Director: Navjot Gulati
Cast: Supriya Pilgaonkar, Shriya Pilgaonkar, Shiv Pandit, Saanand Verma, Manu Rishi
The thing about filmmakers who persist in trying to emulate others is that, eventually, somehow, they get closer to that established tone. Most of the time, their ambitions aren’t entirely original, and adopting a famous ‘trademark’ style begins to define – for better or for worse – their stubborn understanding of the craft. In director Navjot Gulati’s case (writer, Running Shaadi), after much trial and plenty of error, a voice is finally beginning to emerge. It may not be completely his, but it’s certainly worth hearing.
I’ve known Gulati for a while. He has never shied away from broadcasting his blind adulation for contemporary Hindi-film directors Dibakar Bannerjee (particularly Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!) and Imtiaz Ali (everything). As a result, most of what he has created is designed – at times, not even deliberately – to occupy mythical environments combining the form of one (regional flavour) with the spirit of another (human relationships). The problem is that when his ideas originate as part of everyday life in a multifaceted metropolitan like Mumbai, neither of these elements can take precedence in a visual medium without seeming generic. The city has to define its stories, and not the other way around.
In both, his viral short Best Girlfriend, and his web-series Local Girlfriend, the focus has been on equations – where the writing doesn’t seem lived-in and instinctive enough, informed in part by the city’s lack of one identifiable culture. But with Jai Mata Di, his latest short, he manages to strike a sweet balance. It is about the most Bombay problem possible – a young unmarried media couple (Shiv Pandit, Shriya Pilgaonkar) attempting to find a flat to entertain dreams of a live-in relationship.
This specific predicament affords Gulati the freedom to flirt with Khosla-ish quirk (a hustling broker, a “progressive” mother, an old-school society secretary) and quintessential ‘jugaad’ (the couple having to interview as siblings), without delving too deep into the tense gender mechanics of companionship. The maker is clearly familiar with the city’s infamous housing sub-culture. So the concentration on characters can remain breezy and surface-level without compromising on the narrative’s conversational mood. All this is visible in the one scene where five of them are present in one room: we don’t need to know much about anyone here to enjoy the outrageousness of their situation. There’s no script-splaning, though I suspect the fun of it all would have been diluted if the director wanted us to believe his take. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to try.
It does also help that the performers, especially Supriya Pilgaonkar as the girl’s mother, seem to be playfully navigating the Hrishikesh Mukherjee atmosphere of “middle-cinema”. In the self-important secretary’s (a freewheeling Manu Rishi) office, at one point the couple starts to bicker, prompting her to remark, “they fight like lovers, but love like siblings.” Gulati may just have missed a trick with the structure of this line, given that most couples tend to naturally veer towards sibling-like chemistry in time. The twist in the tale towards the end makes one want to revisit some dialogues – a rare victory of dramatic effect and punctuation in context of the film’s surprising plausibility.
Overall, this is one of (producers) Terribly Tiny Talkies’ better films. Their degree of evolution seems to be matching that of the younger filmmakers they work with – always a favourable combination, as it leaves room for both eagerness and improvement. A breezy short like this makes it evident that Gulati, too, seems to have reached a space where he has allowed life to influence him more fundamentally than his favourite storytellers ever did. He can use their grammar as long as he speaks his own language. Perhaps that’s the only way forward.
Watch Jai Mata Di here –