Noted Marathi actress Neena Kulkarni‘s maiden production venture, Shevri (wisp of cotton), is a sensitive portrayal of the havoc played by divorce in a simple middle-class woman’s life. The ‘shevri’ in the title is embodied in the film’s protagonist Vidya Barve, ably played by Neena herself, a helpless little soul drifting along with the winds of change in her life, without a strong will or desire of her own. A perfect description of the stereotypical Indian wife/mother perhaps?
On the face of it, the movie is a simple tale of a single night Vidya is forced to spend on the streets of Mumbai, but carefully woven into the narrative is a series of brilliant flashbacks as Vidya looks back onto the tangled threads of her troubled life, the relationships that more or less define her as a person. Excellent acting and crisp editing apart, I found these relationships intriguing and thought-provoking and basically the reason I liked the movie so much.
The relationship that stood out for me was Vidya’s silent bond with her mother. Strong and stoic, the mother is a perfect foil to Vidya’s far more emotional and excitable character. In a telling scene towards the beginning of the movie, Vidya is shown voicing her suspicion that vahini (brother’s wife) did not seem appreciative of her presence in the maternal home. ‘Why does she run off to her mother’s home the moment I visit?’, she asks. The mother is quick to downplay the melodrama.
‘She might have her own problems, how would you know? Besides, leave me out of this, it’s time you learnt to sort out your own problems’, she advises. What a refreshing change from our usual cloyingly sweet or overtly dramatic screen mothers! A woman of few words, she nevertheless stands strong behind her daughter and her choices, supporting her in times of need, yet giving her space to deal with her issues in her own way. I am pretty sure Vidya would have completely broken down were it not for this silent support in the background.
Surprisingly, although all the other relationships in Vidya’s life are played out against the backdrop of her marriage, the husband’s character is the most weakly defined of the lot. Suffice to say that their marriage is the stuff nightmares are made up of. A direct victim of this abusive marriage is Vidya’s relationship with her son. Battling her demons of (perceived) failure and abandonment and craving for emotional sustenance, Vidya is overprotective and clingy as a mother, smothering her teenaged son with emotional and physical affection.
Throughout the movie she is unable to initiate a meaningful dialogue with him – not once is she shown discussing the divorce and its fallout with the boy – and naturally the son is sullen and non-responsive for the most part. It is so obvious to the viewer that her insecurities and sense of failure as a wife are destroying her relationship with her son, yet Vidya fails to recognize this till the very end. Just goes to show how easy it is to lose one’s sense of perspective, doesn’t it?
And then there is the sweet side-story of Vidya’s friendship with her ardent admirer and colleague Shinde, delicately portrayed by my favorite Marathi actor, Dilip Prabhavalkar. This is perhaps the only relationship in Vidya’s life where she is cherished and understood, where she is the one calling the shots. And it is a welcome change to see her bask in this little love coming her way. A bitter-sweet almost-love story, this friendship does a wonderful job of tempering the mostly mournful note of the rest of the narrative.
The only jarring note in this movie for me was the lecherous boss angle. This was so clearly a case of sexual harassment, why couldn’t Vidya speak out for once? My mother reminded me this is not the IT industry we are talking about, that there are no sexual harassment policies in place in most other industries, that Vidya is from a middle-class family and has no financial support etc., basically that she is a helpless and lonely woman and has no choice except to put up with this sort of nonsense.
Which to me seemed to beg the question – why was Vidya helpless? Why couldn’t she shake herself out of her sorrow and look at life afresh? She seemed to be educated and had been living independently for some time now. Why couldn’t she show some initiative or imagination? Had divorce sealed her fate forever? Why was marriage being portrayed as the be-all-and-end-all of her existence? Surely this was not the message the filmmakers set out to give us?
Just as I was beginning to tire of this movie for all these reasons, dawn broke, both literally and metaphorically. ‘If this is the path life has chalked out for me, why don’t I make the best of it?’, Vidya muses aloud, seeming finally at peace with her situation. We leave her at this point to walk on, a smile on her lips and a new spring in her step. She is still alone but no longer lonely. A subtle distinction perhaps, but one that makes all the difference in the world!
Edited to add: My family (who I watched the movie with) had several pertinent comments on this post which I felt were worth putting forth here.
Both my dad and the husband commented that I had completely missed the important dimension added by Vidya’s friend and roommate Maya, a ‘bindaas’ and ‘modern’ single girl who lives life on her own terms and is a complete contrast to the staid and timid Vidya. While Maya seems outwardly happy, they felt that she was even more riddled with insecurities and demons than Vidya and that Vidya with her strong middle-class values was better off in many ways than Maya.
My mother interpreted the ending to mean that Vidya had given up her lonely struggle to take up the easier but not-so-honorable path, an interpretation I do not entirely agree with. But hey, that’s the beauty of open endings, isn’t it?
Finally, in case you are intrigued by my post and wish to watch the movie (please do!), I believe it is available on youtube.