Director: Rohin Raveendran Nair
Cast: Amruta Subhash, Parna Pethe
Streaming on: Mubi
Two forbidden love stories unfurl in Rohin Raveendran Nair's wretchedly unrequited 15-minute short, The Booth. The first one involves a woman, Rekha, and a girl, Sargam. Rekha (Amruta Subhash) is a frisking officer at a popular Pune mall. Sargam (Parna Pethe) is a college girl preparing to embark on a banking career. The female frisking booth in which Rekha works is their little oasis – a private curtained space where, for a few fleeting moments everyday, two people from different walks of life become two lovers in a secret same-sex relationship. A booth, with all its claustrophobic restrictions, sets them free.
Sargam is young, excitable, eager. She exits and re-enters the mall at least thrice a day so that she can be frisked – and touched, caressed, kissed – by the woman of her dreams. She spends the rest of the day whiling away time at the mall, staring at fancy stores whose products are just as unattainable as an open romance with the lady in charge of their security. Rekha is older, steadier. She spends her time scanning the bodies of many women for whom this might be the only physically intimate encounter all day. And she patiently waits for Sargam, for her texts, for their eyes to meet, for their desperate meetings punctuated by the rhythmic beeps of her metal detector.
The Booth employs this undramatic mundanity of the premise – the spaces between the sentences – to hint at a thrilling history, a promising backstory
The second forbidden love story occurs between the storytelling and its audience. Much of The Booth aspires to tease the socio-artistic perception of its viewers. The short opens with Rekha neck-deep in an affair with Sargam. She is already used to the routine of slipping one of two tiffin boxes to Sargam every morning behind the curtains, they are already used to their wordless little encounters extending into wordless long days of waiting and hoping and watching. The Booth employs this undramatic mundanity of the premise – the spaces between the sentences – to hint at a thrilling history, a promising backstory. Most filmmakers might have revelled in the "before": How did they meet? Was it just a regular morning in the booth? Did Rekha accidentally or deliberately brush Sargam's face? Imagine the sheer cinema of them christening their unusual chemistry. Others might have revelled in the "after": Where is home? Would they know how to meet when not enclosed by curtains? What about their families?
But good shorts tend to thrive on the stories left untold. There's the way the makers design the day-in-the-life-of vibe. On one hand, the film is beautifully unhurried in its expression of desire: They eat their (identical) lunches separately at different corners of the mall, finding solace in the thrill of stolen glances and brief messages. But on the other hand, the film is shot in a way that triggers the viewer's underlying sense of doom. We, as a culture, are so conditioned to star-crossed romances at the mercy of external factors that just the image of two lower-middle-class ladies in love becomes a prelude to a horror film. Sairat might be their only destiny. Early on, the camera fleetingly focuses on Rekha's wedding ring. This, combined with the fact that Hindi cinema has nearly stereotyped the great Amruta Subhash as a victim of domestic violence (Gully Boy, Raman Raghav 2.0), evokes the possibility of them being caught by an abusive husband.
Good shorts tend to thrive on the stories left untold. There's the way the makers design the day-in-the-life-of vibe
A few more scenes are strategically added to elevate our paranoia. We see a girl looking wary – disdainful even – of Rekha's frisking in the booth. Rekha's face almost brushes against the girl's shoulder. We wonder if this girl is an undercover mole, sent in to gather evidence and expose Rekha's 'immoral' behaviour. We also see a man sneakily recording a video of Sargam. This unnerves her, and us: Maybe he, too, is a management mole gathering evidence against the 'lesbians'. The film also features an eerily-timed CCTV shot of Sargam exiting the booth towards the end of the day. These moments strongly reflect the lurking suspicion that society's eyes are on them. That, beyond their blissful reverie, they're being watched. And that disaster is just around the corner. However, it's also possible that the girl being frisked was just a snob in a bad mood. Perhaps she was a jilted ex-girlfriend of Rekha's? Maybe the man was just a garden-variety pervert. And maybe the CCTV shot is emblematic of the hidden lives that unfurl beyond the gaze of regular cameras.
Or maybe we, the film's viewers, are simply in denial of the ominous storytelling – not unlike the two lovers who exist in denial of the bleak future that awaits them. After all, a booth may be a symbol of privacy, but it is also a structure of persecution.