There is a scene in ‘Fugly’ (2014) in which Devi (Kiara Advani) visits a neighbourhood grocery store to buy some essentials. The owner of the store – a lecherous man – tries to act smart with her and when she, rightfully, slaps him, he creates a ruckus. He accuses the young woman of forcing him to get inside a room with him – “keh rahi hai paise do, nahin toh jhootha molestation ka charge laga doongi tum pe” (she is telling me to pay her money, otherwise she will accuse me of molesting her), he claims in front of a customer who has come to his store. The male customer looks at Devi and remarks, “Kapdon se toh dekh kar hi pata chal raha hai kya chal raha hoga iske dimaag mein” (her clothes reflect her intentions). Devi is then humiliated by people visiting and passing by the store. I suddenly remembered this scene when I was watching ‘Guilty’, the Ruchi Narain (‘Kal – Yesterday And Tomorrow’, ‘Hanuman Da’ Damdaar’) directed film which released on the digital streaming platform Netflix last month. The film featured Kiara as the central protagonist but I thought of what Devi went through in that particular scene from ‘Fugly’ by the events unfolding in Tanu’s (Akansha Ranjan Kapoor) life after she accuses the college heartthrob, who also happens to come from a powerful political lineage, of rape.
The MeToo movement gathered momentum in India last year and lost steam after a point of time. People who were accused with molestation or even more serious charges like rape walked away freely. While the MeToo movement broke out largely in entertainment industries both in India and abroad as they are covered extensively by the media, several women (and men too) face sexual harassment at different places. It is difficult to talk about what you have gone through and you muster up enough courage to do so, you are either silenced by the society or are not taken seriously for different reasons. The number of prosecutions, when compared to the cases registered, have been abysmally low. Of course, there have been instances where men have been falsely accused of harassment by women but our social conditioning tends to give men an upper hand in such cases. The film talks about this and more.
Kiara plays Nanki Dutta, a partially red-haired young woman studying in a prestigious university in the capital city. Everything about Nanki screams rebellion. Nanki is dealing with her own internal issues and though she is not the most likeable person around, she has a quaint charm about her which many find attractive. She is the lyricist in the college band and is dating Vijay Pratap Singh (Gurfateh Pirzada), who does not like his name and insists on being referred to as ‘VJ’. VJ is the heartthrob of the college and exercises a lot of influence among his peer groups. Nanki and VJ are a part of a close-knit group in the college which Tanu wished she belonged to. Tanu hails from Dhanbad, a small city in the state of Bihar, and has got admission in the college on the basis of a scholarship. Her merits as a student, though, have been eclipsed by the fact that she comes across as a very loud person and is viewed by the college as a young woman seeking attention all the time. Thus, when she accuses VJ of raping her, there are a few who stand by her but many who believe she is lying.
We see the various events unfolding in the film almost through Nanki’s eyes. When I was watching the film, I was not sure whose side I was on, just like Nanki. While Nanki consistently proclaimed to others, and to herself, that VJ is guilty, there was a part of her which was not sure of his innocence. Her love for VJ makes her go to the extent of slapping Tanu as she believes this person is trying to ruin her boyfriend’s life. Her conflict also stems from an unfortunate incident she went through as a teenager. The film has the beats of a suspense thriller. The cinematic technique implemented by the late Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his film ‘Rashomon’ (1950) has inspired several filmmakers to use a similar trope while narrating their stories – present the viewers with multiple perspectives to a particular incident and keep them guessing till the end. Sometimes, the filmmaker turns neutral and implores the audience to decide which side they want to be on. In the recent times, Meghna Gulzar used this trope very effectively in ‘Talvar’ (2015). What Ruchi uses here is not exactly the ‘Rashomon’ trick – unlike the aforementioned films, viewers are not served with alternate visuals of one incident – but she does something similar. What remains consistent is that we see the narrative unfold from Nanki’s perspective. The audience remains as conflicted as she is, till a certain point, in the film and therein lies the victory of the film. Kiara brings out the various shades of Nanki – her strength as well as vulnerability – to the fore effectively. One of the highpoints of the film is the climax sequence in which Nanki, while standing up for Tanu, talks about a sad memory which has scarred her for life. Unless you are somebody whose heart is made up of stone, it is a scene that will move you and compel you to think whether we, as a society, have failed our women.
Since the beginning of her career, Kiara has played characters that have stood for a strong purpose. Her performance as the headstrong Devi stood out in a rather forgettable film which also happened to make her debut. She did not have a huge (in terms of length) in M.S Dhoni The Untold Story (2016), her second film, but it was a character which demanded a strong actor. As Sakshi, she portrayed a young, middle-class woman from modern-day India who was as close to her roots as she was to her ambitions. ‘Machine’ (2017) was far from being a memorable film but as a woman seeking revenge from the man who she was in love with and the one who ended up betraying her – it gave her enough scope to perform. ‘Lust Stories’ (2018), incidentally a Netflix original film, proved to be a turning point for sorts. In the film, she excelled as a young woman who comes from a traditional, middle-class setup and is not afraid of embracing her sexuality and desires. Time and again, she has played strong, female characters which have resonated well with the audience and here is hoping she continues to take up such characters which make a difference or at least, start a conversation.