a scene that would remind the viewer of what happens in so many homes — a bunch of men sit in the living room, talking casually of nothing of consequence, while their wives slog in the hot kitchen to get their meal ready. The men keep ordering the women to fetch whatever they want to eat. The kids are in another room, playing video games. When the wife, Manju (Shah), requests the husband (Manish Chaudhari) to fix the stalled fan in the kitchen, he doesn’t bother to get up.

One of the women is pregnant, and talk goes on to how wives are forced to give up their jobs when they become mothers, as if they cannot handle work and kids. Most of the women there have accepted this condition, the hostess, however, is vocally unhappy about it.

In a small but disturbing scene, when tea is being served to the women in the kitchen, one of them quietly pushes a glass towards Manju, the non-verbal communication being that the maid is not to be given tea in a cup, like the rest of them. A look passes between the maid and her employer, as she refuses the proffered glass and leaves.

When it’s time to eat, one the women goes in to tell her daughter to serve the boys she has been playing with. Already the gender lines are being drawn — girls cook and serve, men sit around and are waited on. As if the relentless heat snaps something in her, Manju pours herself a glass of juice from the refrigerator, pulls a chair out to the living room and sits in front of the cooler. To the baffled look her husband and the men give her, she stares back with an expression of sorrow, defiance and fatigue. That one look says a lot about the anger homemakers must feel when they are told, “What do you do all day, anyway?”

Short films say a lot more than a feature film, in less time and a far smaller budget, but probably reach out to a bigger audience.

Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator