In Neeraj Ghaywan’s short, Geeli Pucchi, part of Netflix’s latest anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, prejudices against caste, gender and sexuality are subtly woven into a tale centred on a friendship. Bharti Mondal (Konkona Sensharma) is the sole female worker in her factory. Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) is the rookie who gets the white-collar job Bharti applied for. They are poles apart in both demeanour and socioeconomic backgrounds. But as the saying goes, opposites attract. A bond develops between the two lonely women. Through the course of 30 minutes, Ghaywan establishes their contrasting worlds and showcases the disparities each woman confronts.
For Ghaywan, who made his feature debut with the critically acclaimed Masaan and later directed season 2 of Sacred Games, it was important that he brought in narratives that look at the “intersection” of identities. Says Ghaywan, “It is essential for us to see people with fused identities and not see their subaltern selves in silos.” Conceived as a subplot for Masaan which went unused, Ghaywan opted to see it from a renewed perspective and got co-writer Sumit Saxena as a bouncing board. More than seeing the characters solely through the prism of love, Ghaywan says the plan was to use the characters’ education and career as a means to define identities as well as layer the characters.
Ghaywan, one of the few in the Hindi film industry to be candid about his Dalit identity, said he isn’t a fan of showing characters as either black or white. That moral ambiguity reflects in the actions of both Priya and Bharti. “People who have negative shades, or those you don’t approve of or call bigots, they also come from a certain context,” says Ghaywan. “We cannot cancel them out because of who they are. We need to get into their psyche, handhold them, tell them maybe it’s time to question the things they believe in.”
Ask him about the responsibility of telling Dalit narratives, Ghaywan says it depends on the intent and effort one puts in. “When people take on narratives of the subaltern or the marginalised, they should do it with all seriousness,” he says. “Good intentions aren’t enough. Listen to them. You can’t say I have read 100 books, so I know more about them. Bring in people in the know during development, in the writing, in the crew. You should do it with utmost sincerity.”
Ghaywan had announced that he is trying to increase Dalit representation in his films, and had even placed a recruitment call on social media to that effect. The filmmaker was commended for this, and also derided. Ghaywan doesn’t care; he is more keen to talk about the difficulties of accomplishing his goal. “You want to get more Dalits involved, but how do you ask themmany people out there are unwilling to acknowledge it [being a Dalit],” he says.
In Geeli Pucchi, it is Bharti who helps Priya acknowledge and embrace the image of what society deems the “ideal woman”, even if she is seen as anything but one. “Men acknowledge women who are docile, smiling, who look the part and dress up,” says Ghaywan. “They don’t like women to have agency, to speak their mind.” Ghaywan ultimately opens a window on how women in India, regardless of their caste backgrounds, are still on the margins.
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