Director: Tarun Dudeja
Cast: Prajakta Koli, Yashpal Sharma
I'm wary of films that are too blatant with their messaging. For instance, a story about gender inequality tends to forcibly highlight the patriarchy of its environment. We see dismissive fathers and submissive mothers. We see unsupportive teachers and mean coaches. But most of all, we see a protagonist who is unnaturally progressive for this particular world. If it's male, he sounds nothing like his family and friends. If it's female, she wants to break free at a tender age. They behave more like narrative devices than lived-in characters. It's obvious that they stand out because the film needs them to be different and unique to deliver a message. They stand out because they are the film.
In Tarun Dudeja's Khayali Pulao, Asha (YouTube star Prajakta Koli) is one such protagonist. Her name, of course, represents hope. She's a smart school topper in a small Haryanvi village, but she's also unusually restless. She wants more from life. She corrects her mother: "Wonder Woman, not Superman". She sits on a wall that has the line "beta beti ek samaan" scribbled on it. She admires a picture of Badminton star Saina Nehwal on the last page of the newspaper. When the sports coach (Yashpal Sharma) announces that he is assembling a girls' handball team for Republic Day, she sees an opportunity to 'be free'. She notices that the handball team uniform features a pair of shorts, in stark contrast to her ultra-conservative, body-covering school uniform. She tries desperately hard to qualify for the team. This is her story. The questions: Why is Asha such a distinctive girl? What drives her penchant to achieve a symbol of equality? Is it just because the camera is on her?
To this neatly crafted short film's credit, it answers most of these questions. Apart from gender, there is another duality at play in Asha's life: The old is at odds with the new. Modernity has weakened the shackles of tradition. Early on, it is established that Asha is one of the only girls in the village with (secret) access to the internet. She pays a friend every day to use his phone and run a Facebook account. Which is the film's way of telling us that Asha has access to the privilege of information. She has an excuse to know better and be different. She is in a position to learn right from wrong; literacy aside, she's unwittingly educating herself. Given Asha's interest in the digital universe – a trait that also doubles up as a charming ode to its actress' online fame – it's not surprising that a pair of shorts becomes a metaphor of empowerment for her. It's also not surprising that she turns to YouTube tutorials to improve her poor handball skills. As a result, her progressive gaze feels organic. Her individualism feels natural, in a film that silently spotlights the role of technology in the cultural evolution of an entire generation.
Prajakta Koli's Haryanvi accent is uneven, but her face does most of the talking. There's a quiet determination about her that suits the film's desire to make us see Asha's voice rather than hear it. It's also nice to see Yashpal Sharma in a role that practices more than it preaches; he doesn't overplay a character that's neither a hero nor a villain. Together, they lend a sense of reason to the blatant sweetness of Khayali Pulao. For once, I didn't mind the mainstream language of new-age womanhood. For once, the social message merged with the social medium.