A still from Roopa Rao's Gantumoote

Director: Roopa Rao

Cast: Teju Belawadi, Sharath Gowda, Nischith Korodi

The English translation of Gantumoote, written and directed by Roopa Rao, is “Bag Age” (as shown on screen) — it’s about a schoolgirl, Meera (Teju Belawadi). But say the translation out loud and you get what the film is about: baggage. It’s about the things we carry around with us for life — like memories. Sometimes, you “move on” — like the pop-psychology books tell you to — but without really moving on. The memories are like amber. You’re stuck. Meera will eventually (and really) move on, but this film is about those memories and where they have left her at this time. It’s that one particular chapter in her autobiography, that one batch of pages in her diary.

Every step of the way, the director cues us in to the very intense way Meera thinks and feels about things. Part of me wanted to tell this lovely girl to lighten up, because she’s still just in school — but I also saw why she cannot lighten up. She’s made that way. Take the scene where she is slut-shamed by a classmate. She is unable to figure out why it bothers her so much. A “slut”, after all, is a prostitute, and many women make their living through sex work — so is it really any different from being called a “doctor” or an “accountant”? This scenelet tells us who Meera is. Also who Roopa Rao is.

Teju Belawadi in Gantumoote
Teju Belawadi in Gantumoote

The loosest way to label Gantumoote is as a “coming-of-age” film. It has everything you expect from this genre — friends and first love and exams and a vague “future” that needs to be reckoned with. And for a while, I thought this was Kannada cinema’s answer to all those charming coming-of-age films we’ve seen in Malayalam, a chronicle of the nothing-ness of a time in our lives, before we grow up and shape our careers and relationships into something very specific. For instance, Meera falls for Salman Khan in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and then for Madhu (Nischith Korodi) in her class, because his hair flops over his forehead the way Salman’s does.

But soon, we sense a strong female gaze. Madhu ends up being “objectified”. Sahadev Kelvadi’s camera assumes Meera’s view as she stares at the back of Madhu’s neck peeking out from his collar. When they watch a movie together, Meera is the one who initiates the kissing, and much later, when Madhu is shy and shirtless after a swim, Meera is the one who teases him by refusing to hand him his shirt. I can’t recall another film describe how love can manifest itself physically in a girl. We’ve always heard of the heart beating faster, but here, Meera talks of sweaty armpits and vomiting and loose motions — all the churn that hormones bring about.

And yet, despite this amazingly female gaze, this isn’t a feminist film. It’s just a film about a girl, made by a woman who has probably been that girl. Roopa’s only “cause” is Meera. She doesn’t place this girl in front of the camera so much as put her under a microscope, and we get scenes like the one where Meera asks Madhu for a puff from his cigarette when they sneak out of school. He says, maybe only half-jokingly, that she should be like one of those “good girls” from the movies who always keep telling their men not to smoke. But Meera just wants to be herself. She just wants to see what a cigarette tastes like.

And we get to the other “gaze” in Gantumoote, which is that of cinema. For many of us, this is the medium that shapes our childhood the most, for good or bad or even ugly — hence the scene of the boy who slices his arm with a compass because a girl refuses to reciprocate his love. Meera wonders if it’s the Darr effect: “I love you, so you must love me back.” But even Meera isn’t immune. When Madhu refuses to take a stand on her behalf, she is bewildered, because in the movies, the hero always fights for the heroine. Madhu’s inaction teaches her that her battles are hers and hers alone.

A superb early scene, set in a cinema hall, combines both the female gaze and the cinema gaze. A man places his hand on Meera’s thigh. She is repulsed. She runs out. But then, she goes back in. “I could not let that man decide my movie experience“. The lines move easily between Kannada and English — the urbanness is unforced. Nothing, in fact, is forced. There’s a lot of voiceover and Meera says things like “Every breath of mine longed for him”, but the melodrama inside her never spills out into the movie. The music by Aprajith Sris consists of piano ripples that come up and recede like waves on a calm sea.

Or consider the scene where Meera and Madhu make out in the library. It’s a long shot, and Meera and Madhu are deep into the screen, as far away from us as possible — we keep waiting for someone to walk into the space between us and the kissing couple. Because isn’t that why this kind of shot is typically employed? But here, it is used to give these two people their privacy. Again and again, we keep waiting for big moments. But the storms remain inside Meera. In other words, the surface of Gantumoote mirrors the surface Meera projects — which is the surface of many people who get labelled as “sensitive”.

I could see where the film was heading after a point, but the only real issue I had was with the opening, which introduces Meera to us as a loner and as — yes — sensitive. “It is so difficult to get her,” a friend complains to other friends, as they are setting out on a trip. Meera is on her own trip — literally, so. She is on a trek, all by herself, and seems content looking at nature. “This silence… This is it for me, I guess.” This blunt exposition is at odds with the delicacy with which the rest of Gantumoote unfolds.

Roopa Rao manages something very difficult. She holds a series of moods throughout, and the places she chooses to linger on are unusual. She is more interested in character than event, and she practically holds up an X-ray of Meera’s soul. Her framing is unfussy, and yet, there’s quiet beauty in the images of, say, Meera and Madhu against the backdrop of a stone wall. These are little snatches of visual poetry, as is Teju Belawadi’s face. The entire cast is superb, but Teju holds it all together. She doesn’t overdo the sensitivity. Her insides are always flickering with feelings, and her face says a lot despite showing very little. In a way, this beautiful film feels almost like a betrayal of Meera, who wants to keep everything inside her. When she realises Madhu has told others about their kiss, we hear her voiceover: “It was our moment. Why share with friends?” She might feel the same way about this movie.

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