Thursday, November 03, 2011

A small, unseen film

In all the online discourse I’ve seen around Ra.One, what makes me want to tear my hair out is when its apologists say things like “Okay, it isn’t a great film – but you have to respect all the hard work that Shah Rukh and his team have put into it.”

In other words: so what if this is a cringe-inducingly uneven, appallingly written and imagined movie that offends the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about good science-fiction/fantasy or video games – we are STILL dutybound to scrape at the altars of the obscenely rich Bollywood deities who condescended to bring it to us.

To clarify, I have no real problem with anyone honestly thinking Ra.One was a good film (though I wouldn’t want to spend much time talking about movies with them). But whenever I hear the “respect the money and effort” plea, I think about the many people I know who have been struggling just as hard to realise their cinematic visions – and to bring them to an audience a tiny fraction of Ra.One’s – in more difficult circumstances.

I think, for example, about Shekhar Hattangadi, the associate director of a little film called Teen Behenein, which was directed by Kundan Shah for Zee Telefilms six years ago, and which you won't even find listed on IMDB. For the past few weeks, Hattangadi – who is in his mid-50s – has been in Delhi on his own initiative with a single DVD of the movie, screening it at colleges, trying to spread word about it through his contacts. For reasons that are unclear to me, there is no expectation that this film will get a commercial release or a DVD release anytime soon. This is a pity.

Teen Behenein, inspired by countless tragic stories from across India, is about three young sisters from a lower-middle class family who decide to commit suicide to relieve their parents from the burden of dowry demands (and the social derision when they are unable to meet them). It isn’t a great film – it occasionally struggles to balance the requirements of gritty, issue-oriented cinema with the need to simplify an issue for a general audience. It’s also a little tacky in places: a key fantasy scene near the end involves a particularly unfortunate costuming decision (Death in a crotch-less tin suit?) that might throw off even the most sensitive, invested viewer. But it works well when it focuses – as it usually does – on the interactions between the three girls on the last day of their lives: their personal equations, their responses to the little interruptions that keep delaying their plan, the slivers of hope and optimism filtering in through their despair.

At a screening I attended, the audience didn’t seem to care for the inclusion of songs in what they probably expected to be a strictly “realist” film. But I liked the way the musical interludes (mostly gentle, tuneful and convincingly acted) punctuated the narrative and caught the girls’ vacillating moods. One of the songs even facilitates Shah’s famous knack for injecting morbid humour into a seemingly cheerful situation: there’s a shot where the sisters – singing, skipping about, feeling temporarily sanguine about things – playfully don black veils, hang their heads and swing their arms limply to mimic a post-hanging posture. In hindsight it’s one of the film’s most vivid images, a representation of three spirited young people suddenly turned into corpses. Time and again, we see that these girls have potentially bright and meaningful lives ahead of them, but that they have been conditioned to believe there is no future, no way out. (At the beginning of the film, the feisty youngest sister insists on writing her own - presumably sharply worded - suicide note for their parents. Near the end, we see her tearing this note up – it’s a distressing but inevitable moment in a story about the crushing of individuality.)

The three central performances (by Amrita Subhash, Shiju Kataria and especially Kadambari Kadam as the youngest sister) are very strong, which brings me to something worth mentioning about the making of this film. If you see the discipline of good theatre acting here, that’s because Shah and his team extensively rehearsed every sequence in long takes – choreographing the characters’ movements and conversations within the small space that the story is set in – before they ever switched on the cameras. The result was that very little film stock was wasted on multiple takes and the shooting ratio was very low – which is important for a low-budget production. Given some of the crud that not only makes it to multiplexes these days but also gets ridiculous amounts of media coverage, I think it's a pity that films like Teen Behenein – low-key, well-intentioned, flawed in some ways but with strong points too – aren’t assured even a TV screening.

[Also see: this post by someone who attended a JNU screening and was disturbed by how disconnected some other viewers were from the types of lives depicted in the film. Tehelka has this interview with Shekhar Hattangadi. And Trisha Gupta’s Sunday Guardian review is here]


  1. Amazing! It's a Kundan Shah film. Why isn't it getting takers?

  2. Sad! Maybe I am wrong, but I get the impression that NFDC, DD etc. are not playing that big a part in promoting "parallel cinema" as they did in the 80's. They are certainly not as visible.
    It is indeed surprising and ironical that in this age of digital proliferation and excess, media is tending to be more and more homogeneous.

  3. Honestly i was one of the apologists for but only to see the reaction of other people.

    But i also have undying support for any movie with a cause, no matter how poorly edited or bad shots is worth the effort, especially for the director who has thought of it and makes it a reality. It is extremely sad that these movies barely stand the chance of survival. Thank you for bringing this movie to light, hopefully ill get to catch it soon.


