Writer/Director/Editor: Reema Sengupta
Produced By: Catnip Productions
Streaming On: Nowness Asia
Mumbai's vast, unopposed and unregulated housing crisis is not particularly unknown. Landlords have the power to evict tenants and increase rent without authorities exercising much control over their actions, and the deeper you delve into the city, the faster the light begins to wane. It is a claustrophobic morass both literally and figuratively for the residents.
Restrictions on a particular religion are enforced, supported by like-minded compatriots and backhanded eviction notices that are sent without foresight. Mob behavior compels even the discordant members to flow down the river with the rest of the pebbles. Collective movements like these have orchestrated some of the vilest eras in the city and the country, including the present one.
But at the center of this deluded system of housing and leasing lies a far more ancient and corrosive sentiment trickled down through the ages. The patriarchy that flows in and out of Indian culture, through religion, politics and entertainment, has for a long, mostly undisputed time reigned over the female gender, moulding its position in society as it sees fit. Within the ugliness of this structure, a filmmaker decided to tell a story that was loosely inspired by her own.
Reema Sengupta's short film Counterfeit Kunkoo, which premiered at the Shorts Competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2018, making it the first Indian feature to do so in 15 years(!), tells the story of Smita (Kani Kusruti) and her search for a flat in Mumbai while having to defend her non-married status to the housing agents and landlords. It is a cogent study of a neglected issue, most commonly faced by women trying to shun their abusive partners, as in this case, and find their own independent identities.
In the opening frame, we witness Smita being informed about the technicalities of a hospital form. She meekly nods and returns to her "place" beside her husband (Vijay Varma). Surrounding their little bench and seating area are posters that succinctly tell us that we are looking at a maternity hospital. Smita is uncomfortable and resisting the insulting barrage of questions from an aggressive, soon-to-be-ex-husband, when we understand this is the aftermath of a domestic conflict, involving rape.
Smita's world slowly begins to get louder than her own protesting voice as she starts to face the brunt of a society that does nothing even in the face of blatant injustice. She loses her apartment because of her marital status, even when the marriage had ended on a point where the husband had committed a crime.
Kanmani's acting prowess is the smooth edge over the stark subject of the film. Even as her struggles pile higher and higher, her optimism and unflinching courage reform her identity as a whole, unabated by the toxic culture which tried to beat her will. She learns and grows into her hard reality, akin to a chrysanthemum in between blocks of concrete.
But her struggle is far more primordial than finding an apartment. Smita evolves in the very claustrophobic cage she had been locked in by the tightening bonds of her husband and the arrogance that supports his patriarchal values. She progresses under the umbrella of her own skill and opportunism, through a quiet and yet visually powerful development of her character.
Sengupta captures the audience's attention with the negative spaces on the screen where we find meaning and are suspended in the weight of the protagonist's problems, a technique perfected by the likes of the Coen brothers, Michael Haneke and Chaitanya Tamhane, as we find there is more to the story than Smita's vexation. Minimalism is a big theme here, and the top-angle shots help to make the houses seem smaller and the colors a bit dimmer.
In interviews, Sengupta confessed that there were shooting problems and that most of the crew were family members and friends, but since at the heart of the project was a woman telling stories about women, through inspiration from her own mother, the journey had to end in triumph. Counterfeit Kunkoo was nominated for awards at several international film festivals and won at the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, among others.
If Sengupta's aim was to display and expose the thin line between the innocent unknowing spectator of social injustice and blatant hypocrisy, she has succeeded. If she wanted to create an intricate tale of a woman taking back her own body and self-worth, she has succeeded. And towards the end, we realize she has achieved something more.
Not only was this film an elaborate, visionary excursion to root out a very buried-down and ugly aspect of life in parts of India, but it was also a way to convey that Smita and thousands like her have voices that cannot remain submerged and will do whatever it takes to get to the point where conflict is no longer necessary to have basic rights as a human being, as a woman. It is a call to arms, to raise voices and defend the oppressed.