Director: Qasim Khallow
Cast: Shweta Tripathi, Vipin Sharma, Jitendra Kumar
For a movie that critiques a culture obsessed with physicality – "looks" – Gone Kesh is a disarmingly simple and well-acted story that, like its central protagonist, learns to resist the temptation of looking good in order to feel good. Enakshi Dasgupta (an ageless Shweta Tripathi) has alopecia, a rare hair-loss disease that condemns her to a wig and a decade of rejection by sheepish arranged-marriage candidates. Her baldness makes her a "defective piece" in the rishta market. She yearns for a head full of hair; the old proverb about beauty and eyes and beholder feels futile when the mirror is her closest confidante. She is her own beholder.
The visual palette of Gone Kesh, too, reflects Enakshi's conflicted sense of self-worth. It is centered on her modest middle-class family in Siliguri, a picturesque small town that straddles both water and mountains. Yet, there are no introspective shots of Enakshi embracing nature and existentialism. Her opening voice-over brings in the Dasguptas' cramped kitchen; her tears soak the cushions of her tiny bedroom; she works as a salesgirl at the cosmetic counter of a garish mall; her father owns a ragtag market stall; her school is not literally located on the foothills of the Himalayas; even though her house is located on a quaint street, we only ever see her entering and exiting the shabby gate. Only once she starts to make peace with her appearance do we see the town opening up a little through her movements. We then see the spaces – the football fields, bustling nights, bumpy cycle-rickshaw rides and public parks.
Most importantly, the film chooses the right "condition" to highlight the transactional social fabric of our times. Just because the girl is the lead character of a film, it doesn't change who she is in context of her environment – she is raised, like the others, to dream of a pretty wedding and a decent husband. When her father's colleague taunts him about not having a son to run his stall, the man proudly replies that he has a daughter who has her own job. This progressiveness, you suspect, is forced upon the Dasguptas due to their situation. The alopecia has made them overlook regular middle-class gender norms and huddle together as a tight-knit atomic family. Furthermore, their failure to find a groom has conditioned the father to encourage her sense of ambition as an alternative; she can't marry, so she may as well study and concentrate on a career. Independence is not a choice, but a last resort for her. Even when she chooses to pursue her long-time passion for dancing, he doesn't create a ruckus. By this point, papa will agree to anything – and anyone – that brings a smile to her face. Which is perhaps why her charming little love story stands out.
The young man (TVF regular Jitendra Kumar a.k.a Jeetu) has been around since her college days – a socially awkward suitor who hopes to catch her eye beyond bus stops and lunch breaks. His banter with his goofy best friend doesn't exist for the heck of it. We learn that he is criminally shy ("I'll have a nervous breakdown if she calls me home") and struggling with desire. The scene in which he discovers her truth is beautifully constructed – funny, tragic and sensitive at one without being gimmicky. There is a tenderness to his perplexed face that makes his 'proposal' one of the most endearing moments in cinema this year. It should be noted how talented, unassuming actors can heighten the emotional dynamics of even the most cliched scenes with just a bashful glance or kind nod. Notice Jeetu's fleeting smile at the floor – he has no idea how to express appreciation – when he sees her in full-blown Durga Puja attire. He knows that, ironically, the only reason he ever stood a chance is because of, and not despite, her disease. And she looks at him not as a rescuer but as a knight in clothed armour – not as a man who has agreed to accept her, but as a boy unconditionally in love with a sad girl.
Even the film's offhanded cameos – which are otherwise desperate comic add-ons meant to lighten the commentary – are uplifting. A bald auto-driver puts the family's legacy into perspective by wryly telling them how an Agneepath 2 rerun at the barber shop is responsible for his "mistake"; Brijendra Kala is a wig salesman whose infectious attitude compensates for the dourness of the dozen doctors the Dasguptas visit. Gone Kesh understands that you don't need a flesh-and-blood "villain" in social-stigma stories; the villain is omnipresent, in the gaze and the outlook and the perception of civilized society. "What will people say?" is in fact conservative Asia's biggest villain.
Initially, I wondered why the writers might have felt the need to employ the same old dancing-dreams device for this character to break free. I found it odd that Enakshi is never actually shown dancing (except, of course, in a dream sequence); the last thing we needed was yet another underdog tale culminating in a competition. But as the film went on, I realized the significance of this particular device. Dancing is an art of the stage. It thrives on the spotlight, on the crippling glare of societal expectations. On elegance. There is nowhere to hide. The way you move soon transcends the way you look. The mirror vanishes; the singularity of beauty spars with the plurality of the beholder. The villain is confronted. What better stage is there for a woman with no airs left?