In Kate Chopin’s The Story Of An Hour — an unsettling short story that remains crucially relevant— the protagonist is told of her husband’s death with utmost care. Mrs Mallard has a heart condition and the news of his accident could kill her. She survives the news but — to everyone’s horror — passes away moments later when she sees him standing at the door. Her fragile heart, the doctors believed, could not contain her happiness and the husband’s homecoming spells doom. Her joy turns out to be fatal. The newly widowed 72-year-old Mrs Sharma (Mohini Sharma) in Kislay’s Aise Hee (Just Like That) does not have any heart affliction but watching the film I was certain that she would suffer from a similar fate if her husband suddenly reappeared. Her children and neighbours, like Mrs Mallard’s friends, would believe that a blinding joy on seeing her partner killed her. And yet, in both instances, such a reading would merely spotlight on the surface.
In Aise Hee (which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival’s New Currents competition section this year), Mr Sharma, unlike Mr Mallard, does not fall victim to misinformation. He indeed has died and the film begins with people assembling to his house to offer condolences while the widow remains seated at the edge of the bed. She is part of the conversation but does not participate. The helplessness that surrounds her like a shroud is enhanced when people decide for her — some advising her to stay with her daughter for a while, the latter distributing saris she is convinced her mother will no longer wear — blithely assuming that she is incapable of doing the same. What they are doing, in fact, is determining the weight of her loss for her; choosing the way she should grieve over it. As Mrs Sharma retires alone, closes herself in the washroom and runs the tap to drown their noise, their belief does not seem unfounded: being married for 52 years, the grief of losing her long-time partner has rendered her numb, robbed her of a purpose and created an unfillable void.
But Kislay, who co-wrote the excellent Soni this year, uses the crushing blow of loss to mould liberation for his protagonist. It is here that the 1894 story serves as a rich subtext to Kislay’s 2019 film. It words what the film illustrates: a particular brand of liberation of women that comes with a personal loss. Mrs Mallard is broken after her husband’s death. Yet, when alone, it is the word “free” that “escaped her slightly parted lips” This emancipation, however, is not indicative of being rescued after years of being held hostage, rather of being released after being held back for long; unrelated and extricated from grief, it is not hard-fought independence but an accidentally chanced-upon unshackling from a pervasive, regular and continuous subjugation of will. Chopin — one of the most persuasive female writers of the 20th century — intimates us of such regular oppression, suggests how its exclusion can cause unfettering. Kislay runs with it.
The absence of her husband does not create space for Mrs Sharma but shows there already existed a space for her in the house that could not be recognised earlier for being always already occupied. Years of cohabitation might have been fulfilling but it unequivocally restricted her. It is hinted at lightly when her daughter recollects fondly how on Sundays her mother’s designated job was to make tea for people. Her father liked having people around. Staying alone in the upper floor of the house, suitably removed from her son and his family who resided below, enables the widow to live the way she wants to. But it mostly allows her, and by extension us, to know who she is; she does not re-discover but discovers herself. Kislay deftly utilises the period of mourning — that seeks to remind one of the deceased with more vehemence— to make Mrs Sharma remember herself more intensely, and transforms the arid vacuum—designed by absence — into something fecund. This is keenly and heartwarmingly underlined when the septuagenarian goes to a shopping mall and orders ice-cream for herself. Her bafflement when asked which flavour she preferred showed how unaccustomed she was to choose things for herself but later, when she applies a red imprint on her forehead to feign that she was visiting a temple instead, Kislay implies she is not the person she was thought, or expected, to be. She might have had tea with the rest on Sundays but chances are the beverage was not of her liking.
In his debut outing as a director, Kislay, unlike Chopin, goes the whole hog. He offers his protagonist freedom but also investigates into its nature and concludes how its boundaries are still outlined by coercion. His intent is most discernibly revealed in the choice of his title Aise Hee — that symbolises both a shrug of a shoulder or a cry of rebellion depending on the speaker— the way it rankles the protagonist’s son when she uses it as a reason for buying flowers or air conditioner for herself, and by positing his story in Allahabad, a city stranded in constant power wrestling. In the film, the impositions constantly navigated by the religious minority are not too far removed from the constraints thrust upon the (Hindu) women. The shackles might look different, but the sense of restriction they create is similar. It is almost like the director is emphasising that women, irrespective of their religion, are perpetually situated at the bottom and though the symbol and colour of religious supremacy might change, their position will remain unchanged. Kislay stresses his point most fervently when he expands his lens, includes various women — married, widowed, single, from various age groups and religious affiliations — and shows that none is better than the other; each stands on varying levels of being oppressed. This repression, bred in the domestic space as well as outside, can appear as commonplace as a younger brother keeping tab on his sister’s whereabouts or dictating what she should wear.
The unexpected return of her husband had killed Mrs Mallard. However, it was not being overwhelmingly happy but seeing her freedom being taken away from her when she could almost touch it that caused her tragic end. Kislay, through his compelling film, further demonstrates the pervasiveness of this suppression that is seldom contingent on a particular reason or person. It charts the path of eternal return, merely taking different faces in every appearance. The short-lived dream of Mrs Mallard would remain distant and unfulfilled even if her husband had not come back. Staying alone, the quieter and tamer Mrs Sharma would know. But if her husband were to reappear suddenly, the sight would kill her too. If nothing, the thought of sharing her space again might literally break her heart.