Director: Divya Unny
Cast: Veena Nair, Vedika Nanwani, Trimala Adhikari, Satyajit Sharma
A decade ago, I might have been surprised to be writing about an Indian short film that revolves entirely around a girl’s first period. Or a feature-length film about a man’s erectile dysfunction problem, or one about sperm donation or the importance of affordable sanitary napkins. But despite taking brave leaps into Hindi cinema’s bastardized education-v/s-entertainment genre, full-length movies invariably tend to either choose uncomfortable male-specific issues or find a way to place liberal men at the center of necessary female themes. Plus, these films don’t have the luxury to come straight to the point; they are obligated, by way of their medium’s longer language, to “build” a story around a one-line issue.
That’s where journalist-turned-filmmaker Divya Unny’s short, Her First Time, starting from its title, embraces its straight-shooting advantage. This is a noble, direct and simple – at times, perhaps too simple – film about a girl having to deal with a “girl thing” while her gynecologist mother is away dealing with a heavily pregnant young lady at the hospital. Only her father is available.
Her First Time aims to normalize a moment many families either take for granted or brush away under the carpet of cultural ‘decency’
The film doesn’t beat around the bush. Within a few seconds, we see the girl worriedly examining her bloodstained fingers in the bathroom. An image of a newborn, dotted with specks of blood, connects to the circularity of this shot later on. The parallels – the onset of menstruation, the significance of childbirth – are obvious, but thoughtful. The production design – shades of red and pink in everything from the framed paintings to the lighting and sofa upholstery to the blankets and even the girl’s artwork – is, again, obvious but deliberate, eliminating any notions of a derived sense of masculinity.
Her First Time aims to normalize a moment many families either take for granted or brush away under the carpet of cultural ‘decency’. And to an extent, it does. Contrary to the historical excesses of such themes, there is not an ounce of emotional manipulation in its eight minutes. One can perhaps fault it for being too “ideal,” too happy, too cheery – but I would take this over age-old narrative clichés. A working mother too busy for her child tends to be treated as a classic conflict: there are usually resentful tears, tough-life music triggers and an awkward, ignorant man caught in the middle of this ocean of first-world neglect-porn.
But here, only for a fleeting moment, we notice the mother’s arched eyebrow when she realizes she will miss her daughter’s first time – an event she is likely to have prepared the girl for through progressive fairytales and frank conditioning. She feels bad for maybe a minute, that’s about it. It doesn’t make a difference to their healthy relationship – the girl won’t be angry when the woman comes home, and the woman won’t regret the demanding nature of her job. This is not a family susceptible to melodrama.
Another notable aspect is the attitude of the father. Satyajit Sharma’s supportive presence here is a far cry from his television and film roles we are accustomed to. He is awkward, yes, but remains receptive and doesn’t hesitate to express his own inexperience despite his gentle nature.
I’m quite sure Unny’s film profits from its uncomplicated gaze in an era that thrives on over-humanizing its deficiencies. It is impossibly optimistic – propagating a sense of sorted-ness we aren’t used to associating with urban atomic families. It is probably better to stick to the basics as a new storyteller, where depth is eschewed in favour of a clean, public-service-style clarity. That it is ironically about something that is routinely considered “dirty” only adds to its disarming innocence – and helps make Her First Time outmaneuver its filmmaking.