Director: Atul Mongia
Cast: Ishika Mohan Motwane, Yudhishtir Urs, Nicholas Brown, Suhaas Ahuja, Reshmy Kurian
DOP: Siddharth Diwan
Editor: Shimit Amin
Streaming on: ShortFilmWindow
At first, you feel sorry for Sameera. She looks like an unsettling romantic tragedy. Her husband Vikram is alive but comatose. And he isn't in a hospital. Sameera has chosen to live and co-exist with him in their apartment, as though they were just another married couple in slightly unusual circumstances. He's more than just a limp body to her. Think Lars and the Real Girl, but with a vegetative human instead of a sex doll. It's creepy but sad. Sameera nonchalantly goes about her routine – work, gym, driving, brushing, cleaning, sleeping next to him – and celebrates their wedding anniversary with a chocolate cake. She even wheels him to a restaurant in a crisp new shirt for dinner with friends. The possibilities are heartbreaking. Maybe she's in denial, maybe she refuses to let go, maybe she wants to hold onto whatever is left of him. Maybe her love is transcendent.
Or maybe…she likes the silence. The agency. The control. Maybe it's triumphant and toxic. There's a flashback midway through Atul Mongia's Awake that suggests how the film isn't what we think – hope – it is. Sameera looks at Vikram's serene face and reminisces about the past. Memories flood through her head. A houseparty. A high-on-life Vikram pulls Sameera onto the dance floor. Up until this point, it's a poignant love story. She probably misses his energy and spirit. But then the tone of the scene changes. Most films end the flashback here and return to the present. But this one continues – Sameera is loading beers into the fridge and watching Vikram go wild. Her smile disappears. She feels lonely in the crowd. This is not her life, it's his; she's just a passenger. The love story is in fact a marriage story. It's not happy or sad, black or white; it's complicated. Sameera lacks an identity.
None of this is spelt out, because Ishika Mohan Motwane's face has an emotional intelligence that reveals the unsaid. The subtle switch – from the socially disabled romance of Lars and the Real Girl to the psychological morbidity of Phantom Thread – is visible in a split second. The slow silence of the scene morphs into a ticking clock. At this point, it's not unnatural to wonder the worst: did introvert Sameera do something to extrovert Vikram? Is he perhaps brain-dead because of her? Thankfully, the film refuses to pursue this cinematic line of thought; there are no hints of psychopathic (and by extension, lazy) profiling. The counterargument – that a grieving Sameera just made lemonade out of nasty lemons – is far more compelling.
Awake is a perceptively performed and cleverly conceived film. It subverts the dysfunctional marriage trope by blurring the line between twisted and empathetic. At the same time, it also humanizes the functional marriage trope by pushing – and then inverting – the concept of sacrifice. Audiences are conditioned to view a character like Sameera's as "crazy" – the sort that friends look at sympathetically and discuss in hushed tones. Her decision to keep her comatose husband at home is, at best, irrational and unfeasible. But the two flashbacks of the film – one featuring the party and the second featuring a chat in the car – turn her decision into more of a quirky coming-of-age device. It's almost feminist in a sense, which in itself is a terrific nod to the genre. We learn of the husband-wife equation in both scenes, visually and verbally, and begin to understand the 'reasoning' behind Sameera's psyche.
Most films might have erred on the side of darkness, but Awake is very attuned to the personality of its protagonist. For instance, there's another scene towards the end in which Sameera's 'independence' is driven home. It's late at night, and Sameera is horny. It is a conventionally graphic moment – the kind that immediately triggers a sharp string-heavy score to label its wickedness. Usually the music urges the viewer to judge the instability of the character. But the film's first sign of a background score emerges with the camera fixated on her face – and it's the warm pluck of a guitar. It forces us to look at the moment from a completely different perspective, with a completely new set of adjectives: slice-of-life, playful, mundane, personal, and awakened. At first, you may feel sorry for Sameera. But then you feel happy – even relieved – for her.
Another trope that Awake subverts is the morality-revenge trope. Not all marriages need to be abusive – and not all husbands villains – for the wife to 'earn' an escape route. Vikram is by no means a monster, and Sameera, at least on the surface, has no obvious problems. But that doesn't mean she is satisfied. A union is the consequence of compatibility rather than ethicality.
The 23-minute short opens with Sameera in her workspace. Much like the artist playing her – Ishika Mohan Motwane is a well-known still photographer – Sameera is also a photographer. She is shooting a portrait of a newly married couple. She frames them, lights them, directs them down to the littlest detail. She makes small talk with the wife. In essence, Sameera's job is to make relationships look good. It is to let partners convey a certain image of themselves to the outside world. In a way, the job reflects Sameera's framing of her own marriage – she has the power to direct, light and control the snapshot of her love. It is her stage to make. The only difference is that Sameera's 'arrangement' is designed to convey a certain image to herself rather than the outside world. It is to make her look – and feel – good. The world thinks she is an incredible and inspiring lover. But the paradox is poetic: By being devoted to the idol of her husband, the wife is actually worshipping herself.