In a piece for Mint Lounge last week, I mentioned the written disclaimers that were required to be shown before 1930s Hollywood gangster films, stating that the protagonists were public menaces whose activities must be condemned. Such proclamations are usually reductive, and aimed at viewers who need a simple, easily articulated takeaway from every “message” film they watch. But good films tend to resist such simplification; even when they end on an affirmative note, along the way they might do things that discomfit our moral impulses.
Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor—which is largely about a relationship between a 15-year-old girl named Sandhya and her teacher, Shyam—begins with a title card telling us that sex with minors amounts to child abuse, a social evil that must be fought. Well-intentioned as this public-awareness message is, it barely scratches the surface of what this fine, subtle film actually does. In the end, yes, we do see that young people are vulnerable and easily exploited, and that a sweet schoolteacher can be a big bad wolf (even if he is played by someone as likeable as Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But the art and craft of Haraamkhor lies in how it prods us to that conclusion, and the little ways in which it implicates us along the way.
This is achieved on many levels. For instance, those of us familiar with Siddiqui’s impressive body of work view him as an underdog in a glamorous film industry, and this affects our perceptions of the characters he plays. Then there is the film’s use of a lilting track involving two little boys—Kamal (who has a crush on Sandhya) and his lovable, savant-like friend Mintu—who serve a function akin to Shakespeare’s fools in this narrative, providing the leavening touches that offset the dark central story and sometimes blindside us. Also, the film doesn’t spell out everything about the Sandhya-Shyam relationship, instead inviting us to conjecture.
Most importantly, there is Shweta Tripathi’s remarkable performance as Sandhya. It is possible to wonder about the aptness of casting someone who was in her late 20s when the film was made (in Sandhya’s second or third scene, a talkative viewer behind me was saying, “Oh, she’s only in class IX? I thought she was a college girl”). But if Sandhya had been played by a very young, possibly inexperienced actor, we would have seen Shyam as a paedophile, thoroughly in control of the situation, from the very first scene—and that would have been too easy. Part of this film’s skill is in making the relationship seem almost like one between equals: an unusual, uncomfortable romantic liaison where the girl sulks when she sees the man in an intimate embrace with his wife and complains, “Aapne kaha thha aapka uske saath ab sambandh nahin hai (You said you no longer had physical relations with her).”
We can tell that Sandhya is in many ways mature for her age—she watches the hypocrisies and prevarications of the adult world from a distance, and seemingly understands much of it (not least because of her troubled relationship with her father)—but we also grasp that she hasn’t quite gained entry into that adult world yet; that she is emotionally raw, and may initially have seen Shyam as a father substitute more than a lover. In a wonderfully performed scene—one of many where nothing seems to “happen” at the plot level—Sandhya is eating an ice cream, laughing and joking with Shyam. I won’t reveal the context, but they have come to the city for a very specific reason, and in this sequence we get to see both a little girl and a troubled young woman. Even as we judge Shyam for taking advantage of her, we see layers in their relationship that go beyond the predator-victim binary.
Many of us take an idealistic, patronizing view of unprivileged or disadvantaged people. The rich say of the poor, “They have so little, they lead such simple lives, but look how warm their smiles are.” The emotions and capacities of physically disadvantaged people don’t always get full recognition. I was recently watching My Left Foot (1989), about the paraplegic artist Christy Brown. One of the great things about that film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the lead, is that it lets us feel for Brown’s appalling personal circumstances, but also shows us qualities that we don’t associate with “victims”: He can’t move his limbs, but he has a rich and varied inner life, he even has a lascivious side. Closer home, Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw (2014) was about a girl afflicted with cerebral palsy, who shows sexual desire (making many viewers very uncomfortable).
As adults, we similarly construct narratives about the innocence of children—who, of course, are also underprivileged citizens. One of Haraamkhor’s laugh-out-loud moments—and for some viewers, it could be nervous laughter—occurs when the sweet little Mintu uses a very adult expletive (the asterisked version: “ch*****”) while chatting with his friend. The moment doesn’t feel gratuitous, it feels organic; it’s plausible that a child in this milieu would pick up the word. But Mintu uses the word without being aware of its precise meaning, its implications, and its place in an adult world of verbal violence with gendered overtones. And this ties in with the film’s larger themes. Haraamkhor is about the emotional and physical exploitation of a young person, but it is also a coming-of-age tale about someone who is dealing—in her own uncertain way—with difficult circumstances, standing unsteadily on the fragile bridge that links innocence with experience.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.