Director: Prem Singh
Cast: Piyush Mishra, Alka Amin
Streaming On: YouTube
Hindi cinema has often used the 'crabby old couple' as a tension-deflating and cute narrative device. And understandably so – theirs is a companionship so advanced and time-worn that it becomes a comedic stereotype; bitter words invariably fall upon deaf ears (sometimes literally) and unfiltered minds. Regular conversation tends to be littered with pent-up resentments and antique tensions: The old man is dismissive, the old woman is irritated and imaginative with her insults. Their grown-up children – much like movie-watching audiences – are conditioned to indulge their mood-swings and smile at their descent into senility.
But what about couples that cross the threshold of tolerance? And what about those who dare to express – and even worse (or better), act upon – this disillusionment? Prem Singh's 14-minute short, Katran, starring Piyush Mishra and Alka Amin, elegantly examines one such reluctant relationship. Society calls it bittersweet, but Katran puts into context the tragic toxicity of long-term marriage. Once the chores are over, incompatibility stops being funny. The well-performed film opens with a broken vase on the floor – a symbol of broken togetherness. She is quietly weeping into her phone, he is staring into space. This is breaking point.
I like that the circumstances aren't generic; we don't just see an old man and woman at loggerheads with each other for the sake of the social subject. Through their bickering – first in a taxi, then at a divorce lawyer's office – we learn that he is a recently retired government banker. Which means that, like most Indian couples who have "done their duty" by successfully raising their kids, they cannot fathom the concept of sharing 24 hours a day with each other without an agenda. The relationship was functional with distractions and routines. But now they have nowhere to escape, with one's little habits and quirks magnified in the face of endlessly empty days. He calls her illiterate, she calls him petty and pathetic. "Aadmi mard nahi hota hai, paisa mard hota hai," he mourns, rather philosophically, expecting the male lawyer opposite him to sympathize. A son from abroad tries to reason with them over the phone; a daughter from Bangalore tries the same. But parenthood is not a hindrance anymore; the masks are off, the gloves are on. The taxi driver is amused, but the face of the lawyer (Rajender Chawla; nice casting) is important here: He listens, bemused at first, on the verge of turning them into a comedy with silly sound cues…but slowly understands that their agony is real, and that experience is not quite a substitute for happiness. He takes them seriously, because he probably sees his own future in them.
Some partners use this stage of life – where they must confront each other's personality for the first time – as a fresh beginning, in which their 'arrangement' can perhaps borrow the identity of love. A reverse romance of sorts. Badhaai Ho is a fine example. But Katran echoes the heartbreaking conflict of another Neena Gupta starrer, the lesser-known The Threshold, in which a long-suffering wife decides to leave her misogynistic but hopelessly dependent husband (Rajit Kapur) the morning after their son's wedding. She is adamant, and when all else fails, he resembles a child begging a parent to stay. Katran's is a two-way street of sadness.
It's hard to digest the reality of two people, who have nobody and nothing else left in the world, parting ways because they prefer the silence of nothingness over the noise of companionship. Katran ends with a lovely moment – an instinctive reaction that is, if you think about it, a resounding tragedy under the guise of a happy ending. A noise is heard, and the two rush out to see if the other is O.K. There are no smiles, no hugs, no lofty background score. There's just a look of resignation that reveals the legal entrapment of marriage.