100 years of Indian cinema… a landmark indeed but what constitutes Indian cinema? Is it a monolithic identity that just a ‘Legend Walk’ in Mumbai or Bollywood performances here and there can capture its essence? Yet the media goes on an overdrive, year after year, celebrating our Bollywood stars, rather their designer outfits on the Cannes red carpet! This way we end up ignoring gems from Kerala, Maharastra, Bengal, Assam and so on (and yes regional cinema is a hegemonic term!).
This month, Cinemoi recommends one such gem, ‘Gulabi Talkies’, based on a short story by noted Kannada writer, Vaidehi. Gulabi is a middle aged midwife, deserted by her husband. In her lonely world, it is the fantasy of cinema that keeps her afloat. One evening, as she sinks into her parallel life at the cinema, she is bodily lifted into reality to assist a difficult delivery. In lieu of her services, she is gifted a colour TV set, with a dish antennae, only the second in the coastal village. The image of the dish antennae arriving in a boat (measured cinematography by Ramachandra), is not only poetic but it is a telling comment on the decade when liberalisation set in. Not only do myriad lives, realities, doctored realities flood the home of Gulabi but what comes to the fore are the faultlines of caste and religion. While many village women happily congregate at her home, for their daily dose of their favourite soaps, there are others who watch from outside the fence and some more who refuse to step into the household of a Muslim.
Images and their power… the year is 1999, the year of Kargil war. As war visuals flood Gulabi’s little room, the jingoism wave runs high across the country, a Hindu girl who used to watch TV at Gulabi’s place elopes and with the government granting permission to foreign companies for deep sea fishing, the livelihood of thousands of fishermen is at stake! A Muslim fish merchant undercuts the prices offered by a Hindu and soon tempers flare and the line between economy and religion blurs. Gulabi is uprooted from her home and put on a boat and her house is ravaged but the TV set is allowed to remain, the symbol of progress! Ways of life irrevocably alter, histories are obliterated but as Gulabi says, women will still give birth to babies and hence the Gulabis of the world will still survive.
Umashree as Gulabi delivers a measured performance in a film that is so richly layered, yet so flab free. No visual stylistics, no sentimentality but a subtle comment on the times we live in. Pity if it is missed!