Perspective is the name of the game in Wig, a perceptive 25-minute short about a hassled protagonist who is humbled after crossing paths with a hassled sex worker. This protagonist isn’t a man, a kid, a sheltered housewife or a rich millennial – the usual suspects in social dramas that are about waking up to your own privilege by empathising with marginalised sections of Indian society. I like that writer-director Atanu Mukherjee (Rukh) – the editor of recent Hindi films such as Afwaah (2023), Bheed (2023) and Monica O My Darling (2022) – reimagines privilege in its most common and shapeless form. Artika, the central character, is a young IT professional. She is not arrogant; she is not oblivious to this world’s undoings. In fact, in her immediate setting, Artika (a pitch-perfect Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) is the minority.
She hails from Jabalpur, and gets discriminated against as an unmarried woman during her house-hunting adventures in Mumbai. She is fierce and financially independent, warding off her small-town family’s attempts to find her a husband as well as the broker’s skewed view of her as a potentially problematic tenant. Nobody takes her seriously unless she is either loud or rude. When she finally sweet-talks her landlord into a lease in the ‘family-friendly’ society, she starts turning her modest 1-BHK into a cozy home. Until another problem emerges. She notices, from her window, that the area is shady at night: Men haggle with street-walkers at the corner, which is why Artika hesitates to invite a colleague for a housewarming drink. She feels unsafe; the male clients stare and lech at Artika when she returns from her late work shifts. The security guard is lazy. Nobody seems to bother, because the majority of residents in her building are men who’re probably moral guardians by day and seedy voyeurs by night. The metaphors are a bit clunky – a cockroach in her drawing room; a bug in her operating system at work – but they belong in a narrative that resists all sorts of visual traps.
In most other stories, Artika might have been the coming-of-age device whose struggles change the outlook of a more entitled character. But in Wig, Artika is that “entitled” character. Despite being a survivor of prejudice herself, Artika’s blind spots are evident in her armchair-feminist approach towards the more grounded realities of gender bias. In her head, there is no worse experience than being a single woman looking to inhabit a big city. In her eyes, she is at the lowest rung of urban existence. She is combative with the working class and sarcastic about the sexism she faces. But she worries about the optics of her locality the same way the housing societies worry about her; there is little difference between their narrow-minded gaze and hers. Everything she takes for granted – her education, her IT job, her friends, the phone calls from her concerned mother, her rent agreement and monthly salary – comes into view when she finds herself caring for a far less fortunate stranger.
The stranger is one of the sex workers whom Artika considers a nuisance. But more importantly, the stranger is a trans woman (a striking Pranit Hatte): Someone who’s been disowned by family, stigmatized by society and forced into prostitution to survive the big city. And someone who wears a wig not out of vanity or medical compulsion, but to simply project a sense of identity. Artika takes her in for a night after finding her crumpled and bloody by the road, only to realize that perhaps her own life isn’t so bleak after all. The location – a middle-class stretch of Chembur – and the rooted camerawork (by Pooja Gupte) captures the essence of this journey. The flat, bathed in dingy red light and incomplete furniture, looks precisely like someone’s first apartment: Mattresses, DIY hacks and dimness define the space. It’s like Artika is designing herself in tandem with the flat; both are works in progress in need of both softness and experience.
I get that perspective tales (“you think you have it tough? Think of the soldiers at the border!”) often run the risk of trivializing the individualism of living. Most everyone is invisibilized in a unique way – and the presence of greater despair does not lessen the worth of your despair. (Notice the hostility towards ‘Rich People’s Problems?’). Wig, however, covers and protects without adorning; it doesn’t get too preachy about the lessons learned by Artika or the emotional truth bombs by the trans woman. The protagonist isn’t pulled down to highlight the darkness of being the ‘other’ person. Artika is wiser after this encounter, but the film in no way diminishes the challenges of her own situation. It’s not her ignorance that’s tamed; it’s her growth that’s tempered. In that sense, Wig is the right marriage of physical autonomy and cultural economy. It is both the cracked mirror and the clear reflection in it. And the transformation at the center of it reveals the differences in the similarities of social oppression. Everybody is the same only because nobody is identical.
You can watch Wig here.