Ms Representation: Complex love
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Neeraj Ghaywan’s short Geeli Puchhi in Netflix's anthology Ajeeb Dastaans
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can't be any large-scale revolution until there's a personal revolution, on an individual level. It's got to happen inside first.” Jim Morrison’s words ring in the head as you watch Geeli Puchhi, Neeraj Ghaywan’s short in Ajeeb Dastaans. It is incredibly hard to slot the film because it is gloriously messy, much like reality. Caste, class, gender, sexuality — our identity is often a melting pot of these aspects. However, we rarely see narratives that explore intersectionality in such impressive detail, let alone make for an effective commentary on social power and its hierarchy.
Reduced to its bare bones, Geeli Puchhi is a love story (in the way Fleabag is). There’s the androgynous, dark-skinned, dalit, Bharti Mondal (Konkona Sen Sharma). On the other hand, there’s the feminine, fair-skinned, brahmin Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari). Ghaywan takes these two female archetypes and coops them together as the only women in a factory. Bharti works on the manufacturing floor and is closer to the ‘tomboy’, while Priya has a data entry job and is closer to the ‘manic pixie girl’. It is beautiful to see how these archetypes are fleshed out to represent real women, and by extension, become subversions of the stereotypes. Bharti might not think twice before throwing in a punch, but she is also comfortable with her tears and vulnerability. In an affecting moment, Bharti clutches herself as tears stream down her face, as if she wants to hold the anger in and not let it go. Priya is equally complex. She may be the textbook femme, but she plays by the rules of patriarchy and caste. Does that mean she has no agency? No! She even makes the first move on Bharti. Not only is Priya blind to her privilege, she also doesn’t realise her role in propagating discriminatory practices — she is the prey as well as the predator.
It takes two great actors to bring out the layers and Konkona and Aditi turn in such fine performances. Konkona’s glassy-eyed rage and Aditi’s seemingly naive smile add so much gravitas to their characters and their journeys.
With these realistically complex characters, Ghaywan successfully questions the binary understanding of femininity (which is really a spectrum). Respect is a word that is often used in this film and a woman often finds ‘respect’ in a man’s eyes when she is ‘attractive’. And what constitutes attractive? Tall, thin, and fair. This behaviour is often seen in our films where the hero waxes eloquent to woo the heroine (who fits the ideal beauty standard) but has no regard or respect for her female friends (they naturally become ‘attu pieces’). Even in the current scenario, with so much conversation around beauty ideals and objectification, duskier women are picked for ‘bold campaigns’ and do not constitute the normal narrative.
One has to acknowledge and realise how caste is an important factor that influences these standards. Despite having Bharti in their payroll, the upper caste manager commissions a toilet for women only after Priya is hired. Bharti is bullied for being ‘too masculine’; "Seekh lo," spits a co-worker asking her to learn from Priya, whom he calls a goddess. Caste is Geeli Puchhi’s dominant and also most obvious concern. The film really brings out the emotional manipulation that has been done for centuries: the discrimination is sly, and is most often accompanied with a smile and a word of meaningless, empty appreciation. All to ensure the heinous fences stay right in place. The manager tells Bharti that she isn’t just a workman, but a craftsman when she questions him why she couldn’t have a desk job — the same job that Priya gets by reading palms. Priya’s family talks extensively about how Bharti has helped the family so much, and yet do not blink an eye when they serve her chai in a steel cup. It makes for a terrific end that Bharti uses their rules against them, to achieve what she wants.
Ghaywan admits to being a bit expository with the dalit exchanges, for the fear the subtext could be lost, especially to international audiences. Nevertheless, Geeli Puchhi is revelatory in the intersectional spaces of caste and gender, and their ramifications on social behaviour. Narratives around women friendships tend to be single-note — films show a glossy brochure variety of female solidarity. This is generally a response to another created stereotype, where women are their worst enemies. However, reality is much messier and doesn’t conform to either one-note assumption.
Geeli Puchhi’s contribution here is admirable as well. While marriage and family significantly change things for both genders socially, women tend to bear the emotional and logistical heft of managing a family, leaving them little to no time to nurture and sustain friendships. Not only does it represent this, but it also shows real conversations about identity, contextualising it with social politics. And this is a space that we need more representation in. We rarely see women interact beyond their socio-political background, have political conversations and address their ideological differences. And Geeli Puchhi is a good first step in this direction.