Director: Tarun Jain
Cast: Anurag Arora, Devki Rani, Diksha Lamba
Amma Meri begins with a striking scene. From a distance, we see an old man dying under a large tree. The field is punctuated by dusty bursts of wind. The man looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders when he collapses. In the rest of the film, his adult son, Balram (a superb Anurag Arora), overwhelmed by the stress of survival, hits the bottle every evening under this tree. The weight of his world is on his shoulders – his 25-year-old daughter is unmarried, the family’s financial state is dire, and he can’t break a fixed deposit till his half-blind mother is alive. He considers the situation under that tree: The dowry isn’t going to pay itself. His mother’s life is directly related to his daughter’s future. One woman must perish to make a woman out of another. A shady agent (the late Shivam Pradhan) and a nosy neighbour amp up the pressure on him.
Director Tarun Jain crafts a haunting visual language for his film. Not unlike Article 15, the oppressive Haryanvi village here is a character, an antagonist that is closing in on Balram with its apocalyptic landscape. A chimney pollutes the sky, the air is foggy with the circularity of debt and despair, transmission tower wires obstruct a clear view of the sun, whispers about “sluts running away with lower-caste men” dot the ramshackled households. There are many shots of Balram on his rickety motorbike – almost as if even his best effort of defying the brokenness of this land (a bike over a bicycle) is fading away with every ride. There are the littler details: A news flash about the 2014 Badaon gang rape case (on which Article 15 was based) in the background, followed by a scene of Balram feeling uneasy about his daughter boarding a train at a railway station full of men. Even the ordinary sight of a girl climbing into a train compartment acquires the look of a horror movie.
And then there’s how Jain treats the central conflict – the Amma – of Amma Meri. It’s the way Balram looks at her, knowing that maybe she can sense his thoughts: Can I kill you? Do I have it in me? Won’t it be for the greater good? Will you forgive me? The old lady’s vision is weak, another device that is used to great effect in the film. Her point-of-view shots are hazy and unnerving – she notices a drunken Balram entering the house every night, which signifies that she probably stays awake till he’s back so that she is out of danger by the time he passes out. The tension culminates in an excellently choreographed sequence that features Balram’s motorbike speeding on the highway with Amma riding pillion. The interplay of sound, images (her fingers clutching onto the seat tighter; Balram’s numb face, his shawl fluttering in the breeze) and rhythm make for a perfect example of how to weaponize an atmosphere with limited resources.
This is when the title of the film really hits home. You can almost imagine Balram’s pained voice – “Amma meri”… – trail off before the crescendo. What’s interesting is how the director uses this buildup, and Balram’s predicament, to distract us from the irony of the culture he is trying to supply.
It’s a strange feeling – to feel torn between the heroism of an underdog survivor and villainy of a desperate patriarch, both within the same character. Arora’s is one of the better short-film performances in recent years, if only because he paints a picture of ignorant North-Indian masculinity without compromising on the humanity of struggle. It’s a tightrope walk, but then so is every story about a man that puts himself in charge of maintaining the cycle of womanhood.