Director: Tejas Sonawane
Cast: Ashish Verma, Gurpreet Sandhu, Rajshri Deshpande
Gunta (or "Guntha") is a North Indian term for a unit of land measurement. But Tejas Sonawane's excellent 35-minute short measures an area that is very specific to Mumbai. The characters are from up north, applying their own terms of sociocultural measurement to a space that bends to support their language.
Aspiring filmmakers here – particularly those who inhabit this city after abandoning a privileged life in Delhi or Chandigarh – have a Bollywood-struggler phase that looks different from the rest. Their "slumming it out" has a distinct look and connotation: a 1BHK apartment with no flatmates, a job with a small production house in Aram Nagar, money sent from home every month, an LED TV, a beer-stocked fridge, a Starbucks-meeting budget, and a burning ambition to have their scripts read just as much as the dire small-town dreamer. And, in extreme cases, a live-in house-help – a "Man Friday" of sorts: an affluent subculture that reveals more about the emotional constraints than the economic state of tinsel-town hustlers.
Rahi (Ashish Verma) is one such struggler ("striver" sounds better). He is biding time in a job that keeps him on the fringes of the Hindi film industry. His boss (Rajshri Deshpande) is an opportunistic vulture, but he relies on her to get that elusive break. He lives in Versova, in a cluttered bachelor pad that looks emptier than it should. When Rahi hires Gurpreet as his house-help, it looks like the beginning of a parasitic relationship. The film settles into a soothing rhythm: The fashion-conscious Gurpreet becomes lord and master of the house when Rahi is away. He watches Punjabi serials on Rahi's laptop while eating his lunch, uses the air conditioner after exercising, smokes his cigarettes and pops the odd pint of beer. He becomes mousey and submissive when Rahi is back home, playing to the stereotypical perception that upper-class Indians have of the people they hire for domestic chores.
At this point we are conditioned to expect something dramatic. Say, Gurpreet committing a crime, bringing girls home or setting the house on fire. But it soon dawns upon us – largely due to the director's introspective gaze – that Rahi is the subject of scrutiny here. Note the way he interviews Gurpreet, with a patronizing but oddly tender tone. It's almost as though he is scouting for a flatmate, a younger brother, a friend and a caretaker all at once. When he's happy, he parties and celebrates with the boy. When he's busy, he sermonizes and disciplines the boy. When he's tired, he indulges the boy like a wary parent. When he has a bad day at work, he takes it out on Gurpreet, demonizing the traits that he might have enjoyed on a good day. When he's relaxed, he humours the boy with curious questions and sly answers.
And the "boy" is just as old as he is – all they're separated by are the circumstances of fate. The truth is that he needs Gurpreet more than Gurpreet needs him – the life of a young film writer in Mumbai, irrespective of lineage and privilege, is a lonely one. The moments between the two are strangely comforting. You hope for mutual respect, for camaraderie, for companionship even, until you realize just how unsettling it is that their 'arrangement' resembles a marriage. Even their conflict resembles a lovers' spat; threats and ultimatums are forgotten as soon as the sun rises the next day.
Ashish Verma, who often appears in supporting deadpan-friend roles, channels the core of what is essentially a personal story. He looks and sounds like the droopy-faced writer you'd find at the coffee-table juncture of Versova and Yari Road. It helps that the film is shot with natural sound, replicating the echoes of an existence that hinges on fertile imagination originating from cramped spaces. It deliberately has the body of a shabby striver and the soul of a hardened adult. The revelation, though, is Gurpreet Sandhu – the house-help who, as I'm duly informed, plays himself. There's something frighteningly genuine and heartbreaking about the way he asks his employer for permission – to go downstairs, to smoke, to speak, to prosper, to dream. The vulnerability is too deep-rooted to be performed. The compliance is too internalized to be manufactured.
I'm not a big fan of knowing too much about (the making of) a film before I tend to watch it. But, at times, the information that is aimed at marketing the film better – like Roma being based on its Mexican director's childhood – somewhat elevates the artistic merit of the narrative. The fact that Sandhu was the director's house help, who harboured dreams of becoming an actor, got cast in a short, and then disappeared before he could see it…it's a clever pitch to get the short seen, but it's also a backstory that informs our perception of an everyday story. After all, it's not everyday that writers choose to look within and exploit their inherent class bias. It's even rarer for them to tell a homegrown tragedy that transcends any unit of measurement. Gunta, not unlike Zoya Akhtar's short in Lust Stories, is a beautifully bittersweet portrait of urban India's most intimate and desensitized equation. The chemistry is always a factor, but the math almost never adds up.