You have just read an IMDb review of Ek chhotisi Love story, a 2002 film by Shashilal Nair. All the reviews are like that, even if some are not that bad. I saw the film thanks to Jaman, where it can be rented for a song, and strangely, most reviewers there found it intriguing, enthralling, excellent… Who’s right?
Answer: Jaman’s users. And this, even if the film is a Hindi version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 “Krótki film o milosci” (A Short Film about love), and if Shashilal Nair’s film has copied it heavily (I recalled having seen Kieslowski’s film some way through the Hindi one, but my memories of it are distant – so I got this information while researching on Kieslowski). From what I’ve read, it looks as though it’s almost an exercise in shameless adaptation and theft, all the more so as there are no allusion whatsoever to Kieslowski in the film’s credits. So what I’ll say here will be at the same time a comment on S. Nair’s work, and at the same time on his Model. I realise I should have seen Kieslowski’s film first, but that’ll come.
Let me first deal with such comments as the one that opens this review. People like M. Liakot Ali have a handicap, that of judging the quality of a film through personal prejudices. My hunch is that they don’t know it’s a handicap, and this prevents from doing justice to author and film alike. If such people wanted to have a fun time watching this film, I’m not surprised they’re disappointed. On the other hand, I can also sympathise with this person: there is indeed something unpleasant in having to submit to a voyeur’s phantasms for so long. But what he doesn’t see is that this unpleasantness is part of a demonstration.
Because the film is a psychological experiment. I use the word experiment on purpose, because it carries the idea of trying, and perhaps of not quite succeeding, but also of exploring a reality which is not necessarily appealing to laymen. Scientific research is often like that, in fact: long, repetitive, inconclusive. Spectacular results are like a creation, and are rare. They correspond to masterpieces, in the world of art. Anyway, the qualities of Ek chotisi love story (and so, certainly, of A short film about love – even though I shall now concentrate only on the Hindi version) are its storyline, its interrogations about desire and love, its technique, its acting (Manisha Koirala didn’t shine; she was OK – but I quite appreciated the young Aditya Seal), and a good many moments were cinematographic surprises.
The fact that the director chose a plumpish, older-looking actress to embody the woman whom the young boy falls in love with is a sign that he doesn’t give in to cheap spectator voyeurism (it’s always easier to decree that an erotic film is “interesting” artistically if you “appreciate” the women used as actresses in it), and that he knows more about real love and desire than our pin-up culture wants so many people to believe. The fact that she’s older is also a sign that he understands the common reality of adolescents often sexually aroused by women old enough to be their mothers (there are some beautiful close-ups of Manisha’s eyes and face in the movie).
The film asks this question: what is desire? Why does it govern us so powerfully? This instinct that draws us towards a person of the other sex, why do we need to call it love? Is love just a cheater, just a lure, played on us by our animal instincts? This need for love, that transcends our carnal desire, seems as strong as sexual desire itself. We need as much to call our desire “love” as we need to satisfy this desire in our bodies. Why is this so? Why does this promising, brilliant young teenager commit suicide because the woman he feels attracted to shatters this equivalence between desire and love? A Freudian interpretation might suggest that there is something deeply maternal in the love that we need to feel and to give: our first love was our mother. We harbour a need to love and be loved which originates in our first emotions as children loved by their mothers, hence the trauma of children who have not benefited from such original love. And I’d say the symbol of milk (and spilt milk), so present in the film, has got something to do with this dimension.
And so when the age comes when desire is reoriented away from parental figures to other men and women, and when it is fuelled by other more mature instincts, isn’t it natural that this deep attraction that we call love combines with the sexual drive felt from the age of adolescence? Okay, I’m not going to go into too much psychological detail, but surely the film has something to say about the difficulty of confronting the growing child’s dreams of original love on the one hand, and the harsh reality of more mature emotional desires on the other. I see this dilemma acted out both in Aditya’s character, and in the woman’s. She too is suffering from this sickening abandonment and isolation. She too is torn by the lack of love in her sex life. When she shouts to Aditya that what he calls love-making is nothing but sex, it’s because she sorely misses that love, and, down deep, she is hurt by the desecration of sex reduced to its “two-minutes of pleasure”. Her lack of happiness is a clear sign that she would like to feel what Aditya feels, even though she doesn’t believe that what he feels is nothing more than lust. If she wasn’t suffering from the absence of love and the emptiness of sex, why would she forbid him to use the word love to describe what he’s seen of her sex life? Love has enough importance for her to stop people from making the mistake that “having sex” is not ‘making love”.
