Researchers were trying to understand what is the most effective way to get people to donate money to suffering cities in the world. They created two postcards. The first postcard had a story of a seven-year-old girl starving in Mali, in need of urgent care. The second postcard was about the food shortages caused by lack of rains, giving a bigger picture of the number of children being affected by this drought. They randomly sent out these postcards to see which one would mobilize more money.
The results overwhelmingly favoured the former approach — one that tugs at the heart through a story that is individual, specific, and actionable, as opposed to a systemic, broader, and more composite, thus more complex one. It is not hard to understand why — we are moved by individual stories, even as we despair over larger systemic issues. The 30-minute short film Natkhat takes this storytelling route and pushes its pedals full-throttle. Because here, it is not enough to just move someone to feel something, but to move them, through the nudging powers of storytelling, to action. There is something innocent, perhaps excessively so, about this idea — that stories can change people's lives.
This world is full of stories and storied ideas— the kids speak of Alia Bhatt and Tiger Shroff, while watching TV soaps, and go to bed with folk tales humming them to sleep.
Natkhat tries to find an antidote to the masculine excesses of our times. Set in the dry in-between of a town and a village, Vidya Balan plays a mother, a wife, and a daughter-in-law in an abrasively masculine home. Though her accent is uniformly urban, the English words in between as spick and span as we have heard Balan in interviews, she always has her ghunghat draped over her head, and in the company of elders, slips it down to cover her face as well. She has a brother-in-law and a father-in-law who believe in "dealing" with women, and a husband who despite being unsympathetic to their methods, is nevertheless abusive in the bedroom. This world is full of stories and storied ideas— the kids speak of Alia Bhatt and Tiger Shroff, while watching TV soaps, and go to bed with folk tales humming them to sleep.
She has a son, Sonu (Sanika Patel), a young boy who drawls as opposed to speaks, who squeaks instead of exclaiming, the kind with cheeks plump enough to make you want to squeeze them. The mother fears that Sonu is going down the same route as his father, his uncle, his grandfather, after he boasts about kidnapping a girl to chop off her braid when she insulted a boy in school. Natkhat follows her attempt at making Sonu realize the follies of his ways through storytelling. She never tells him 'Don't do this', but instead weaves a fairy tale of entitlement gone awry, propped by a musical score that crescendos with the beats of that story.
At no point does Sonu's mother tell him to not harass girls. She tells him a story that approximates this sentiment.
Parallel to this, she does an interesting thing. She is beaten by her husband at night and during the day, she powders herself to touch up the scabs. Over the days as she narrates the story she begins to show Sonu the proliferation of wounds on her face, by telling him that every time he does something "naughty", a wound blooms on her face.
The beauty of this is that the didacticism doesn't leak into the dialogues. At no point does Sonu's mother tell him to not harass girls. She tells him a story that approximates this sentiment. The swelling score too, is accompanying not just the story she is telling him, but the moral she has woven into it. It's slick, almost sly.
But it is easy to wonder the fraught nature of this intervention — to sensitize someone about the violence women face by making them imagine their anger if their mothers, sisters, daughters were the ones violated. It is fraught because it assumes that as a society we only care about violence if it happens to someone close to us — to be unmoved by the tears and screams of a girl you are assaulting, but to come back home and see the wounds on your mother's face and thus, reform.
There is magic realism here, too, from Sonu's perspective. Because he believes that for every bad act he commits, his mother's face blemishes. It's an innocent connection, but if I take the timeline further till this illusion snaps in him, then what next?
But Natkhat, at least in its limited runtime, excises such a criticism for the most part because here we are talking about a child, who is barely able to colour within the lines. He is still grappling with the institutions, the outlines in place for him, to internalize abstract notions of good and bad, entitlement and privilege. His mother is still grappling with an abusive husband. The film ends on a sweet note, literally, with jalebis which Sonu's mother promises him when he becomes "saaf suthra". But it leaves a bitter taste, because even as we might have donated money for the postcard with the story of the one starving girl from Mali, it feels so small, so temporary, so inconsequential, that the despair rushes back in.
The Voot Select Film Festival runs from July 24th. It is streaming over 15 movies for 8 days, including Neena Gupta's anthology feature Shuruaat Ka Twist, Hina Khan's Lines, Kaneez Surka's The Shaila(s), Tannishtha Chatterjee's Lihaaf, Esha Deol's Ek Duaa and anthology Love in the Times of Carona.