Natkhat – one of the four Indian films to be selected for screening at the We Are One film festival – premiered on YouTube in early June, but I find myself thinking about it more often than I imagined I would.  

Natkhat [“The Brat”] stars Bollywood stalwart Vidya Balan – who also co-produced the short film – as the troubled mother of a young boy, Sonu, her little natkhat lala. She attempts to save him from being drawn into a deeply entrenched structure of hate and violence in what is an unspecified yet vaguely familiar semi-rural setting.

The movie is disturbing, to put it mildly. Director Shaan Vyas wastes no time in setting the tone of the film, as the first shot itself depicts Sonu – barely seven or eight years of age (he’s learning tables in math class) – bellowing curses during a game, brazenly repeating the words he clearly picked up from his male friends and family members. Immediately after, there is an allusion to sexual violence when Sonu overhears a group of his seniors plotting to ‘pick up’ a girl and take her to the nearby forest, one of them going so far as to state, “this time, everybody will get a chance”. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but what makes it terrifying is the dawning reality of just how early on – and easily – the seeds of machismo, revenge and violence are sown in the minds of little boys.

As the movie progresses, we see the influences in young Sonu’s life; his classmates, just as predisposed as him, enjoy spending their schooldays bullying – or threatening, when resisted – innocent girls; his teacher, who only calls upon boys in class, continually disregarding the raised hands of the girls who do in fact know the answer to his question; his grandfather, father and uncle, who applaud Sonu’s suggestion at the dinner table to intimidate a female officer by taking her to the forest, an activity he learnt of in an earlier scene; even the doting grandmother – who peacefully lounges while her son ruthlessly beats his wife – is nothing but a painful reminder of what both men and women have endured for years as a result of systemic patriarchy.

The only person in his life who seems to worry about what he might grow up to become is Sonu’s mother. The reticent housewife, who knows better than to tell her son off in front of his overindulgent relatives, decides that the only way to save her son from emulating his role models is through a bedtime story. Not once does she explicitly condemn his actions, but, through the course of her narrative, we see the full extent of the damage done to this young boy – unbeknownst to him – by virtue of the toxic environment that he is bred in.

Director Shaan Vyas squeezes in as many little details as a short film would allow to really underscore the oppression: the longstanding habit of infantilizing grown men, the hero-worshipping of aggressive men by younger boys (Sonu literally calls one of  them ‘Tiger Shroff’), and the practice of getting even with women by upsetting their physical features are only some of the instances portrayed in the story. It may sound excessive, but it does the trick, largely because the film does not pretend to be moralistic but instead focuses on its one takeaway, albeit while spotlighting all its contributors.

Perhaps due to the number of times the word “natkhat” is said in the film, the song “bada natkhat hai yeh kishan kanhaiya” from Amar Prem kept playing in my head while watching it. I realized later that this may have been exactly what the director was aspiring to do, as one scene in particular is intended to make the viewer draw parallels with mythology – where eve-teasing (as in the case of gopis) is brushed off as ‘naughtiness’ because boys, after all, will be boys.

“Does a story have the power to change us?” I found myself thinking about this tagline after watching the film. It’s what we all hope for, but it will surely take more than just one bedtime story for families that have perpetuated years of misogyny to get through to their children who, ultimately, are a product of their own establishment. It is, however, a start. Natkhat is an extremely important film because this is a conversation that needs to be had with young boys, before it’s too late. Because parents of ‘kanhaiyas’ need to start doing better. And because throughout the film’s 33 minutes, you find yourself rooting for Sonu and hoping, despite his transgressions, that it isn’t too late for this eight-year old.

*Natkhat premiered on June 02, 2020 at 4:30 PM at the We Are One global film festival. The movie isn’t yet available to watch on any streaming platform.

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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