Konkona Sen Sharma’s short Mirror in Lust Stories 2 is a rare thing: A feminist film that is also very, very funny, states Sreehari Nair.
Mirror, Konkona Sen Sharma’s short in the Netflix anthology, Lust Stories 2, is that rare thing: A feminist film that is also very, very funny.
While the attitude and the stance of Konkona’s film are distinctly that of a woman, it makes no attempt at mind control; the film doesn’t tell women what to think or how they have been wronged; there are no instructions handed out, only explorations made.
Konkona stretches a beautiful little sick joke to the point of disbelief, and then holds it there with a captivating grin.
Isheeta (Tillotama Shome), colicky and sclerotic, comes home early from her advertising duties and finds her maid, Seema (Amruta Subhash), and the maid’s husband going at it like rabbits — bonking each other, having their post-lunch nookie, in Isheeta’s bed!
Isheeta rushes out, and after an initial round of melting and dissolving, a wordless routine is drawn up.
The advertising exec realises that she cannot stop watching this animalism of the lower orders, while the maid registers with a jackknife smile that she digs performing for her mistress. And so the dance continues, continues over many days — the mistress watching, the maid exulting — until it is interrupted one fine afternoon by a mealy-minded lizard scurrying its way to a wall-clock.
Isheeta yelps; the peepshow is over; the stiff sophisto lets her innate awkwardness and her embarrassment fly like daggers; the maid retaliates with accusations of injustice.
After this scene, the tenets of social decorum and the standards of good taste are restored, the story begins to slacken somewhat, before the sick joke is recalled and the film regains its rumble and zizz.
In a sense, this is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, with its tricks and puzzles removed and its one truly carnal scene foregrounded: The scene has Bibi Andersson talking about a summer of sex and nudity, and Liv Ullman listening with mute eagerness. And yet, Amruta Subhash and Tillotama Shome may have, under Konkona’s watchful, ironic eye, gone beyond their Swedish and Norwegian precursors — Mirror is, above all, a toast to the sisterhood of great actresses.
It would have taken an actress of tremendous self-assurance to convince us in 30 minutes that the maid’s erotic energy bears a direct connection to her earthiness; and Amruta Subhash sells this proposition, without once hitting us over the head with it.
The snap with which Seema handles the details of the kitchen offers clues to her gyrations and thrusts in the bedroom.
In the way she gets her tongue around certain words, with onomatopoeias given their free reign (her ‘Phurrr‘ and her ‘Huttt‘ come out like primal gurglings), we get an idea of her vitality, of how bodily she is.
If Amruta Subhash’s turn is unmistakably physical and resplendent, Tillotama Shome’s Isheeta is an example of an actress serving up a majestic performance while being fastened to a wall the whole time.
Isheeta’s entire life has been an act of trying to tear down an imaginary wall — and Shome, in playing this unwieldy character, conquers the film from the sidelines.
We often talk about a performer as having a wonderful camera face; Tillotama Shome has a mouth that the camera loves.
The difference between Isheeta’s raised upper lip and her slightly raised lower lip becomes the difference between disgust and desire.
When Shome purses her lips, it means something radically different from when her teeth show faintly.
Hers is an accomplished vaudevillian’s art of letting her mouth mutate into swift reproductions of everything from comic-strip pixies to Botticelli’s Venus.
Watching Shome construct the character, bumble by bumble and gasp by gasp, we can intuit everything about Isheeta that’s repressed, bottled-up, held back.
When the lizard gives her away, and Seema discharges in her direction a volley of crackling, grinding onomatopoeias, Tillotama Shome makes us feel Isheeta’s struggle in breaking out of her measured enunciations.
Her greatest asset as an actor, then, overflows with rebellious verve. She quite literally starts foaming at the mouth.
Tillotama and Amruta Subhash are so attuned to their characters’ everyday anxieties that they raise the emotional stakes of the story and, aided in no small measure by Konkona’s actorly instincts, transform what could have been at best a meditation on voyeurism into a charming sex roundelay.
When compared to Mirror, the other shorts in Lust Stories 2, all made by men incidentally, seem afflicted by nervousness.
It’s as though the first mention of the theme had got the men all sweaty, their muscles had begun to contract, and they had got down to typing their scripts with their keyboards between their legs.
One of the qualities that makes Konkona’s short stand out is its relaxed awareness.
Sure, she floats some very interesting points about class divide and the differences in how men and women experience sex; but most importantly, she isn’t overwhelmed by the theme of the anthology, and treats it as yet another element in the unstoppable swirl of life.
This means that she can then subtly comment on how sex alters the rhythm and texture of a day, show you how a person moves differently after the act, evoke for you the minor shudders and confusions left in its wake.
The openhandedness of her approach is what allows her to set her penultimate scene, of the two women owning up to their kinks, away from the boudoir and in a marketplace, amid the honking of cars and the sound of people negotiating the price of tomatoes.
The third player, in this dance of lust, is Seema’s husband (played by Shrikant Yadav), and Konkona’s humane vision is evident in how effortlessly she dispels the fog around this rather marginal character.
There’s a shot of Seema saying goodbye to her husband, who, after a session of bare-chested fun, now appears before us all decked up for his job as a pest control technician or an ATM guard — and though a seemingly simple image, it becomes something more: An indelible authorial signature, almost.
That image, a testament to the secret potency of every dour mechanic, every foul-mouthed electrician, and every tobacco-chewing plumber you have ever met, is the perfect encapsulation of the film’s generous spirit.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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