Director: Vaibhav Khisti, Suhrud Godbole
Writer: Nikhil Mahajan
Producer: Shardul Singh Bayas, Nehha Pendse Bayas, Pavan Malu, Nikhil Mahajan
Cast: Nehha Pendse Bayas, Siddharth Menon, Kiran Karmarkar
Small town Aurangabad, June 2019. Neha decides to shift from Mumbai to her husband’s house in a cheek-by-jowl colony in the small town. One of the residents of the colony sends a text message to his friend on seeing her — standing unbothered, a puffing cigarette on her lips — “It’s like an ocean in Aurangabad.” Her husband is nowhere to be seen. Neha refuses to pick up his phone calls, and when we first see her, packing up her Mumbai house, all the photo frames are facing the other way. Neha doesn’t want to confront her past.
In the colony she meets the mercurial Neel, who has failed out of engineering and is whiling away the year back home. His close friend is gearing up to take over the pharmacy from his father, and Neel’s girlfriend and him are trying to align calendars to have sex. (Both have stay at home mothers) Apart from that he looks on wearily at life ahead. Nothing excites him, but he is also, like Neha, deeply burdened by his past, turning away from it by embracing a militant attitude in the present.
Both Neha and Neel are also haunted by the ceiling — Neel by the fan and Neha by the concrete itself. Every time they see it, a dimness takes over their face. The first half-hour of this 90 minute film is filled with such observations, waiting to be explained. We understand immediately that the film is dealing with difficult characters. Alternatively, the film is dealing with characters who have difficult lives. Neha and Neel’s paths intersect, and there is course correction. In the mix is a conservative apartment complex politics, which like the cigarette puffing swagger, has a tiredness.
For a film so staunchly dealing with mental health, it gets two things horribly wrong. One is the reliance on shock and gore — two scenes particularly involving a scissor to the penis, and a nail cutter biting into the flesh under the nail felt gratuitous in their blood, designed to give neither insight nor sympathy. I had to look away for a good minute from the screen. What were these scenes meant to do? There must be a way of depicting self-harm that doesn’t feel so vile and voyeuristic. The other big fault is the doling of cliches. Neha particularly is prone to musing, a lot of which have an air of pretension. Sample this, “What you are isn’t where you are in person. It’s where you are in your mind, Neel.” Or when Neha asks Neel if he and his friend have had wine, Neel grunts, “We try everything after it stops meaning anything.” On first hearing, these seem like sentences designed to be profound. Listen to it again, and you realize how hollow they sound.
It is this hollowness that rankles. At the outset the film notes that it “tackles real world issues” before it doles out a list of them. This disclaimer ends with “healing is beautiful”, noting how important conversations are. But what is a conversation? A tennis match of platitudes? A competition of despair — where after Neel confesses his past guilt, to make him feel better Neha confesses her past guilt? A convenient narrative device? I say convenient, because towards the end there is a scene where Neel’s father has a change of heart, telling his son to travel and see the world, after having a conversation with Neha. But this conversation happens entirely off-screen. We are told it happens, we are told it has caused a hardened man of conservative mores to suddenly leak wanderlust, but we are not told what that conversation is. Even the sudden blunting of Neel’s Islamophobia with one scathing comment by Neha is too convenient. Is this how internalized biases melt?
Despite these floundering, there are moments of sweetness. Neel’s friend, a man who spells condom with a k, who never touched, kissed or had sex with a girl, has some disarming dialogues. He tells a story of how he and Neel as kids brought a tortoise and placed it in the well. To give the tortoise company, they bought another one, but the first tortoise ate it. (Which, based on a quick google search, is rare and happens in extreme cases, but that is neither here nor there) They got another tortoise and the first tortoise ate that as well. In the conclusion to this story, Neel’s friend notes that sometimes the tortoise just wants to be on its own, inside its own well. In the final clenching moment, he says that Neel is the tortoise, and that he is the well — always there, never given to migration. It is the kind of affection I was hoping to feel for these characters, each mired in such specific, horrific traumas. But instead, little moves, little-er stings.