Our constitution requires both sexual fulfilment and love, and the two cannot be separated without breaking something very deep in ourselves, something by which our life is held, a nexus that keeps us alive. Of course – and the woman’s grim love-life is a good illustration – it’s in fact possible to live with this separation, to have sex and not to love, or be loved, but we all know that this kind of life is sadly lacking an essential element. (On the other hand, a life with enough love but devoid of sexual relationships is bearable, and some people would even say desirable). Aditya’s suicide attempt is profoundly realistic: he is at an age when the intransigence of human desires is maximal, when it is hardest to accept compromises. Adolescence means “I will live my life to the full”, and if something is missing, the balance is broken, and everything can collapse.
Another crucial theme of the film is that of vision. Open windows, transparent glass, magnifying glass; watching, peeping, discovering… all the elements are there. What is their connection with the theme of desire? Well, they enable the link between the subject who desires, and the object of his desire. We are toys of our instincts, and we are toys of our perceptions. We cannot help being manipulated by our senses, our eyes especially. And the binoculars or the telescope are nothing but the eye to the power of 10. Whether we want it or not, our eyes betray our interference in other people’s lives. We see them, we watch them, and they are transformed into a picture, into an impression. Of course this picture is superficial in essence, and if we cannot benefit from other means of knowledge, the person’s appearance will determine our position towards them. Positive or negative. Hence all the excesses due to passion or racism, which both come from a superficial knowledge of others only.
Ek chotisi love story shows the inherent risks of vision in human relations (it is not a film about its advantages), and especially as regards love. Our humanity and our civilisation are based on vision, because our minds are fed as it were by images, the first of them being that of our mother feeding us. A great deal of what we know and remember is stored in the form of images. But there are limits to this power, to this freedom. A person can inflict great damages to another by using this power wrongly. Everybody needs to be seen and recognised, but within certain limits only. The desire that expresses itself through another person’s eyes laid on you can be unbearable. It transforms you into their object, just as it transforms them into your object. Relations will never be the same for two people between whom desire (or love) has been expressed. Forever there will exist this knowledge that this other person has bared themselves, has shown this desire of theirs, with its vulnerability and also its violence.
For in the rays of vision beaming two sets of eyes, nothing comes in between. Vision transmits directly, nakedly, what the body feels and needs. That language (and its violence) belongs to our humanity, of course, and our culture has elaborated many ways to boost or soften it (makeup, head positions, eye-language, or on the other hand veils or sunglasses). The film shows that you can use vision to say things which are felt, and that in fact this language is one of the body’s most powerful language tools. We have seen how much it can transform both the receiver and the sender.
The presence of the grandmother is part of the puzzle. Her experience and protection of her grandson means that the violence of his desires are somewhat integrated in a society, a community that can understand it and accompany it. It is remarkable that she never scolds him. On the contrary, she is there as a comforting presence, and tries to understand, in a powerfully pathetic way.
The contrast between her and the young woman is also devoid of any violence, even if she says Aditya has fallen for “the wrong type of girl”. Her admittance of the situation underlines the human reality of random perception: a particular face has one day crossed our eyes, other eyes have looked into our own, and whoosh! desire ignites. Why? Why this person? There is no answer. We are the toys of our desires. How can she criticise the girl for Aditya’s love of her? It’s not her fault. She represents an enduring humanity who has resisted in spite of the destructive violence of desire. Who has even thrived on this desire, perhaps. There are some tricks (institutions, education…) that the experienced generations can try to implement in order to guide the next ones out of harm’s way, away from too much exposure to the violence and nakedness of desire, but all in all, a mature human being will have to pass through these flames, if they want to mature, precisely. Pass from soft to hard, like a pottery in the furnace.
The young nameless woman of the film is in the middle of the flames: she is the flames herself. Like fire, she illuminates and attracts the males from all around, and she flashes and burns when they come too near. She’s a prey and a predator at the same time. She burns and is burnt by her own fire. Only love can put out the flames of desire. Only love can calm the rage of passion. Love’s long-lasting, forgiving balm. But she has never felt this balm, this tranquillity; and the young boy cannot give it to her, because he is in need of it too. When she understands that he really loved her, not only desired her (because the two are inextricably linked), she also realises that she’s “the wrong girl”, that he’s too young, and that he has been the victim of her face, of her person. There is something absurd in this chance occurrence of love and desire. But this animal part of our humanity is inescapable. We deal with it the best we can, and if it lashes against us, we have time, consolation, and patient healing at our disposal.