Nainisha Dedhia’s Gujarati short film Dhummas (haze) — which won at the Oscars-qualifying BISFF in August — opens with a scene whose implication reveals itself gradually. A woman sits before her laptop. The screen is blank except for her name –Mrinalini, and title of the book she is reviewing — Mahadevi Verma’s seminal essay collection, Srinkhala ki Kadiyan (Links in the Chain). She stares at it, her restive fingers indicating her agitation. In the background her husband asks for help. She sits still, refusing to move. This might seem like a throwaway introduction but the set-up of a young woman looking at erstwhile ideals of feminism and female subjugation anticipates the lens the film adopts.
Dedhia’s 19-minute film unfolds in an afternoon at a quaint house. The place is bare save its three occupants — an old woman (Pramodini Nanavati), her care-giver and Mrinalini (Sonali Bhardwaj). When the caregiver leaves for some errands, Mrinalini goes to tend to her widowed grandmother-in-law. Their relationship is undefined but it hardly matters. The old woman is losing her memory and needs to be reminded to remember. In spite of it, she recognises the book in Mrinalini’s hand. She met Verma once, she says, and recollects reciting one of her poems to her husband. But what she doesn’t say is fettered by the rigid chains of patriarchy, she was one of the many women the poet wrote about. And that, she also wanted to be a Mahadevi Verma.
Their conversation, consisting mostly of snippets from her past, forms the crux of the film. Her languid remembrance, without a speck of bitterness, sheds light on different contours of oppression she was subjected to: the one time she was compelled to stay back to take care of the house while everybody else went to Delhi, or not having a say in naming her firstborn. This routine suppression appears stark once she admits wanting to be a writer in youth, of pursuing writing in hiding to evade her mother-in-law’s displeasure. It was in her husband’s old notebook she used to write short stories– a common theme of women retaliating or resorting to subterfuge to continue doing what they want to run through them. This brief moment, anecdotal almost, outlines the extent of the abuse she faced as well as the constant negotiation she did to not let her desires be stifled.
On the surface, her lived-experience differs from her granddaughter-in-law, evidenced even if briefly in the latter being a writer by profession. The house which confined the older woman seems like a site of assertion for Mrinalini. Her movements are not restricted here, her voice not snuffed. Their time spent together then is a metaphorical counterpart of Mrinalini critically looking at Mahadevi Verma’s work, waiting to expound the redundancy of her theories by arguing the datedness of female plight.
But both these characters, set apart by societal obligations, do not occupy separate realities. They might be standing on either side of time but what stands between them is dhummas or a haze which only creates the impression of change. Through her urgent short, Dedhia lays bare a generational tale where women inherit oppression as part of heirloom and learn to accommodate at every age in their own ways. For Mrinalini, two generations later, the face of abuse has become insidious but they still exist. It is the links of chains which binds these women, even to each other.
Dedhia points to this by juxtaposing both their narratives in the house, inherently outlining that the more things change the more they remain the same. But she achieves it with stunning clarity when the chilling revelation at the end underlines the ineluctable cycle of abuse by showcasing forgetfulness — forced or not— as the only way out of it.
The film concludes with Mrinalini, much the way it begins. Except this time she does not stare at the laptop but at herself in the mirror. The lens the film employed throughout — that of a young woman looking at erstwhile ideals of feminism — literalises here but the distance collapses. She recognises the surreptitious symbols of abuse and sees herself in them.
The implications of the scene Dhummas begins with now stands clear. Her husband’s innocuous call for help suddenly appears brutal and her struggle to begin writing the review more personal than writerly. The difficulty to be objective about pre-independent female subjugation stemmed from her subjective familiarity with it. She could not begin because there has not been an end. She did not see it then. She sees it now after the fog has lifted.
(Dhummas is playing at Dharamshala International Film Festival)
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