  4. How about those comments Jai. This may not be the best film of SRK and director but their most spectacular :-) this film looks interesting...specially the scene you mentioned morbid humour

  5. "Teen Behenein" title reminded me of "Teen Kanya". The latter has three different stories though.

  6. Hello Jai,
    Thanks for the post.Is there a way I can watch this movie somewhere?


  7. Is there a way I can watch this movie somewhere?

    Naanthaanga: at this point, no, unfortunately. I tried borrowing a DVD from Shekhar, but he told me that he isn't at liberty to even lend it - he or Kundan are required to be present whenever a screening is held, which is why he was in Delhi for three weeks.

  8. Hansda: it was commissioned by Zee Telefilms, and they have the rights - the details are nebulous but I'm not sure if any efforts were even made for distribution or release.

    Rahul: yes, I think many of us make the mistake of assuming that "small" films have it much easier these days. It's probably easier on the whole to get them made (wrote about that in this post about Anup Kurian's The Blueberry Hunt, which is still awaiting release), but overall many things haven't changed.

  9. Hi Jai,

    It is as appalling a comparison as one can feel anytime where we see justice not being given to any genuine effort. Forget about, (well I haven't seen it yet! ) but 'Teen Behenein'(which in the given case I can't hope to see !)is a classical case of promoting glitterati at the cost of rustic reality.. promote fantasy and shove off the real life moments !!

    Anyways , Thanks for sharing this bit !

  10. ...promote fantasy and shove off the real life moments !!

    Pooja: I would slightly qualify this: I don't think a film about an important social issue should automatically be held superior to an "escapist" fantasy film just because of the subject matter. A really great fantasy film will be just as meaningful in its own way as any story about "hard realities". And it isn't my intention to get on a soapbox and overdo the righteous indignation. But I dunno, there was something intensely disconcerting about watching these two films in the same week and knowing about the vast difference in the reception they would get.

  11. A brilliantly opinionated piece of writing. But perhaps the flaws take away from the admittedly low appeal the movie already has, for all of the aforementioned reasons.

  12. Thanks for reverting on my comment Jai. I do agree with you.

    Well, let me be more precise, I too did not mean to be against the fantasy / Sci-Fi movies. I am a big fan of Sci-Fi myself.
    Probably , your description about the two movies brought out the difference which u wanted to convey, and it made me write what I wrote. In no way you were misunderstood.

    I have been following your blog for over an year now and do appreciate your way of expression. Crisp and clear.

    Thanks for giving us pleasure to read something sane.

  13. I actually attended a screening in my own college. Apart from the very premise and concept of the film, there was very very little that worked for me. Melodrama was created and juxtaposed in such odd ways that it failed to work. Also, the victim narrative that he takes forward is disturbing. Such kinds of absolutist narratives need to be toned down, and how.

    However, what was completely shocking was Mr. Hattangadi's absolutely defensive and dismissive stance towards the film. Following the film, a small discussion was held. Now, I get that while criticising a film like Teen Behnein, one feels guilty for being too strict as it is 'an issue driven' film. But as an explorative, experimentative art film, it needs to open itself to criticism. To be honest, I still have problems with the film, but I guess I shouldn't criticise it. After all, Mr. Hattangadi might claim I don't understand the business of marriage, and hence am not sympathetic to the film!

  14. To be honest, I still have problems with the film, but I guess I shouldn't criticise it.

    Stuti: of course you should if you feel strongly about it. And you're hardly alone in thinking it was a poor film - I know a few professional film critics, all champions of small cinema, who didn't like it at all. Also see this piece and the comments exchange on it.

  15. After all, Mr. Hattangadi might claim I don't understand the business of marriage, and hence am not sympathetic to the film!

    Yes, well, I'm familiar with this attitude; I've already been informed - very sweetly and civilly - that my "overenthusiasm" for the film might be because I'm not a woman and therefore not quite capable of understanding the finer points of either the issue or its treatment here. (Thankfully, I know of at least one woman reviewer - one of the finest film writers in the country - who liked the film. Balances things out slightly.)

  16. Suicidal sisters? Similar subject matter to Sofia Coppola's Virgin Suicides, it seems.

    Oh, & why do women in movies appear in triads? Altman's 3 Women, Ray's Teen Kanya, Dev Anand's Teen Deviyaan, Mitchum's 3 (Female) Mules For Sister Sara, Godard's One Plus Two Things I Know About Her :-)

    Btw, the requirement that the producer or director be present at the exhibition reminds me of the mythical Rolling Stones documentary film from 1972, Cocksucker Blues. Director Robert Frank needs to be present in every showing. But somehow it is up on YouTube since July this year.

  17. This is first time Im heard of this movie through your blog, sounds interesting.