28 October 2011

Teen Behenein

Kundan Shah brings home an ugly truth with sensitivity.

It is supremely difficult to make a film hold an audience's interest when everyone already knows what happens in the end. Kundan Shah's unreleased film Teen Behenein (2005) succeeds in doing exactly this.

Shah's gut-wrenching subject is the suicide of three sisters whose family cannot provide adequate dowries for them to get married. There have been many such tragic cases in towns ranging from Agra to Bhilai to Palghat, where three or four sisters have committed suicide collectively, because they saw no other way forward for themselves or their families. The particular real-life instance that was Shah's starting point for the film took place in Kanpur on 4th February 1988. It was an event that made national headlines at the time, partly because of a haunting UNI photograph that showed the bodies of the three unfortunate girls as they were discovered: a black and white newsprint image of them hanging in a row from the ceiling of their room.*

But of course it soon became old news. As do the hundreds and thousands of young women who die in this country year after year – ostensibly by their own hands, but in reality led unswervingly to their deaths by a horrifically blinkered society in which the defining imaginary of a good life for a woman is still marriage, at any cost.

At the most elementary level, then, Teen Behenein is important because it reminds us of these young women, of countless lives snuffed out before they have really even begun. But as Shekhar Hattangadi, the film's Associate Director, points out, the film is neither a documentary, nor a docu-drama. The only thing factual about the film is the starting – or should one call it ending? – premise, the suicide itself. Everything else – the characters, the events, the specificity of the space they inhabit – is a richly imagined fiction.

Written by Kundan Shah in collaboration with Nilay Upadhyay and Sai Kabir, Teen Behenein is an intricately plotted account of the last day in the sisters' lives. When the film opens, the three girls are alone in the house, (their parents and younger brother have gone to an out-of-town wedding), and are preparing to commit the act they have been contemplating for days. Everything is ready, and the nooses are almost around their necks, when the doorbell rings. It's a neighbour, come to inform them of a phone call from their Bua, their father's sister of whom they are all very fond, asking to speak to them urgently. It turns out that she is passing through Kanpur that day, and plans to come and have lunch with them before she catches a train for somewhere else. Assailed by the vision of Bua having to deal with the discovery of their bodies, they decide to postpone the act till after she has come and gone. And wouldn't it be fittingly lovely, they think, to meet their favourite aunt once before they die? So their earlier chilling preparations are set aside, and instead they start to make preparations to cook their aunt a special lunch.

Using plot devices such as this, Shah succeeds in keeping alive a sense of hope, while never letting us forget the grimness of the realities that circumscribe the girls's lives. The film's use of visual metaphors is a little ham-handed: the dingy lower middle-class flat in which the girls are holed up all the time stands in for the hemmed-in lives they lead; the terrace to which they escape for light and air and solitude is meant to conjure up the possibility of freedom; there's even a fledgling bird whose rescue forms a minor subplot. The male characters are caricatureish, too – the 'sympathetic' neighbour who takes every opportunity to place his hand on Lata's shoulders, the matchmaking busybody who lists their father's failings, the Phuphaji who refuses to take women's words seriously.

But Shah does a fine job with his three main characters, whose sharply-etched (and beautifully acted) relationships with each other and with the world form the film's core. There is the grave, responsible Lata (Amrita Subhash), whose position as the eldest has given her a deep sense of psychological identification with her parents, but who retains a childlike innocence. There is the middle sister, the amicable, non-confrontational Nisha (Shiju Kataria), who has grown up supporting Lata in her every decision and cannot quite imagine opposing her in this one. And there is the youngest, Chhoti (Kadambari Kadam) – feisty, outspoken, not one to take things lying down, but torn between her sense of injustice and kinship with her sisters.

This is a low-budget film with low-budget production values, and occasionally has a theatrical quality. But don't go in expecting to be blown away by how it looks, and you're much more likely to be transported by how it feels.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, Oct 23, 2011.

*The photo I'm referring to is here

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