Director: Sheetal Menon
Cast: Sheetal Menon, Shivani Tanksale
They say that if lovers live together long enough, they become like siblings. They start to resemble one another in both voice and gait. Their fights and their fruitiness acquire the familial look of a bloodline rather than the thrilling chemistry of a pick-up line. Sheetal Menon’s Siblings – a short film about two adult sisters who have been imprisoned by the responsibility of caring for a comatose parent – beautifully illustrates that the reverse, too, holds true: If siblings suffer together long enough, they resemble timeworn lovers. Their fights and their fruitiness transcend the platonic tone of a bloodline to acquire the future resentment of a pick-up line.
Menon herself plays the younger sister Diya, and her chemistry with older sister Nidhi (the always-excellent Shivani Tanksale) is unnervingly intimate. You can sense that their partnership, like an arranged marriage that has run its course, is simultaneously strained and supportive – they are not just held hostage by circumstances, they have begun to get addicted to the feeling of misery holding them together. They hate and love being at the mercy of one another, struggling to survive and almost feeding off the terrible things they shout to each other. The irony of keeping a man – or the memory of what he means to them – alive at the cost of dying a little every day is not lost upon them. If not for their vegetative father, I can imagine the two being estranged, or polite Diwali greeters, because of how different they are and how toxically they supplement one another.
Nidhi is the pragmatic alpha breadwinner who does not think twice before throwing her mature credentials onto Diya’s face. Diya is the wilder startup soloist, a ‘freeloader’ who is tired of Nidhi’s nagging; their wars are loud, and leave their old grandmother miserable at the subverted truth of a parent inadvertently keeping his kids from growing up – and breaking free. The only thing in common that the two girls have is the wait for, and weight of, death. But more tangibly, the death of their dreams. The forced selflessness has taken its toll on Nidhi’s long-term relationship, while Diya invites flings over to her room to avoid the heartbreak of stunted companionship. Money is running out for a cobbled-together household who might rather see time run out instead.
The film has a runtime of more than 30 minutes – long for a short, but also necessary, because we need to see what the two were capable of, and what they’ve sacrificed, in order to be further immersed in their live tragedy. That being said, it’s also impossible to encapsulate the cruelties of caregiving into a film of any form, but the director comes very close to replicating the interminable loss of refusing to lose. The smaller details are masterstrokes of craft. The inability to pay the electricity bills on time result in brief spurts of darkness, both metaphorical and literal. This adds character to the language of grief-in-waiting: The film begins with a candle-lit birthday cake in a dark room, and ends with a candle being snuffed out in the “living” room.
Menon herself plays the younger sister Diya, and her chemistry with older sister Nidhi (the always-excellent Shivani Tanksale) is unnervingly intimate. You can sense that their partnership, like an arranged marriage that has run its course, is simultaneously strained and supportive – they are not just held hostage by circumstances, they have begun to get addicted to the feeling of misery holding them together.
The sound of the ventilator – the metallic huff and resigned puff followed by rhythmic beeps – becomes the subconscious soundtrack of the siblings’ existence. There’s a lovely line said by Diya in the end, one that demonstrates just how the sound of a ventilator – or even the din of a hospital corridor, the smell of a doctor’s clinic – can act as a substitute for people who forget the feeling of silence. They find themselves comforted by heartbeats of indoor tension rather than confront the dead pulse of the world beyond. At one point, when the girls decide to destress and dance to an old classic, the noise of the machine morphs into a soothing musical note that elevates the song. It is the only beat they’ve known for two years, and it has drummed into them the quiet contradictions of lost womanhood.
When you spend so long nursing someone whose entire life once revolved around lifting you up, it often makes for a complicated portrait of human conscience: Do you convince yourself that he would rather die to let you live, or do you force him to live out of a misplaced urge to compensate for the limitless altruism of parenthood? Nidhi and Diya are torn between these two dusky dawns, and I believe they yell at each other to mute out such questions from their head. In between, they yearn for him to make it easier for them. They hope that the worst and the best become the same feeling – like shackled siblings. Deep inside, they wish the music stops so that their silent film can begin. Perhaps it’s poetic, then, that the only person from that bygone era can rescue them.