Man Woman Man Woman (“MWMW”), a 26-minute short film directed by Naseeruddin Shah, opens with a familiar scene. A middle-aged man (Tarun Dhanrajgir) is making his favourite ham-and-cheese sandwich. He’s in a good mood, but isn’t very attuned to cooking. When he cuts his finger by mistake, a tender voice soothes him. It’s his wife (Gitanjali Rao); she helps him with a band-aid. Moments later, we realise she is his late wife. He is a widower; she was his soulmate. The wallpaper of his cell phone is her picture, the kind that looks like an endless memory. He imagines her around, and speaks to her during the most mundane activities (like folding the bed sheets). At this point, it’s perfectly natural to expect the film to take a melancholic route. Maybe this is a film about grief and longing. I readied my throat for a lump.
But then the doorbell rings. A tiffin box arrives. Within seconds, the man is on a playful video call with the sender of the food, a woman (Ratna Pathak Shah) he’s seeing. He is in love. They met online. That’s not all. The camera drifts towards a bedroom in the same apartment to reveal the two other characters of this story – a young couple (Vivaan Shah, Saba Azad) who soon discover that their parents are dating each other. The younger ones are in love, too, but they haven’t committed. The older ones can’t wait to get married; they’ve loved and lost, so their hearts are bound by the capacity to hold on. In a way, the film occupies a utopian Schitt’s Creek universe of sorts, where nobody is judged and everyone says the right things. Some of the action (like a car screeching to a halt) is awkward, but this is more of a chamber drama starring four people. That’s also when the meaning of the film’s title emerges.
Nobody has a name here. The credits read ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ twice. While writing about nameless characters, we tend to describe them by association – the middle-aged man’s son, the son’s girlfriend, the young man’s dad, the young woman’s mother – defined by our perceptions of ‘main character energy’. If someone opens a film, maybe he or she is the protagonist by default. If someone is young, maybe they’re the real story. But this short is designed to imply that all four are protagonists in their own right – and that the older generation exists at the same level as the young one in terms of romance and desire. If anything, this is about them transcending their identity as someone’s father and mother, just as it is about the other two becoming their own people. They are no longer the supporting characters in other lives.
The performances are sweet and unobtrusive. I can never tire of watching Ratna Pathak Shah play middle-aged women who reclaim their agency as social, sexual and emotional beings. It never feels like she’s making a statement, or doing it for the sake of a hashtag-laden script. The nicest moment of the film features her expressing her joy for being in love (she’d sing a song if she could – and why not?), before falling onto her daughter’s bed like a giggly BFF. The two lie down, side by side; one is amused and inspired by the other. You can also tell that the actors and crew have been working together for years – there’s an instinctive sense of comfort and empathy about the way they speak and navigate the film’s spaces. The result is a feel-good story that becomes progressive without trying too hard. It’s still a film about grief and longing, but it’s a simple and hopeful one. It’s about moving ahead without moving on – and sadness that earns the right to evolve into happiness.