Director: Tarun Dudeja
Cast: Kumud Mishra, Shivani Tanksale, Shashank Arora, Yusuf Hussain
Listener, a 13-minute short film about a man (Kumud Mishra) who is paid by strangers to listen to their problems, merges revelation and resolution in a way that alters our angle of understanding – and listening to – its storytellers. Till its “twist” in the dying seconds, Listener, which shows the polite man passively sitting across various voices on a restaurant table, comes across as another creative piece of commentary on urban alienation and behavioral dynamics. Unlike professional psychiatrists and personal friends, this man is not responsive. The environment is just about informal enough to convince them that there is nothing “clinically” wrong with them per se, and he is just about formal enough (a bowtie, light make-up) to remind them that this arrangement is of commercial significance.
He looks at them without judgment, exhibiting an unnatural braveness to digest the “stories” unfurling in front of him without reacting – the conversational equivalent of a film critic being paid to merely watch a film without writing about it. The film here is about these ‘customers,’ their mental health, their needs and insecurities and loneliness, and the fading concept of human interaction.
The listener is essentially a public service agent lending them the touch of strangeness, neutrality and unfamiliarity in a world full of instant gratification and communal therapy. To draw a parallel, if one were to make a short film on one of Japan’s famous “cuddle cafés” – a space that allows lonely strangers to sleep next to attractive women for a price – the focus here might be on the clients from different walks of life rather than the ladies bottling the idea of companionship.
The final minute, though, offers a device that overturns our reading of the film – almost as if it were yanking us from the distant balcony seats closer to the stage for a more careful, intimate perspective. The film goes from broad social drama to private character portrait. The man here, it becomes apparent, was more of a silent observer than philanthropic spectator. He is a giver, yes, but he is also a taker. He hears different stories, yes, but he is the main story. The bowtie and make-up might have existed to lend him the air of a curious performer – one who is not so much looking at them as borrowing from them.
When he steps in front of a mirror to wipe away the paint after a long evening, he feels like an artist who has learned to watch different movies without subtitles. Or like a producer who has learned to write his own film after sitting through hundreds of script narrations. Suddenly, we sense a desire – a selfishness that drowns out the placid selflessness of his intent – that makes him far more human than the people he faces. The reveal here isn’t a gimmicky moment; it lends a kind of thoughtfulness to the situation that forces us to look beyond the guise of unorthodox affection.
For example, imagine discovering that one of the women hired at a cuddle café uses the technicalities of her “job” to help rekindle the warmth of her sexless marriage back home. This results in a poignant humaneness to the morality of what would otherwise be considered a grey area (“selling” comfort). And I suspect only an actor with the eyes of Kumud Mishra – eyes that listen, react, evoke and invoke – could have realized the semi-dystopian vision of director Tarun Dudeja in a country that only listens when nobody else is talking.
Watch Listener here: