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Movie review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Huma Qureishi steal the show in 'Shorts'

After the marathon that was Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, just the thought of seeing a film called Shorts gave me goosebumps. Also the fact that the compilation of five short films was produced by Anurag Kashyap and Tumbhi, and two of them starred Nawazuddin Siddique and Huma Qureishi, made it hold a certain amount of promise. After Bombay Talkies which had more misses than hits, I didn’t know what to expect though.

None of the films in Shorts are linked to the other. The first film was Sujata. Starring Huma Qureishi, it’s about a young woman in Mumbai, who makes dabbas and also works as a maalishwali. She lives alone and has an unemployed and lecherous male cousin who also leeches off her.

After Sonam Kapoor’s Revlon-touched eyelids and lips and perfectly tousled locks as a villager in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, it’s just such a relief to see Huma Qureishi look the part. And what an actress. She portrays the swing of character traits from independent to self-reliant to petrified (when threatened by her cousin) to resignation (when the cousin tries to molest her). There is hardly any dialogue, but the setting of her chawl, the quiet certainty with which she goes about her life and the comeuppance of her cousin at her hands, is very hard-hitting. It’s impressive that within a span of barely 20-minutes, you feel every emotion that Qureishi does. This for me, was one of the best of the lot.

Nawazuddin Siddiquie

Nawazuddin Siddique

And then, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Epilogue stars Richa Chaddha, who seems to be specialising in playing crude, lewd, over-sexed women, and is worse than most films produced by film graduates. (And trust me, there are some horrible films which are made in mass communication schools.) This film is without dialogue and you can only thank your lucky stars for that, because you simply keep waiting for it to get over.

Chadha and Arjun Shirvastav play a dysfunctional couple who seem extremely unhappy with each other. They behave like they’re in a Dali painting, but don’t look as interesting. It’s so arty that it was beyond my little brain to understand it. One of the characters dies at the end, but all you feel is sorrow for the 20 minutes of your life that have been wasted.

The third film, titled Audacity, or Aashpordha, was my favourite. It’s the story of a young girl’s relationship with her father, who, like most good Bengali men, doesn’t do much.

The daughter likes dressing up and dancing as her favourite pop star. Her father thinks she should read some English books instead of listening to English music. The girl’s interactions with her father and her stubbornness are brilliantly enacted. As are the supporting characters of the mother, the neighbours, the general dogsbody go-to guy in the building. There is obviously no love lost between the two parents, and the father takes out his aggression on his pop music-loving daughter. Every nuance of language and the manner in which a daughter would talk back to a parent she doesn't really care for, is perfectly written. The end of the film is a clincher.

But just as your faith is renewed in this compilation, you get slapped back into dismay. Mehfuz (Safe) has Nawazuddin Siddiqui cast as someone who burns unclaimed dead bodies. This is the sort of film the lovechild of Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul would produce. Siddiqui is brilliant. With minimal dialogue, he looks the part of a man who is only familiar with death. He gets fascinated with a young woman who often visits the shop manned by the burly dark-glassed midget which is opposite his funeral pyre. The need and desire to be loved by another and the rejuvenation that only a whiff of romance can bring into even the bleakest of lives, is excellently conveyed by Siddiqui’s restrained acting. But the story simply falls flat. Undone by its own convolutions and posturing. It’s simply a film which seems to try too hard.

The director of this film seems to be stumbling over himself with his artiness. Everything is dark, with strange characters. It’s like he was trying an ode to Mulholland Drive in a small dingy town in India. For good measure, there’s even a midget wearing dark glasses not speaking a word of dialogue. In Bengali, we have a word for this kind of cinema or literature: aantel.

By this time, I was ruing my decision to watch Shorts, but then came the final film and it was as close to perfect as is possible. Called Shor (Noise), it’s set in Mumbai.

A couple lives in a chawl with their son and the husband’s mother. The wife, like the Marathi women Mumbai is famous for, wakes up at some unearthly hour of the morning, readies her son for school, cooks lunch for her unemployed husband and his nagging mother, dresses up neatly and heads off to work by local train – while all the time being reprimanded and criticised by her husband and mother-in-law. She’s the only earning member of the family. She works in a tailoring unit, and one of the most revealing moments in the film is a scene of her sitting alone in the tailoring unit at her sewing machine eating her lunch from a tiffin-box which she’s packed herself.

Things start unravelling when her husband starts suspecting what work she does. The husband and wife, who married against the wishes of his mother, are played by Vineet Singh and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee. It’s an excellent commentary on communication between a couple, trust, suspicion and how your perceptions can get skewed when life happens to you.

While all the films didn't work for me, it’s nice to see people actually trying to make films that are different, to see actors who can act and don’t tom-tom the fact that they didn't wear makeup. I’d watch Shorts just to see what the Indie underbelly of cinema is coming up with. And to see some darned good acting.

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