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Short Film Burning: How 2 Very Different Women May Bond Over Insensitive, Patriarchal Traditions

Posted: October 21, 2020

Short film Burning shows how patriarchy overshadows caste and class, but can cause its survivors to bond over its similarities.

That patriarchy is firmly ensconced in the cultural fabric of our society is an all-encompassing truth.

It has echoed through generations, its iron-fisted grip felt across all socio-economic stratas. But, when patriarchy conflates with casteism and classism, it gives rise to unspeakable cruelty. VS Sanoj’s hard-hitting short film, Burning, is a reflection of this reality.

What is short film Burning about?

Set on the backdrop of Varanasi, the film captures a melancholic conversation between two mothers who meet under unusual circumstances.

Pritha (acted by Ketaki Narayan), a resident of Varanasi, belongs to a marginalized section of society. Shakuntala (acted by Rukhsar Tabassum), on the other hand, is an upper-class woman from an affluent family. She meets Pritha at the funeral ghats to negotiate a peculiar arrangement.

How two women from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds draw common ground and bond over a shared tragedy, forms the basic premise of the film.

We see that the first couple of minutes of their meeting are painfully awkward, discomfort writ large on both their faces. An unmistakable undercurrent of animosity punctuates the crisp, cool air.

Apologizing for being late, Shakuntala awkwardly initiates the conversation. A distraught Pritha, sceptical of Shakuntala’s motives, expresses displeasure at their deal. And refuses outright to give Shakuntala what she needs, forcing her into a stony silence. A pall of gloom inevitably settles over them before a hesitant Shakuntala explains her helplessness and the clear lack of alternative.

But, unbeknownst to either of them, the conversation takes a swift turn from negotiation to exchange of anecdotes of similar life experiences. Their conversation – although limited to short, cursory sentences – is impregnated with unspoken pain. It ranges from being subjected to class driven societal horrors to gendered emotional violence. And slowly yet certainly, a realization dawns upon them. They may be from altogether different backgrounds, but are more similar than they had thought. For, they are women, and patriarchy doesn’t discriminate.

In that shared moment of understanding, an unlikely bond is forged, one rooted in pain.

Stellar acting and brilliant cinematography

Both Rukhsana and Ketaki deliver compelling performances, stirring the collective consciousness. Their eyes mirror the pain in their hearts; their words only feeble attempts to fill the irreplaceable void in their lives. But, it is in their emotion ridden silences that their inner chaos gets amplified.

Another notable aspect of the film is its striking cinematography. Visually exquisite shots paint a picture so real, it almost feels like the iconic city of Varanasi too comes alive. The vibrant life is translated onscreen as cinematic brilliance.

We see the warm, amber glow of the setting sun glistening in the water, and flocks of pigeons diving in pairs under the azure blue sky. Flat-bottomed boats anchored to the banks of the mighty river Ganga or carrying devotees to and fro. And lit diyas softly floating along the Ganga’s ebb and flow. We see little boys playing with kites and sadhus in saffron dhotis sitting on dilapidated benches. The funeral pyres burning brightly – a reflection of the raging fire in Shakuntala and Pritha’s hearts.

It is almost as though the city of Varanasi takes a life of its own, mourning their loss and crying in their pain.

The nuanced manner in which the difference in their economic status is captured in the film also deserves special mention. Shakuntala’s kohl lined eyes, heavily bejewelled ears and hands are but a subtle indicator of her wealthy lineage.  On the other hand, Pritha’s face and hands, devoid of any jewellery or makeup, depict her weak economic standing in society.

The dramatic background score also lends credence to the sombre tone of the film.

Evocative in its storytelling and impactful in its delivery, Burning leaves us ruminating over it long after it is over.

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HR by profession, but a writer by choice, I find creative respite through writing.

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