Films are often inspired by real life incidents. Most filmmakers choose to either make a celluloid replication of the incident with adequate commercial frills like song, dance and melodrama, or, a very faithful and authentic, near-documentary celluloid reproduction of the original incident. A few work out a marriage between these two formats, sometimes with success and sometimes with disastrous consequences. Within this ambience, Sohini Dasgupta’s maiden directorial venture, Chhoti Moti Baatein strikes a completely different note.
In the summer of 2011, two sisters from Noida made headlines after being rescued by authorities from their home, in an emaciated and starving condition. This formed a trigger for the young filmmaker who wrote a script presenting the same story from the perspective of these two sisters. Rita (Ananya Chatterjee) and Chhoti (Tannishtha Chatterjee) are two middle-aged, unmarried sisters who live in a housing complex with their father (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Lucy, a pet dog, their mother having died when they were children. The father and his daughters share a deep bond. The dog, Lucy, represents the child in the family, Rita’s very own. Their foursome togetherness is suddenly fractured when their father dies, later followed by the death of the dog, Lucy. The sisters cope with their personal traumas and try to carry on. But circumstances they have never been conditioned to face gets them trapped in a series of unpleasant situations which leave them shattered and weakened each time. Then, in their hurt and humiliation, Rita and Chhoti shut their door to the world and reject it. They become confined to their flat, a cocoon where they try to find security. No one notices their disappearance except for Bunty, the naughtiest of the group of boys of the housing society.
Chhoti Moti Baatein has a linear narrative. But as the two sisters get increasingly sucked into the vortex of their flat, the real fuses with the surreal that brings Nature within the apartment. A live tree grows from one of the darkened walls, sprouting branches and creepers that spread around the spacious apartment. Birds chirp and butterflies land on them as they relax on a white sofa, oblivious to the constant ringing of the doorbell by Bunty, who believes he has an axe to grind with the two sisters. But after a point, Bunty’s mischievous tricks not only fail to draw them out, but also make them respond differently. For example, when Bunty slips a caterpillar wrapped in a small sheet of paper under their door, the folded paper comes right back. When Bunty opens it, a pretty butterfly flitters out and flies away. Bunty is taken aback. He even pees in front of the door when the two women do not respond to the bell but there is no reaction. Chhoti shoots the connection to the bell with her father’s gun so that it does not disturb their world. When Bunty suddenly snatches the water hose from the gardener and directs the spray at the window of their apartment, the sisters revel in getting wet in the gushing waters of the spray as if it is raining, a beautiful scene indeed.
The film opens with the whirring of a ceiling fan glimpsed through the swaying curtains of a window as one of the two sisters watches the movements with a sense of amazement as if it is the most thrilling thing she has ever seen. This scene functions like a repeated metaphor that spells out the creation of a strange world we cannot identify with but these sisters revel in. The film closes almost with an identical frame except that we do not quite see the sisters or the creepers or the tree or the birds anymore.
Scenes of a normal father-two-daughters family scenario show the two daughters dote on their father who slowly and steadily, drinks himself to death. This death becomes a catharsis for the two sisters, uneducated, unmarried, unfriendly, and untrained in normal social etiquette. This subtly but powerfully suggests the cold selfishness of a callous father who lived only for himself. Rita is devastated when she finds some black-and-white photographs tumbling out of an old suitcase that is locked when she suddenly chances upon the key. Is it a woman he had an affair with? Or is it a pretty model for his photographic assignments? Rita is shocked but the more grounded Chhoti takes it in her stride, trying to rationalize that her father was also a human being, a widower who had lost his wife long ago and who must have had other needs.
Rita and Chhoti create their own little world – shifting the furniture from one place to the other as routine job to break the routine, Chhoti who admits that she misses sex, imagines the bronze bust of a beautiful male talking to her and she begins to kiss him fondly. Rita fantasizes her deceased grandmother arriving to sit on the easy chair talking to her. Chhoti, who once learnt to play the violin, plays on the instrument as Rita dances to her music, at times, the two enjoying a casual dance together or playing catch-catch when the sound-track suddenly turns silent. The wall, where the tree began to sprout its creepers fills up with pictures, drawings, even a bad sketch Bunty has slipped under their door and one of the large photographs of that model/girlfriend signifies, more than a mere decorative part of the ambience.
Biswadeb Dasgupta’s music is fittingly low-key though the strains of the violin are a signifier of the dynamism still alive in the two women. The sound design is designed to disturb and pacify alternately when the heavy pieces of furniture are dragged time and again, or the shrill sound of the doorbell that is more threatening for them than a sign of their social existence, the loud ring of the telephone which irritates them so much that ultimately, Rita pulls it off the wires cutting the connection away permanently. The soft barks of Lucy sustain a sense of the living till they are replaced by the sweet chirping of the birds through the apartment.
To keep her narrative keyed in entirely into the lives of these women trapped in a small world of their making, Dasgupta steers clear of a glimpse into their everyday needs like marketing, cooking, cleaning, eating, washing vessels and so on. Perhaps, this is to show that food is of no use to them anymore. Only once do we see Rita coaxing Chhoti to eat which she stubbornly declines. Right through the film, the two sisters are sloppily dressed either in faded long skirts or baggy pants, with equally bad tops and these too decline in quality, color and shape with time. Their body language matches their clothes and their lifestyle, sloppy, careless, at times, even crude. They do not comb their hair or try to polish their looks and yet they do not look dirty or repulsive at any point.
The acting is almost equally shared between Tannistha and Ananya who offer magically spontaneous and natural performances, investing the narrative with a ‘voice’ of their own, distanced from the real story the film is based on. They are almost Stanislavskian in their portrayals matched by an equally good performance by Kulbhushan Kharbanda and the small actor playing Bunty. Chhoti Moti Baatein is a film that could have pushed the viewer into a morass of depressive thoughts and boredom. But seen and explored from the perspective of the two sisters, it does not seem sad or tragic but different. This is how they tried to cope with the world. May be they failed, but failure is also a subjective term. The film spills over with poetic eloquence and rhythm marked out by the outstanding cinematography by none other than Sunny Joseph, slightly dim and sometimes blurred, perhaps to make us constantly question the blurring of lines between reality and illusion.
Hindi, Drama, Color
Very much a guiding reveille. I’ve already seen the film.