Monday, April 22, 2013

Lessons in perspective - how we see a free-spirited young woman in Lessons in Forgetting

Last year’s National Award winner for Best Feature Film in English, Unni Vijayan’s Lessons in Forgetting – an adaptation of Anita Nair’s 2010 novel – is playing in exactly four halls in the Delhi region this week. One of those is the ultra-luxurious PVR Director’s Cut in Vasant Kunj. You might well question the decision to screen a low-profile, relatively low-budget film – with potential word-of-mouth appeal – in a venue where the tickets are priced at Rs 1200 each, but that’s a subject for another piece.

Though this is a well-intentioned film with a certain visual flair, I had problems with it – much of the English dialogue wasn’t convincing to my ears, the story was diffused and a crucial lead performance was stiff and impassive. However, one thing I did find interesting and want to discuss here is how the narrative structure leads the viewer down a winding path, making us confront our attitudes to things like personal morality and the gap between “modern” and “traditional” lifestyles – issues that have been central to much of the discourse around sexual harassment recently, including the many outrageous statements about rape that continue to be made by people in positions of authority, and the voyeuristic attention directed at the “westernised” woman whose behaviour and dressing sense are seen as directly related to the bad things that happen to her.

(Plot discussion to follow, but no major spoilers) Very early in Lessons in Forgetting, we learn that a 19-year-old girl named Smriti had a terrible accident (though it might also have been an attack) on a beach in the town of Minjikapuram, Tamil Nadu: having suffered brain damage, she is now in a vegetative state at home, and her father Jak (Adil Hussain) is trying to understand what happened, while also learning things about the person she was. In one of the first scenes, a doctor at the hospital where Smriti was taken puts on a show of conditional sympathy. Yes, this is such a terrible thing, "but, you know, this Western culture..." and then his voice trails off, but he begins again: “I’m not blaming anyone, but when girls are let loose...” And he tells Jak that tests indicated his daughter had “been with” more than one man shortly before the tragedy.

Jak is stunned. He knew Smriti was leading a fairly independent life, that she was part of a theatre troupe and had gone on this trip with friends, including boys. But there are some images and ideas that his mind can’t directly process. And so it is apt that the narrative now resorts to stylised imagery, with a sand-art animation sequence that is one of the very best things in the movie.

As the opening credits play, the animation shows us a father and his little daughter on a beach; he playfully throws her in the air, she flies away from him (literally, for she has sprouted wings) and mid-flight she begins to turn into a adult woman, her hair growing longer, her breasts filling out. In the frank and daring cartoon visuals that follow, we see this young woman having sex with a man, then possibly participating in an orgy too – and this image looks like a throbbing brain, perhaps suggesting that much of what we are seeing represents the febrile imagination of the father, pondering what his “little girl” might be doing, with other men, with more than one man. Here is a loving, protective dad who also has a sliver of male sexual jealousy in his reptile brain, as so many loving, protective dads do.

Or at least, that’s how I interpret the sequence. The story of this father’s quest to understand his daughter’s life – and perhaps to reclaim or redeem her – also reminded me a little of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his “defiled” niece in The Searchers (and of another film, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, in which George C Scott plays a man looking for his daughter who may have joined the porn industry).

Frankly, Adil Hussain’s bland, one-note performance as Jak doesn’t allow these comparisons to be sustained beyond a point, but what follows is still intriguing. Jak meets some of Smriti’s friends and discovers that she had been sexually intimate with more than one boy in her group. Through their stories (presented in inter-woven flashbacks) we learn that she was promiscuous and possibly a little flighty and irresponsible in how she treated the people she was close to. The boys themselves have clearly been scarred by their involvement with her: one has become a depressive alcoholic, another has taken quick-fix solace in religion but doesn’t seem to be at peace, and while all this is presented very simplistically we get the point. 

To an extent, these scenes define our initial attitudes to Smriti. We are seeing her mainly through male eyes (and of course I can’t separate my own maleness from what I’m writing here) – as a free-spirited girl with showy eyebrow piercings, riding a scooter in a short skirt, flitting from one guy to the next without always being mindful of hurt feelings; and later, walking about a little imprudently in torn jeans in a small, conservative town, standing out from the other members of her group, constantly drawing attention to herself.

But late in the film, there is a subtle shift in perspective. The character comes into her own, the male gaze is supplanted, and vital gaps in the story are filled in by a sympathetic older woman who knew Smriti. We learn that she was plucky and good-hearted, with a conscience and an insufficient sense of self-preservation (“Don’t run away from the things that terrify you,” her father told her when she was a child – advice that he will have cause to regret later), and that what eventually happened to her was not only grossly disproportionate as “punishment” for her (real or imagined) faults, it is also a direct result of the compassion that stems from her “modern” upbringing.

