Director: Suman Mukhopadhyay

Cast: Mahie Gill, Sayani Gupta, Ragini Khanna, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Imaad Shah

Streaming on: Zee5

It’s only a matter of time before the Indian Children’s Nursery Rhymes Association is formed with a one-point agenda: To ban Hindi movies from turning their playful songs into creepy horror-film devices. (Remember Machhli Jal Ki Rani Hai?). Posham Pa begins with the titular rhyme ominously whispered over the images of two little girls sitting by a pond. The words – designed to frighten kids with consequences of jail-time if they steal – also invoke the girls’ future. But by working as more of an atmospheric gimmick, the words invoke the film’s future as well. Based on true events, Posham Pa is a psychological thriller about two Maharashtrian serial-killing sisters on death row. Led by an unstable mother (Mahie Gill), Regha Sathe (Sayani Gupta) and Shikha Deshpande (Ragini Khanna) kill 50 children – mostly street urchins and beggars – over five years in and around 1990s Aurangabad. Their life, as you might imagine, is worth exploring. 

But more than anything, Posham Pa is a film about storytelling. Everyone is trying to tell a story in this film, including the people listening. Two young documentary filmmakers, Nikhat (Shivani Raghuvanshi) and Gundeep (Imaad Shah), are hired by the government to piece together the sisters’ stories and build a case for profiling. They become our way into a deranged universe. Their interviews serve as a legitimate excuse to break this film down into fragmented memories from multiple focal points. There are no “flashbacks” as such, only recorded accounts. To fill in the gaps, Regha is shown to be the crazy one so that she hallucinates and imagines her dead mother telling her side of the story. The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ and ‘manipulative’ are thrown around very early so that we don’t expect the “why” of their crimes – it’s the “how” that defines the essence of its non-linear narrative. Regha’s account, about two girls conditioned into cold-bloodedness by their unhinged sex-working mother, is broad and superficial. Shikha’s is more specific, like close-ups added to reveal the buildup of Regha’s master shots. There are other interviewees, too, that provide a third-person perspective of these scenes. But their primary purpose is to distract. The back-and-forth-ness of the narrative is deliberately complex, trying to mirror not just the mental state of the girls but also the palette of inexperienced documentarians. The girls’ lives play out like scattered video files on a messy edit table.

The details are careless: The prison looks like an abandoned ‘90s set while ‘90s Maharashtra looks like a carefully decorated prison

This is where the tender age of the storytellers within the film is crucial to its goal. Like students fresh out of a film school, they are conflicted between constructing a story and telling a tale. Their opinions begin to seep into what should be a factual piece. Nikhat is empathetic and idealistic; she believes that one of the two is a victim of circumstances and doesn’t deserve the death penalty. Gundeep is the voice of reason but the less convincing character; he seems to come around only because the writer isn’t sure about what to do with him. The film uses them to mislead the audience, but often gets lost in the labyrinth of its own deceptions. I’m not sure if it’s the writing or acting, but these two aren’t built to be intelligent. Unlike investigative journalists or overzealous reporters, they are built to get swayed by what they hear. It doesn’t take much to figure out why the sisters are presented as such contrasting personalities. And 76 minutes feel like an awful lot of work to arrive at a “twist ending,” especially given that Sayani Gupta goes out of her way to prove that this is her biggest acting risk since Margarita with a Straw (2014). Mahie Gill’s Tabu-gone-wrong glamour and amoral-womanhood stereotype are pushed too far once again, and Ragini Khanna is too clearly performing like she knows what the twist is. The magic should lie in wanting to revisit a film to identify signs, not wondering why the actors are playing to one-word descriptions.

Then there’s the film’s physical design, which is a pale shadow of its narrative design. The director somewhat fails to lift the ambitious writing. Like a majority of Zee5 originals, Posham Pa forgets to look the part. The cinematic language of mental instability is missing – blood splattering over rice (oddly appetizing), rocks, walls, cats and faces becomes repetitive very fast. There is also a “sound” of thinking in suspenseful films that we shouldn’t be able to hear – but the camera stays so long on certain expressions that it’s impossible to feel the ambiguity of various voices. The details are careless: The prison looks like an abandoned ‘90s set while ‘90s Maharashtra looks like a carefully decorated prison. The ink on Gupta’s finger is visible (maybe serial killers were allowed to vote back then), there’s too much violence to just keep “suggesting” it with quick cuts, and even something as tiny as the clip of the final documentary (which goes on to become a sensation and affect public sentiment) looks like a pretentious afterthought. These little things matter, especially in a film that hinges on being the wrong sum of its parts. 

The cinematic language of mental instability is missing – blood splattering over rice (oddly appetizing), rocks, walls, cats and faces becomes repetitive very fast

I’ve always been fascinated by movies about pathological liars and unreliable narrators. I get that in some cases (like Judgementall Hai Kya), making the movie equally unreliable is an effective tool of method filmmaking. But this story is burdened by a kind of inexplicable psyche that makes it impossible for any film to emulate – or evoke – the madness. Which is why Posham Pa seems to be satisfied with the sound of its nursery rhyme rather than the music of it. 

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