Director: Hridaye A. Nagpal
Writers: Hridaye A. Nagpal, Suraj Wadhwa
Cast: Neha Dhupia, Dev Dutt
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
The good news about the lockdown is that it has shun a light on previously downplayed issues like mental health and domestic abuse. Confined to the closed spaces of our homes, having felt the fragility of our own heads, many of us have woken up to the importance of human awareness, empathy and frank discourse. But the bad news is that lockdown filmmaking, too, has identified a new "genre" of social storytelling. While most of it is well-intentioned, much of it is oblivious to the fact that – by highlighting these issues through gimmicky craft and forced suspense – the films actually end up exploiting them. The understanding is that viewers won't give a hoot about a socially relevant film until it actually looks like a film. Step Out, starring Neha Dhupia as a therapist conducting an online session with a disturbed patient (Dev Dutt), is an example. There's nothing wrong with the idea, but it's the gaze that lacks gentleness.
The premise is clear at the outset, when some flashy editing opens what is intended to be a sensitive story: A shot of blood in a wash-basin presupposes their chat, and the boy goes on to describe the latest incident with his apathetic father. He is frustrated, a typical "mad" stereotype on the verge of pulling out his hair. The background score is in its own murder-mystery movie. The doctor, of course, has her own demons: A rude voice in the background of her bedroom suggests that healers, too, can often require healing. Naturally, that shot of blood will return towards the end of the short in a different context: a device as old as time.
The unsubtle execution of the film left me feeling a little uncomfortable – as though the makers were trying too hard to jazz up the "cinema" of abuse. Mental flashes, visual conceit, shrill music, over-the-top acting – it's all there. Not to mention an epiphany in the climax that prompts the patient to unironically ask, "(call) hang ho gaya kya?". Indeed.
I have no problems with the dramatization of relevant issues to make them more accessible. But there's a thin line between dramatizing and fetishizing. It's almost as if creators don't trust either their 'subject' or their audience, or at times, both at once. Unsurprisingly, the primary names listed in the making of this 10-minute short are male. Neha Dhupia is both the actress and co-producer, though I'm sure she regards these issues far more seriously than the film displays.
Another problem with the important-equals-good genre is that the physical bandwidth of shorts just isn't equipped to explore the emotional complexities of something as deep-rooted as domestic violence. What we see is only the filmable resolution – not the months and years of rage-building and trauma and breaking. Very few shorts can evoke the history of an individual, let alone an entire culture of denial and shame. A regular video call between a doctor and patient is too simplistic to justify the dramatic awakening at the end of the session. It's essentially a dumbed-down crash course in reality. At best, Step Out is uneven and naive. At worst, it suffers from symptoms of the male-saviour syndrome. It goes without saying that the way a man envisions abuse is very different from the way a woman does. It's not only a matter of perspective.