An unusual high-school tale from India won big at the Sundance Film Festival recently.
Sundance, which concluded in Utah last week, is one of the world’s most prestigious celebrations of independent cinema. This year was a milestone, with the 40th edition receiving a record 17,435 submissions. Of which, only 91 feature length and episodic works and 53 short films made the cut for official selection. These included Shuchi Talati’s remarkable debut, Girls Will Be Girls, which is also the first feature by Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal’s production house, Pushing Buttons.
Girls Will Be Girls played in the World Cinema dramatic competition and won the coveted Audience Award, and a Special Jury Award for lead actor Preeti Panigrahi.
The film certainly does push buttons. It is the story of Mira, a Class 12 student and the first female prefect at her Himalayan boarding school. Mira is a model student. She gets top grades, her teachers love her, one even uses her to demonstrate the right length that skirts ought to be: to the knee, to keep boys from gazing too hard. But then a new student arrives. Sri is an enigma; for one thing, he appears to be raising himself. His parents “do their thing” and he does his, he casually explains.
He stirs something in Mira, and she slowly discovers emotions she had never felt before. His presence also strains her already-frayed relationship with her mother, Anila. Boundaries begin to blur, and the tension builds between the mother, daughter and this young, casually charismatic man whom they have let into their lives.
Shuchi handles thorny material with restraint and unfailing tenderness. She frames her actors with sensitivity. Mira is grappling with a sexual awakening. In one scene, as Sri pleasures her, we see only her hand holding his arm. There is such a strain of sweetness too. In another scene, Mira is looking up sexual positions on the internet and, always the keen student, taking notes. There is a lot felt, especially between Mira and Anila, but left unsaid.
The screenplay, also by Shuchi, isn’t afraid of making the viewer uncomfortable. Or accruing power and meaning with slow, deft strokes. Critically, the actors don’t falter. Preeti, as Mira, makes the debut of the year. Kesav Binoy Kiron as Sri hits the right notes as a young boy who seems exactly right, until Shuchi asks us to look more keenly. And Kani Kusruti is wonderful as Anila, whose silences and wounded eyes speak of wells of sadness within her.
Girls Will Be Girls made me weep, for the exertions of women everywhere, of every age and at every stage. But Shuchi isn’t interested in telling a sob story. There is strength and compassion here, and enduring wisdom. Women like Mira will perhaps one day inherit the earth.
For the moment, I hope that Richa and Ali, who steered this film to fruition, will continue to bring complicated stories of messiness and heartache, of the human and Indian experience, to screen.