22 January 2017

Growing up is hard to do

My Mirror column:

Shlok Sharma's Haraamkhor makes you think about sex and seduction – and about the meaning of adulthood.

In November 2015, I wrote a column called 'The Age of Discovery' about two wonderful films, one British and the other American, in which teenage girls embark on relationships with much older men. I was struck then by the fact that Lone Scherfig's An Education (2009) and Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) were both directed by women, and based on real-life accounts. Scherfig drew on Lynn Barber's much-feted memoir, while Heller adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's autobiographical graphic novel.

These youthful female protagonists were remarkable because they were frank sexual beings: their desires launching them on journeys that were joyful and excited, confused and sad in equal measure. I had written of my desire to see Hindi cinema create such a character: “What would be truly remarkable would be to see the world through the eyes of a young girl (and not in the thoroughly exploitative manner of Ram Gopal Varma's Nishabd).”

Shlok Sharma's marvellously assured debut Haraamkhor has fulfilled that wish of mine. Actress Shweta Tripathi, all sweetness and light as the lovely Shalu in Masaan, transforms herself into something much less sunny here. A 15-year-old schoolgirl in a dusty North Indian kasba, Tripathi's Sandhya is a tightly clenched bundle of contradictions, masking childish neediness with prickly displays of self-assurance.

The generalised loneliness of adolescence is deepened here by the absence of a mother (interestingly, Minnie in The Diary had an absent father). Here, Sandhya's father, a police officer who spends a lot of time away from home, guards secrets of his own – he is not forbidding, but he's not exactly a pillar of emotional support.

Rather than boring into his characters' minds to uncover every single thing that motivates them, Sharma chooses a glancing, sideways approach (the one time a character – Nilu Aunty 
– explains her motivations, the film falters). So Sandhya's immense vulnerability is not really apparent to us, or perhaps even to herself – until she acts. And even then it is not as if the objective facts (of her motherlessness, or her newness in town, or her father's distance) are marshalled to explain her attraction to her tuition teacher, a man who seems not particularly scintillating and often borderline sleazy.

This refusal to explain everything is what makes the film so rich and strange, because, of course, this is how things are in life. We may pretend that everything that happens is straightforward and explicable, but much of the time we have only the faintest idea why the people around us are doing what they're doing. Often that applies to our own behaviour as well.

This state of bafflement is amplified when you're young; the questions in your head are barely articulable. So the teenaged Sandhya's fascination with Shyam, like Minnie's with the 35-year-old Monroe, is at least partly a fascination with sex itself. The rapt gaze Sandhya turns upon Shyam making love to his wife is the radical moment of recognition, where both suddenly see each other as sexual beings. 

The naive child protagonist has been an evocative route into sex and romance, from Leo in LP Hartley's 1953 classic The Go-Between to the child who takes messages between adult lovers in Paresh Kamdar's dreamlike 2008 film Khargosh. But Haraamkhor does something exceptional: it fills the milieu round its central pair with little boys in whom that naivete is mixed in with the ribald humour that apparently stands in for sexuality in the Indian little boy psyche (some Indian men, sadly, never seem to discover another sexual register).

Sharma's non-judgemental approach seems especially important in the case of a character like Shyam, who could so easily have been slotted as pure evil -- the seducing villain, the duplicitous married man, the adult who preys on one someone who is not. Because, of course, he is these things: a person exploiting the power of adulthood. But Haraamkhor insists on showing us his weaknesses, too: his childlike excitement at driving a Luna, his fear of Sandhya's policeman father combined with his unquestioning admiration of his social status, his vacillation in the face of choices he knows to be mistaken.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance alternately elicits laughter and disdain (it is a two-step dance he has done before, for example as the convict Liak in Badlapur). It is a marvellous rendition of masculinity as the constantly fluctuating thing it has to be: boosted by admiration, tempted by lust, cowering in the face of power, lashing out in helpless anger when faced with the possibility of a public shaming -- and sometimes stepping back from selfish instrumentalism to some inner reserve of tenderness. Perhaps in truth the malaise runs wider than masculinity – adulthood, as some wise internet writer recently said, is itself a constant performance, in which we are found wanting more often than we would like.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 Jan 2017.

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