By Maya Palit
What do you do when a film’s hook is its exploration of a pressing social problem, but then, after a lot of build-up, it offers you some exciting elements and a really feeble take on the issue itself? A bit like when some weak tea has spot-on amounts of adrak and elaichi.
That’s the way the newly released thriller Kahaani 2, the second film in the Kahaani series directed by Sujoy Ghosh, unravels. It attempts to make the horrors of child sexual abuse its central theme. Vidya Balan plays Durga Rani Singh, a secretary at a school in Kalimpong, where she encounters Mini, a six-year old child who is unnaturally silent and acting odd in class. From a stray comment, Singh gauges that things are awry at Mini’s home, only to find out that her uncle forces himself on her all the time.
The subject matter is path-breaking for Bollywood (apart from Monsoon Wedding, and more recently, Highway, where it was alluded to but remained in the backdrop, there aren’t too many incisive portrayals of child abuse by a member of the family). The problem, though, is with the execution of the theme.
At no point does the film expound on the emotional trauma from the child’s perspective. Instead, all you get are close-ups of frantic adults and their emotions. Mini’s story is hijacked by Durga, and she is shuttled (literally as well, because she is depicted as a helpless person in a wheelchair) from villain to saviour, kidnapped once for a “good cause” and once more by the malign uncle. And saviour-giri becomes the crux of Balan’s character in the film, at the expense of any other traits.
Maybe the film is disappointing partly because of the motives it gives Durga. Her fixation with the girl begins with intrigue but then rapidly becomes an obsession once she sees herself mirrored in the girl, because she was also sexually abused as a child. This parallel is clumsily constructed because her past experiences and their impact are never explored in any depth. The way Durga goes about ferreting out the details of the abuse by growing close to the child borders on eerie (“Maine uski dost banne ka mauka uthaaya,” she writes in a diary entry). Her adoption of an obsessive mother role indicates a sad lack of imagination: aren’t there ways to capture a profound engagement with children without jumping on the wild mother bandwagon? Mini’s predicament makes Durga gladly sacrifice her relationships and job, and remain holier-than-thou martyr while doing so, because the assumption is that she’s doing what any mother would do.
This is precisely where the revenge scenario of the previous film worked better. In Kahaani, Balan plays a pregnant woman looking for details about her missing husband. Unlike Kahaani 2, where Balan is out in a coma for a lot of the film, leaving the sleuth work to be done by a pretty convincing Arjun Rampal and a few bumbling older cops, the first film has her striding through Kolkata, taking on shady IB officials, homicidal hit-men posing as LIC agents, sexist police-men and endless bureaucracy. And the denouement, where she takes off her prosthetic belly before shooting the person responsible for her husband’s death, is a much bigger sucker-punch than the agonising second half of Kahaani 2, where Durga is bleeding from the liver and dragging herself to Mini’s rescue. The first film is much more appealing because it spared us the ‘saint or sinner’ dichotomy and had Balan play a character who is single-mindedly looking for a shot of straight-up, cold-blooded, no-holds-barred revenge (at the end, it turns out to be revenge for her husband and unborn child, but there’s still no saintly spiel). She has no qualms about playing the pregnancy game because it makes her more sympathetic to strangers.
The only bit where Kahaani 2 redeems itself is at the end, when you are led to think it’s about to make Durga a thoroughly deranged character as she douses a house she is hiding in with kerosene and threatens to kill herself and Mini so that they can be together forever. This turns out to be a ruse, and it’s a relief to escape the Medea style melodrama, but there’s still plenty of stuff about her being Mini’s saviour for eternity: “Jab tak mein zinda hoon, tumhe kuchh nahi hoga.” It is possible that because the film is a fast-paced, action thriller, it misses the chance of teasing out the psychological complexities of Durga, her child, or the various avatars their relationship could take in such a scenario, rather than have motherhood assumed by a person and foisted on a kid who is already grappling with too much. (As, for instance, The Changeling does with its portrayal of a mother who is declared a psychopath when she claims that an imposter has taken the place of her missing son.)
Balan’s engrossing performance does get you to root for her throughout Kahaani 2, but the film ends up riding on the back of an important theme like child sexual abuse while giving the issue itself a formulaic treatment. “The entire nature of Vidya’s character is based on mothers — my mother, your mother and everyone else’s mother,” says director Sujoy Ghosh. All right, but here’s hoping that sometime soon there will be a space carved out for motherhood in contemporary Bollywood that will give mother figures the chance to show their idiosyncratic colours and variety of eccentricities, rather than be stuck records on a saviour trip. The internet is full of caustic Nirupama Roy memes poking fun at her aasoon, so maybe that’s the wake-up sign we need to begin inventing other kinds of mums, or other kinds of child-adult dynamics.
Co-published with Firstpost.