The radical honesty of 'Sister Midnight'

With a gift for physical comedy, Radhika Apte conveys magnitudes with just the twitch of an eyebrow or turn of her mouth
With a gift for physical comedy, Radhika Apte conveys magnitudes with just the twitch of an eyebrow or turn of her mouth


Radhika Apte’s abilities as an actor power this title, which has been selected as part of Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight

What depths of madness can stifling boredom and loneliness drive a homemaker to? That’s the question Karan Kandhari pursues to strange and stomach-turning ends in his feature film Sister Midnight, which premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. The film features a knockout performance by Radhika Apte as Uma, a disgruntled new bride left to her own devices in an overwhelming and chaotic new city by a recalcitrant husband she barely knows. Hardly a “domestic goddess" by her own admission, Uma must learn the basics of cooking and running a modest household, while her husband Gopal spends his days at work and evenings out drinking.

Constantly itching to escape their tiny single-room home in a shanty somewhere in Mumbai, Uma sets off on her own at all hours of the day and night in pursuit of adventure. (The film shares DNA, in more ways than one, with the Iranian “western horror" film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.) With each of her nocturnal jaunts, Uma inches closer towards a derangement neither she nor the audience quite understands until deep into the film.

Kandhari, an Indian writer/director born in the Middle East and now based in London, returns with a feature film after nearly two decades, following his 2005 debut Bye Bye Miss Goodnight and a handful of shorts. Sister Midnight has been selected as part of Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, an independent sidebar at the festival that is dedicated to showcasing “the most singular forms of contemporary cinema," and in particular those that “reinvent cinematic genres."

Also read: Why ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the greatest action movie of all time

Kandhari’s film certainly occupies a space unto itself, quite unlike anything else in contemporary Indian cinema. It’s impressive how much he and cinematographer Sverre Sørdal can do within the confines of a tiny room, using light, shadows and small dark corners to disquieting effect. (Sound also plays an outsize role in this film.) Featuring Wright-esque quick cuts and Andersonian zoom pans, it’s shot with a frenetic and impatient energy that echoes Uma’s own restlessness. As a heroine, she’s as iconoclastic as they come. Foul-mouthed, quick-witted and acerbic, she’s immediately at odds with her nosy and judgmental neighbours. Kandhari’s droll and deadpan script arms her with some audaciously funny lines, but the real beauty of the film (and Apte’s performance) lies in the moments where no words are being exchanged.

“I tried to do everything with the least amount of dialogue possible," said Kandhari at a post-screening Q&A. The lack of dialogue gives Apte, an outrageously expressive actor whom Kandhari likens to Buster Keaton, the perfect platform to shine. With a gift for physical comedy, Apte conveys magnitudes with just the twitch of an eyebrow or turn of her mouth. Her Uma is tightly wound, tingling with an anger that’s ready to burst out of her at any moment. And it finally finds an outlet, in incredibly dark and comical ways. The absurdist humour of the film is compounded with some magical realism featuring stop motion animation (which Kandhari chose for its “inherent weirdness") and an unexpected soundtrack featuring Cambodian music as well as country and rock from the likes of Motorhead and The Band, making you half-expect to see a tumbleweed go rolling by.

And that’s precisely what Kandhari was trying to evoke. With Sister Midnight, he set out to create “an American folk song about an outlaw… a dust bowl ballad." Uma is the archetypal outsider, both misanthropic and misunderstood, and he found the loneliness of her character reflected in the songs he selected and pre-cleared for the film before shooting.

Also read: Of pirates, hard drives and cinephilia in India

“The music is very important, and a lot of the spirit of the film comes from the music. There’s no Indian music in the film and I quite like putting things together that shouldn’t go together. Cambodian music is beautiful to me because it’s got a sort of flavour that you find in Indian traditional or pop music, but it’s not [that]. You can’t quite place it. It sounds like it got mutated through some interpretation of Phil Spector stuff, with that sort of 2am deadpan haze. And the rest of the music, it’s just what felt right as I was writing it."

With Uma’s wild and unpredictable behaviour comes a radical honesty, a rejection of propriety that makes her both enchanting and formidable. “Why can’t you be like other people?" Gopal asks her at one point. But even as he says it, you sense that there’s a part of him that marvels in how she isn’t like the others, how she nudges him out of his own milquetoast existence. It’s the cross to bear for any anti heroine: she must make peace with being beloved and reviled all at once. Uma would certainly think it’s worth it.

Pahull Bains is a freelance culture writer and programmer at the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.