Director: Shuchi Talati
Cast: Preeti Panigrahi, Kani Kusruti, Kesav Binoy Kiron, Kajol Chugh
Duration: 90 mins
A 16-year-old girl, Mira (Preeti Panigrahi), becomes the head prefect of her Himalayan boarding school. Mira is the gatekeeper of morality but also, unbeknownst to her, the opening flushes of patriarchy. When she reports a few creepy upskirt-picture-taking boys to her teacher, she is lectured about uniform etiquette and told to ‘ignore them’. The heady notes of first love ring when Mira falls for classmate Srinivas (Kesav Binoy Kiron), the well-travelled son of a diplomat. The teen couple embark on their own Normal People journey: surreptitious glances, lusty stares, fingers touching, quivering legs, sex as a conversation, the navigation of promise and words. Except Mira is torn between her social conditioning and romantic awakening. When Sri visits her place, she resents her mother for being so friendly with him – Mira blames the woman for accepting attention, not the boy for giving it. After a secret romp in the woods, Mira feels uneasy that Sri knew exactly what to do. Yet she convinces herself that he’s not the problem, she is.
A young mother, Anila (Kani Kusruti), returns to her Himalayan hometown for her 16-year-old girl’s board exams. Her husband is mostly absent. Anila likes being around her head-prefect daughter. Instead of forbidding the teenager from doing everything she couldn’t, Anila lives – cautiously but vicariously – through her. She encourages her daughter to bring her tall boyfriend home for meals and studying sessions. She likes his company. Anila feeds him, talks to him, spoils him and, at some level, competes with her child to earn his gaze. Most stories might have fetishized her loneliness – a cradle-snatching fling, an unlawful tryst. This one teases that perception in parts: The daughter comes home from school to see his jeans on the sofa, following the sound of their voices. Under the pretext of keeping the raging teen hormones apart, Anila even makes the boy sleep in her bedroom. We are conditioned to expect the ‘worst’. But Anila’s desire is destigmatized here. She is friendly with a 17-year-old because, in her head, maybe he’s not grown-up enough to disappoint or exploit her. All she wants is to feel like a woman, not just a mother or wife.
Shuchi Talati’s sublime debut feature is at once a story of discovery and reckoning. It is steeped in a quiet, make-shift duality. Both Mira and Anila are the protagonists of their own stories: There’s a puppy-love film disrupted by a neglected parent, and there’s a lonely-adult film supplied by puppy love. Given the unlikely ‘rivalry,’ it’s easy to say that the mother and daughter arcs are jostling for space. But the film unfolds in a way that suggests how Indian society – distant, misty and decidedly sexist – has no patience for two separate coming-of-age movies. The emotional budget for women is lower. As a result, the mother and daughter are almost forced into sharing the same story – the same hope – like two inmates having to share the same bunk bed. They never had a choice.
Even the film’s title, Girls Will Be Girls, can be heard as two distinct sounds. The first one feeds a more simplistic reading of feminism, where the subversion of that old proverb “boys will be boys” is enough to imply a tale of agency and womanhood. It evokes a primal (and cinematically familiar) image of rebellion: smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, eloping, violence. But the second sound is what this film creates. The title is in fact more of a confession, as if to imply that no matter how hard society is challenged, girls are resigned to their fate of being girls. Regardless of which mother-daughter pair emerges, the gaze will always reduce them to the perceived contours of their gender. It’s a clear-eyed and poignant study of feminism as more of a consequence than an act – it isn’t about making a loud statement so much as finding a silent vowel. Mira and Anila don’t have to win, but there’s something to be said about their courage to recognize the language of loss. Their ability to detect each other, despite the jealousy and egos, is the slow-burning catalyst of their liberation. Mira is older than her years, and Anila is younger than hers. It’s to the film’s credit that it reveals their collision as a form of convergence. There’s no loud revolt or revenge on the boy who threatens to tear them apart. The film gets that heartbreak, in itself, is an ode to healing.
As Mira, Preeti Panigrahi delivers one of the finest young performances in recent memory. She wears Mira’s maturity as both a strength and a burden. It’s almost like Mira becomes the elder sister during a summer of sibling revelry and rivalry – always observant, curious, tender and still. At times, it feels as though she is disarmed by her own vulnerabilities, and her ability to succumb to the whims of youth. The actress thrives on the little details. Mira’s eyes dart across her surroundings during every kiss – as if she’s scanning for danger as well as comparing her reality to the fictions that made her dream. Mira dances twice in the house, in different situations, and Panigrahi moves in a manner that ensures it’s more of an impression than an expression. The character’s sex scenes, too, don’t exist as isolated ‘moments’. You can tell that physical intimacy is a brick in a larger romantic wall, where the two teens learn more about one another by speaking and asking questions through their bodies. One look at her face, and you can also tell where Mira stands – and how much she’s experienced – in her relationship.
Kesav Binoy Kiron plays Sri as someone who appears to be different by virtue of living in a land of red flags. There’s a not-all-men vibe about him, because he owns the ambiguity of a kid who is often smarter than he lets on. You can tell that Sri has moved countries so often that he is rehearsing a sense of attachment. For him, she’s a good core memory to have – someone he can fondly reminisce about when his family moves again. He knows what makes people tick, but he isn’t conniving about it. When Sri first meets Anila, for instance, he quickly asks her about her life before she starts to grill him as the ‘potential boyfriend’. That’s all it takes to captivate her, in a setting that has long banished her to the fringes of home-making. Kani Kusruti is terrific in this scene; she reacts like Anila has never been the subject of men’s fascination while being the object of their affection. Her performance is a cocktail of caregiving and self-care – it’s never clear if she is protecting Mira or provoking her. She could’ve easily played it cruel or manipulative, but there’s a sense of desperation about Anila encroaching on her daughter’s life. She starts to use Mira’s adolescence as a device to think about herself differently.
Girls Will Be Girls is also defined by its depth of (cultural) field. There are scenes for two that somehow pack three souls into them. At one point, Mira watches from her room as Anila playfully steps out in a towel with Sri around; she watches them chatting in the yard, like a camera coerced into being a person. At another, Anila watches passively as Mira tries in vain to wake him up at dawn; she even watches as they have their first fight on the dining table, her presence bleeding into the scene rather than seeping into it. Both mother and daughter become an oddly dignified ghost in the other’s film. They’re there without being there, letting the other have their moment while reflecting on their own indignations. This, too, is the essence of the title – the will to reclaim transparency from the masculine clutches of invisibilisation. It’s the power to be unseen, not the compliance to stay hidden.