Director: Heena Dsouza
Cast: Khushboo Upadhyay
Sarvagun Sampann, a 14-minute short film directed by Heena Dsouza (Pressure Cooker), spends most of its time following a 40-year-old spinster at a middle-class Indian wedding. For anyone familiar with the sociocultural dynamics of this event, being a single person – or worse, an unmarried lady – at a wedding is like being the Joker to the bride’s Batman. They don’t know where you’re from, they don’t know what you do, they think you’re crazy and deformed and lonely, and everyone’s eyes are on you. Everyone has their own version of who you might actually be. You become a bigger draw than the couple on stage.
But what defines this film is the strange personality of this woman, Kalyani. She seems to know exactly what she stands for at such gatherings. She can almost hear the nasty whispers. Yet, Kalyani is chatty, infectious, cooperative and always in the ear of all the aunties and uncles that gossip about her ‘origins’ behind her back. She dances with gay abandon, and offers generous support to all the wives and daughters worried about various skin conditions. In other words, she is far from a paranoid victim. She has to be hiding a secret that makes her immune to society’s most deadly disease. The curious premise earns her a revelation of sorts: Kalyani, it appears, is a shrewd businesswoman who has in fact monetized the intrusive and superficial atmosphere of a wedding household. She has weaponized the social perception of her status, willing to let strangers ponder about her as long as she can prey on their little insecurities.
Sarvagun Sampann ends before any real damage is done. And leaves us with a grin – the “I see what you tried to do there” kind – rather than a full-blown smile
To see the pariah of a party turn the tables on the eyes that scrutinize her is weirdly satisfying – even if it means that the film thinks it looks more suspenseful than it really is. It takes a while for Sarvagun Sampann to get there – the pace is convoluted, the narrative rhythm a bit off – but it presents a female protagonist who is unapologetic for a reason. There is a method to her manic-pixie madness. She has cultivated a reputation that helps her to judge – and exploit – the same people who think they’re judging her. I like that the makers didn’t go with a quick-and-dirty commercial twist of her being a lesbian, a sad widow, a witch or an alternative lifestyle-embracing hippie. To be fair, the bar is pretty low.
But the idea, I suspect, looked smarter on paper. It’s not easy to engage with on screen. Despite Khushboo’s (Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil) creepy-cool lead turn, there’s an air of expository repetition about the film. We see Kalyani manipulate all kinds of “shaadi” characters – which is fine in context of how the film mines the texture of a pre-wedding space. The observations (two housewives eating and a videographer getting in their face) are nice, too, but Sarvagun Sampann might have missed a trick by being uneven about the mystery of its protagonist.
At one point we see Kalyani enter and relax in her own house for a change – a rare peek into the universe of someone we’d either want to know fully or not know at all. The scene feels unnecessary because there’s no follow-up; it adds nothing with respect to what we learn about her in the end. Maybe her life was better left in the shadows. But it also feels incomplete because Kalyani is a fascinating person who deserves a more detailed gaze. The film almost borders on antagonizing Kalyani in order to depict her as a clever, independent hustler. Fortunately, Sarvagun Sampann ends before any real damage is done. And leaves us with a grin – the “I see what you tried to do there” kind – rather than a full-blown smile.