Natkhat movie review: Vidya Balan silently but effectively battles patriarchy in her debut short film
With a fine blend of soaring imagination and hard-hitting realities, Natkhat hits the sweet spot between hope and awareness.
Haven't we heard countless times (particularly from politicians) that young men ended up misbehaving with women because they are "natkhat" (naughty)? Vidya Balan seeks to address this appalling frame of mind through her new short film, Natkhat, that is also her maiden production, along with Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Movies. She plays a homemaker in a patriarchal setup, who learns her little school-going son Sonu is gravitating towards misogyny and disregard for the other gender just like the men in her family.
She realises this when her son, Sonu, casually suggests to his father the solution to mend the ways of a "troublesome" lady: "Toh ussey utha lo na, papa!" Silence rushes into the dining hall, where the conversation is taking place. Balan, who is observing purdah with her sari while serving food to the men in the family, stops with a jerk while returning to the kitchen. Her astonishment, and palpable fear of her son growing into a wife-beater, sears through the sari ka pallu that covers her face. She knows in that moment that she needs to go an extra mile to break down the wheels of patriarchy in her family.
And that is Vidya Balan for you. Her penetrative eyes may be powerful but are not devoid of the balminess with which a mother looks at her son. She exposes her scars, both psychological and physical, to her son every day after getting a thrashing from her husband the previous night. She mumbles through swollen lips and continues to gaze at her son's curious face with a blackened eye. At some point, she narrates Urmi's tale from Mahabharata to Sonu, making him realise slowly and surely, that his actions hold consequences in ways he cannot imagine, and they will only perpetuate the vicious cycle of patriarchy that will consume his loved ones, including his mother.
Balan's story as the mother runs parallel to the story Sonu writes for himself, due to the way director Shaan Vyas and Annukampa Harsh, and editor Shweta Venkat Mathew, structure the screenplay. It is a commonly used device that works well here. However, one wishes the film started with the dining hall scene rather than have the writers waste time in establishing the various negative influences in Sonu's life. They could have left that character-building for later.
Sachin S Pillai's cinematography rubs off the gloss of Sonu's soaring imagination, depicted through a fine blend of real and the imaginary visuals. At the same time, Rita Ghosh's production design keeps things real. The juxtaposition of the rough, rustic textures of a village against the glossy flights of fancy serves well the tone of the film, that lands somewhere between extremely disturbing and relentlessly hopeful. Sound designer Karan Gour also sticks to this unique tone, by capturing ambient sounds of coo-cooing birds and using an evocative background score.
Since Balan does not use the crutch of local accent to remind the viewers she plays a village woman, Kriti Kolwankar and Maria Tharakan's choice of simple cotton saris (always accompanied by a mangalsutra) for the actress comes in handy. Balan should have been the focus of the film, even if the message in the film is directed towards the son.
That brings me to the son Sonu, actually played by a girl, Miss Sanika Patel. Given the theme of the film, it is fairly interesting that casting director Annukampa chooses a girl to play a boy arrested by patriarchy. She also doubles up as the acting coach for the children, and manages to elicit genuine reactions of mischief, menace, vulnerability, curiosity, and hope. The acting by Sanika in a few closeup shots feels clunky, but that can be dismissed because children are 'natkhat'. What cannot be discounted is Sonu's recklessness towards girls. And that is where Natkhat strikes home.
Natkhat premiered at the ongoing virtual global film festival We Are One, courtesy Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
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