Director: Ajitpal Singh
Cast: Shivam Math, Yash Patel, Swati Das
Streaming on: Mubi India
Monsoon is widely regarded as a cinematic season. The rain makes movies look like movies. The visuals acquire a sort of freakish novelty – a hybrid of water and sky, depth and height, light and darkness. But geography plays a big part in how we perceive seasons. The rain affects the psychology of South Asians the same way, say, sunlight influences the Britishers. Monsoons make most Indians think differently, behave differently, remember differently, as though the few months become an out-of-syllabus portion in a year bookended by the ubiquity of summer and coyness of winter. More importantly, the younger the mind the deeper the imprint. (Think coastal Marathi stories: Avinash Arun's Killa, or more recently, Nagraj Manjule's haunting short Pavasacha Nibhandh). Rammat-Gammat emerges from the same mental universe.
In this 18-minute Gujarati short directed by Ajitpal Singh, the class gap between best friends Avinash and Bhushan always existed. Avinash is from a well-to-do household in the small town, while Bhushan lives with his single mother in a shed on the outskirts. Avinash's skin is of a lighter shade, too, and in Bhushan's head, the social and physical distinctions feel more pronounced in the overcast weather. The film opens with the two on their way back from school in a lush green field. They're discussing a Real Madrid game. Bhushan, the better football player, gives Avinash some tips about dribbling. When Avinash's elder brother visits from the city with a gift – spanking new soccer shoes – Bhushan starts to feel pangs of an emotion he isn't used to: envy. On his walks home, the rain presumably forces Bhushan to spend more time seeking shelter under bridges and trees. He has more time to feel unfortunate, sidelined and grumpy. He has more time to contemplate maybe stealing those shoes. It'll help him kick better, but it might also stop his mind from ticking.
The premise is seemingly simple. But again, as was the case with the director's Sundance-premiering feature debut Fire in the Mountains, the staging is deceptively detailed. The portrait of a child waking up to the vagaries of the world is largely a subliminal one. The choice of football as the sport that triggers this narrative – in a notoriously cricket-mad region – is not random. No other game levels the playing field the way football does. It is largely a talent-based and low-maintenance sport, and perhaps the only quantifiable asset is a player's shoes. Yet, the maximum real-life fairytales – and individual success stories that highlight the disparity between rags and riches – emerge from the footballing ecosystem. Bhushan represents the humble beginnings of most athletes, and Avinash signifies the position of privilege they hope to reach. The game also enables the magnitude of Bhushan's dreams – and by extension, the nightmare of his realities. He doesn't like the men that visit his mother in the middle of the day; everything he expects from football is an escape from this life. Stealing a pair of shoes, then, is par for the course: The thought that Avinash won't feel the wetness of the grass the way Bhushan does is almost crippling.
Then there are the subtle nods to caste discrimination. When Avinash is excitedly looking through his brother's gifts at home, Bhushan isn't sitting in the verandah with the rest of the family. He stands at a distance, near the gate, watching Avinash test-drive a new Superman t-shirt and football shoes. It is an unsaid rule. When Avinash's mother is on a phone-call with her husband, one can almost sense – from the way her expression changes – that the man has said something discriminatory about Avinash's best friend; the brother, too, makes his stance about "people like Bhushan" clear to Avinash.
Perhaps that's why the final shot of the film, which might seem a bit strange at first, makes a lot of sense. After all the drama, it's just two friends smiling at one another. Avinash never looks at the incident as anything more than a friend rudely borrowing his prized possession. He finds the uproar amusing, with everyone suddenly having an opinion on their relationship. He thinks nothing of eating Bhushan's mother's cooking, and the cultural subtext – of the poor stealing from the rich, the untouchable daring to think big – is merely an invention of adulthood. Grown-ups say the darndest things. The smile they exchange in the end is blissfully ignorant and innocent. It has its own language: What's wrong with these people? It's just a pair of shoes. Until they become 'these people' themselves, Avinash and Bhushan can afford to sprint barefoot on rainy days.