Love and Shukla

The setting – A 12 by 12 all-purpose one-room rundown chawl in a crowded suburb of Central Mumbai.

The residents – An auto rickshaw driver, Manu Shukla, and his parents.

The milieu – A crowded, dark, noisy, smoky bar where Shukla and his friends hang out late evenings after a hard day’s labor, to bond over beer and banter.  Conversations veer around, what else, sex and sleaze. Today, it’s about Shukla who is about to be ‘married’ off to a girl from his village, whom he has never even set eyes on. While he is being offered unsolicited advice on how to ‘handle’ his wife, Shukla quietly vows to keep his wife happy both in bed and outside it.  You suddenly sit up and realize that Shukla is different and so must the film.

The film mirrors a slice of the never ending daily struggles and travails of the migrant laboring class who live a hand to mouth existence and are constantly pitted against an unjust and cruel ‘system’. That same class that hit the road and headlines during the first wave of Covid 19!

Zoom into Shukla’s household…

Shukla gets married and brings his young, bewildered bride, Lakshmi home. Home is a tiny room which serves as living and dining space during the day; with a TV set blaring assorted serials continuously, as if on a loop – watched avidly by the senior Shuklas; and partitioned into two spaces by a row of suitcases at night. One part of this serves as the bedroom for the young couple.

Far from physical or emotional intimacy, the couple is deprived of even verbal connect and has to make do with longing, stolen glances…

The story then is a heartwarming portrayal of Shukla’s attempts to create a conducive space for his wife to open up to him and the sweet rewards of his patience and perseverance…

Now the gender lens…

Like I mentioned before, I sat up early in the film, when Shukla silently vows to keep his wife happy and fulfilled even before he has set eyes on her.  Rather unusual that, wouldn’t you say?

On their first night, separated by a row of suitcases from his parents, he clumsily tries to touch-feel his unprepared wife who sits up with a startled gasp, to everybody’s embarrassment. Next morning, he apologizes profusely to Lakshmi for his lapse and insensitivity. He does it over the phone from outside due to lack of privacy at home.

Realizing that no ice breaker was possible at home, he takes her to a hotel at the first opportunity, loaded with gifts of nail paint, bangles and perfume and yes a packet of crayons. Contrary to what we are led to believe, he assures her, ever so gently, that he has brought her here only so that they can talk without being distracted or interrupted. He promises her that she has nothing to fear from him or his family and that he would always stand by her, no matter what.

Through all his efforts at bridging the gender gap between them, we don’t get to hear a squeak from Lakshmi. She seems to be quietly observing, absorbing her husband’s efforts. The rewards come towards the end of the film, when Shukla takes his wife to the beach and they sit two feet apart, in companionable silence. We hear Lakshmi  talking for the first time… haltingly, hesitantly but articulately, encouraged by him. Among other things, she tells him how she finds him attractive and how she enjoys his company and how happy she is right now sitting on the sands, chatting with him… The smile on Shukla’s face as he gazes at her in wonder, says it all.

What I found absolutely amazing about this film is that it foregrounds mutual sharing and conversation as intimacy. This is nothing short of revolutionary, particularly in the context of a traditional family set up and arranged marriage, where one-way ‘man ki baat’ is the norm and intimacy is ‘stripped’ down to bare essentials, pun intended.

It is not as if the film does not have its flaws or contrived scenes. It does. But a gender sensitive, soft spoken, gentle, non-macho protagonist more than compensates for them.

The movie streams on Netflix

Lalitha Dhara is a retired Vice Principal of Dr. Ambedkar college, Mumbai, and a gender activist for most of her adult life.

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