It is officially monsoon. The sky stands overcast with the promise of rain. It almost implores you to take a break, step inside, hold your beloved close by and reminisce about times gone and to come. It is also the perfect setting to watch a story of lust. Watching Lust Stories 2, now streaming on Netflix, I could not help but remember another similar story of desire from aons ago. A story splashed with the beauty of the monsoonal rains. A story of love, peppered with the raunch of lust.
Watching Konkona Sen Sharma’s atmospheric genius The Mirror from this otherwise largely disappointing anthology, I was repeatedly reminded of the story of Alice. In Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Tilottama Shome also essayed the role of a domestic help, employed by the Delhi-based Verma family. We meet the entirety of their boisterous lot as they prepare for the wedding of their daughter. The stakes are high - the wedding with all its shenanigans must go on despite the rainy rush. But higher than the watery stakes run the stakes of desire. As the family runs a helter-skelter, arranging flowers and lights, we see Alice one afternoon cleaning the mirror in her mistress’s master bedroom.
The room is bathed in the burnt gold of the setting sun, as Alice suddenly stumbles upon an array of jewel boxes lying on the dressing table. The camera takes a moment. The strings in the background music quicken pace, paving the way for a mellifluous flute to eventually flood the screen. Alice gently picks up a necklace and puts it on herself. The first wall now breached, she proceeds to pick up the stray bindi lying in the upper corner of the mirror and replaces her own with it. She puts on the dangling ear pieces, undoes her knotted hair and lets loose her own saree. She un-pleats her anchal and puts it across in various poses of seduction. It is a desirous performance, one that she plays before the mirror. But little does she know yet, that this is not a solo performance.
The scene masterfully intercuts this with Dubey Ji (a delightful Vijay Raaz), the wedding decorator quietly eyeing his subject of desire, lost in her own world of desires. While his fellow men quickly gather force in anticipation of what they assume to be Alice’s premeditated jewellery theft, Dubey Ji remains lost in his own affectionate gaze of voyeurism. He intently looks at Alice, the woman he has desired from the moment he sets eyes on her as she performs her desire to transcend the barriers of class that confine her. In a family of riches, this is her stolen moment of transgression. In this moment of sringara, she is nothing less than the bride herself.
But this moment gets rudely broken, when the exclamations from Dubey Ji’s fellow men make Alice finally aware – that this moment was never her alone. Her desire was on display for many others, and this space of private performance had long become a space of public spectacle. Alice quickly proceeds to take off her borrowed jewellery before rushing out of the room.
The desire of the subaltern is something that Tilottama Shome has by now learnt to depict to perfection. She brought quiet dignity to her performance of the long-suffering maid who is deeply in love with her tortured, yet callously cruel employer in Rohena Gera’s Sir: Is Love Enough?. And in Sen Sharma’s The Mirror, she quite literally goes to the other side of the mirror when she, as a seemingly upper-class Bandra working professional, seeks her own desire in the reflected desire-ridden performance of her maid, Seema Didi (played to perfection by Amruta Subhash).
Here the mirror once again becomes a reflection of Ishita’s innermost desire - a desire for intimacy. In recent years, film-makers have repeatedly attempted to engage with ideas of urban isolation and loneliness and Sen Sharma’s work will definitely go down as one of the finer additions to that. In a brutally honest yet heartbreakingly sensitive sequence, Sen Sharma, shows Ishita’s failed attempt at pleasuring herself within the space of her curtained bedroom. The depth of her loneliness in a house too large for her single self is so pulsating, that when we find her seeking pleasure in the mirror reflection of Seema’s desire — our initial grotesque shock eventually paves way for empathy. If Alice’s desire is to be read as brimming with class ascension, what does one make of Ishita’s desire? Here desire itself as a category, becomes bridled with questions of socio-cultural privilege — raising questions with regard to the spatial construction of urban metropolises that offer no hideout for lover’s seeking a moment of intimacy. For Seema and her husband, afternoons in the empty apartments of her employer are the only way to have sex, as opposed to the crowded claustrophobia of their own chawl.
In the most Lacanian sense of the term, the gestalt or the image we see reflected in the mirror before us is the image of our deepest darkest recesses. It is invested with the libidinal energy that derives its driving forces from the Lacanian Real and is essential in mitigating the journey of the Subject into the Symbolic order. In the case of Alice, the image is a literal reflection of her own self - transformed through the sartorial paraphernalia of her employers. In the case of Ishita, this image however gets complicated. Sen Sharma blocks her sequence in an interesting fashion. Before Ishita sees herself in the oddly positioned mirror, she sees her maid and it is this image in which she invests the entirety of her libidinal forces. The mirror, in not reflecting Ishita’s image, almost immediately rejects the idea of a subject image that is bereft of desire. But this moment of stolen intimacy, in an otherwise starkly empty Bandra apartment, is what Ishita seemingly yearns for.
The question of class complicates the issue further. She is financially and socially at a position of privilege and power as compared to her maid, but at this moment it is her maid gazing back who assumes the real position of power in this exchange. Ranjani Mazumdar employs the theory of the flaneur in her chapter "Desiring Women" from the book Bombay Cinema to understand the depiction of female bodies in our cinema as a currency of generating desire. In a perfectly parallel note with her understanding, the voyeur (Ishita) in this moment is confronted with the so far uncontested nature of her gaze. The object of desire is no longer content at being seen or gazed. Seema puts herself on display and ensures she is looked at. This switch from a state of passivity to a state of absolute control is what makes Sen Sharma’s short so wickedly funny and yet heartbreaking.
In a fleeting, and gentler, moment, Ishita proceeds to affectionately touch the mirror from afar. It is the mirror here that holds the answer to her loneliness. In it she does not see her own reflection, but the reflection of someone she craves to be. Someone who despite being at the lower rung of the social ladder possesses something she will never possess. The promise of touch. The promise of intimacy. The fulfilment of desire.
At a moment in time when the world of the creative arts is fraught with conversations surrounding artistic responsibility, and questions of separating the art from the artist, this mirror also raises a bigger question. What is the politics of upper class and upper caste artists and performers enacting narratives of the marginalized? In the past, Konkona, who is a fierce actress herself, has essayed the role of a schizophrenic girl, a transwoman and most recently a Dalit lesbian. Despite critical aplomb for her performances, criticism abound as far as authenticity of portrayal is concerned. In this film, she directs a fellow fiercely talented actress in the role of a woman who desirously gazes at a lower class subject — seeking pleasure in a moment of intimacy that is not hers. Can art in today’s day and age avoid these thorny issues of interstices of representation altogether? Or is it the tonal difference in Sen Sharma’s nuance and the jack hammer bluntness of the Ayushman Khurrana formula that determines the wokeness of our response as an audience? The extremely sensitive and nuanced portrayal of female desire in the film notwithstanding, can we as an audience choose to isolate the question of who truly is the voyeur in this situation? And if indeed, we stand as privileged viewers and narrators of these stories of extreme marginalities, what will happen when our subaltern subjects will actually look back at us?