Indian cinema often fails to capture the overlapping of social identities, be it caste, class, gender or sexuality, believes director Neeraj Ghaywan. Fortunately, his brand of cinema is starkly different from the rest — and it is evident yet again in his recent short film, Geeli Pucchi, part of Netflix’s latest anthology Ajeeb Daastaans. The 40-minute long film – featuring Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari – is a nuanced tale of two women, who are divided, yet united by the injustices of inherently patriarchal and caste-driven paradigms.
Bharti Mandal (Sensharma) is the only ‘machine-man’ on the factory floor, caught amid a sea of men dominating the space. She is considered ‘one of them’, for she isn’t fair-skinned, feminine and most importantly, doesn’t belong to a privileged caste. Despite Mandal being qualified to take on the position of a data operator, her Dalit identity scuppers her chance to climb the ladder. What perhaps is not ajeeb (weird) is how Ghaywan subtly brings forth the realities on screen — especially, the day-to-day discrimination and isolation inflicted upon the ‘lowest caste’, who are relegated to the periphery of society.
Dalits, earlier known as untouchables, have always suffered naming and shaming at the hands of upper-caste Hindus. They are still subjected to atrocities in different parts of India, and these alarming statistics are a testament to that. According to media reports, every 15 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit, six Dalit women are raped every day, and 56,000 children living in slums die due to malnutrition every year in India.
The film is an intersectional tale of caste, class, and sexuality.
Weaving in reality in every frame
In sharp contrast (at least at the outset) to Mandal is Priya Sharma’s character (played by Rao Hydari), who is frail and feminine, married, and commands respect from all the men on the floor. Although she isn’t the ‘perfect fit’ for the data operator’s job, she gets things ‘easy’, on the back of her upper-caste savarna Hindu privilege.
The reality might be grim, but Ghaywan doesn’t want to conceal it in any way. Instead, he highlights how casteism is institutionalised in Indian society, be it in academic centres, workplaces, or otherwise. The storyline in Geeli Pucchi refrains from being preachy, and yet sends out an impactful message that will make you think hard, long after the film is over.
There’s a particularly powerful scene in the film — when Mandal confronts her manager after Sharma is given the position, even though she deserved it more. Her manager brushes it aside, and blames it on Mandal’s lack of knowledge in various softwares. Cut to another scene, where Dashrath, a co-worker and fellow Dalit reminds Mandal of her social identity. It just goes on to show that the last name is a marker of success, in a country where caste prejudices run deep.
“She got the job due to her panditayi,” says an angry Mandal, whose despair and helplessness can be seen in every frame. But what makes you root for her (despite her political ploys) is how she fights the othering of Dalits and savarna-entrenched stereotypes.
Divided by caste, united by queerness
It’s interesting to see how Mandal and Sharma, who hail from starkly different socio-economic backgrounds, bond over their queerness. As they say, opposites attract. With time, the two women seem to be ‘comfortable’ in each other’s company, and enjoy geeli pucchis (slobbery kisses). Mandal seems to be more at ease with her sexuality, while Sharma (who is married) struggles to come to terms with the truth that she may be ‘lesbian’. The longing for each other is quite visible, until Mandal opens up about her ‘caste’, before Sharma. There is a shift in dynamics — it is especially visible when Sharma refrains from hugging Mandal, even when she wants to.
Most queer stories are uni-dimensional — where the couple is united against the vagaries of homophobic behaviours. In Geeli Pucchi, Ghaywan makes a conscious effort to show that being queer doesn’t absolve its members from perpetuating stereotypes. They could also be casteist, sexist, ageist, and so much more.
The film has its heart in the right place, but there are certain tropes that leave you a tad disappointed. It is that Mandal’s perceived masculinity hinges on a stereotype. Her character is more ‘masculine’, while Sharma is delicate and naive. It could also be that Mandal has been toughened by her circumstances, but whatever be the reason, this aspect is likely to stick out like a sore thumb in a few scenes.
The last word
Ghaywan’s cinema must be applauded for tackling these sensitive but ‘controversial’ subjects with such nuance and thoughtfulness. It bursts the bubble of privilege we live in, and forces each person to think of the oppression practised against Dalits and Shudras for over two millennia. In this beautifully layered film, he also highlights how women, irrespective of the backgrounds they come from, are sidelined.
Geeli Pucchi was originally a subplot for Masaan (which wasn’t used), but we’re thankful to Ghaywan for bringing alive the stories of Mandal and Sharma. In an interview to a media daily, he said, “The plan was to use the characters’ education and career as a means to define identities as well as layer the characters.”
Ghaywan can be counted among the few in the Hindi film industry who openly talks about his Dalit identity, and it truly shines beautifully in his cinema, ‘loud and proud’.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)