The film's intensity meter rises in these final sequences: the slackness of the earlier scenes gives way to greater pace and urgency, and more convincing performances by Maya Tideman (as Smriti) and Raghav Chanana (as her last boyfriend Soman). And it builds towards an unflinchingly disturbing sequence where male group aggression takes on a carnival-esque form, with undertones of the faux-righteous double-think that lies behind so many cases of sexual assault: “Let’s teach her a lesson.”

Given how effective that ending is – and how powerful and lovely that animated sequence in the beginning was – it’s a pity that so much of the midsection of Lessons in Forgetting is trite and uninvolving, the dialogues and the acting rubbing against each other in awkward ways. “They? They who? I thought this was an accident,” Jak says when he hears for the first time about people who had scores to settle with his daughter. Each word is enunciated clearly in Hussain’s refined voice, but there is little tension behind them; this isn’t so much a grieving father wanting to uncover the truth as a student in an elocution class. (It’s just as well that the residents of Minjikapuram are allowed to speak their own dialect rather than a stilted version of English, which so afflicts much of the film.)

I was also puzzled by some of the decisions made while adapting Nair’s novel. In the book, Jak is one of two central characters, the other being a middle-aged woman named Meera, who works for him and is going through a personal crisis of her own. The film chooses to focus on the Jak-Smriti story, which is fine – but it is done in a half-baked way so that Meera (Roshni Achreja) continues to be nominally important, a sort of second lead, without ever becoming a fleshed-out character. We get only fragments of her life and it feels like bits and pieces have been carelessly left out (her teenage daughter, for instance, appears to be shaping up to be an important counterpoint to the Jak-Smriti story, but then simply fades out of sight). Watching the scenes about Meera and her family, I felt like the film had originally been an hour longer but had had an unseemly encounter with a chopping block.

Still, the good bits in Lessons in Forgetting reminded me of the good bits in two other flawed but interesting films I saw in the last few months: Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid and Listen... Amaya. The link with the former is clearer – both Lessons in Forgetting and Jalpari deal with female foeticide, with a well (or a pool) of dark secrets harboured by small, self-contained communities, and both link gender discrimination with a damaging imbalance in nature. (In Jalpari, the village that is determined to stop producing women also has a serious water scarcity; Nair’s book uses cyclones as an important metaphor, one that isn’t really explored in the film.) 

The more tenuous similarities with Listen... Amaya have to do with the relations between children and single parents who are very close to each other: if the latter can be over-protective and reluctant to loosen the strings, children can be just as insecure about the idea of their parents having a sexual side. In this context, I felt Lessons in Forgetting may have been a better-realised film if it had explored the bond between Jak and Smriti at fuller length, letting us see how a certain type of parent-child relationship can be a little like walking gingerly across a beach littered with very sharp shells – and how it can affect the subsequent choices and actions of both sets of people.


  1. Yes, this is such a terrible thing, "but, you know, this Western culture..."

    One hears this line so often around us. But it's quite a laughable misunderstanding of "western culture".

    Fundamentally western culture (by which I mean the peculiar Anglo-Saxon, protestant variant) has always emphasized monogamy, social restraint and family life.

    In contrast Oriental cultures in our part of the world (be it Islamic or the countless variants of "hindu" culture) have been less puritanical, less insistent on monogamy and have had a more flexible moral code.

    In fact India is a more strictly monogamous nation today than it was some 400 years ago.

    Perhaps this is the reason why Western cultures have been able to handle the temptations of "modernity" better than Oriental cultures that were less puritanical to begin with

  2. Seems like an interesting film. I live in Goa and even though it is the safest of all places that I have lived in India; still women in so called "western wear" attract much more attention from both males and females than those who are dressed more conventionally.

    Interestingly, few months back you had written on a book by Anita Nair and I was in Bangalore then. I went to this famous book shop on Church Street and asked for the book also telling them the writer's name. The owner said, "I know a curly-haired woman called Anita Nair who is our regular customer". I think I had seen Nair's photo somewhere and told him that perhaps she writes too! He was a bit surprised.

  3. It's Roshni Achreja as Meera actually.

  4. Anon: thanks, have corrected it.

  5. I saw this film with good expectations considering it was a National Award winner plus the theme interested me. But was majorly disappointed specially after travelling for 2 hours to and fro to see it. I really dont understand why independent filmmakers in India have to confine their films to the stereotypes of Indie films. Apart from Ship of Theseus and to some extent Gattu and Harud, I dont remember being impressed by any of the supposedly unconventional film. I really hope that Ship of Theseus sets up a good example of how an independent film need not be shoddily shot and directed.