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20 November 2021

Mumu Shelley (2021)

Directed by: Batul Mukhtiar
Music: Anand Nambiar
Starring Pubali Sanyal, Aiman Mukhtiar

Meeting your lover’s family is always a fraught situation. What happens when the one family member, who you thought would support you, looks at you with deep suspicion?

In one scene in Mumu Shelley, ‘Mumu’(Pubali Sanyal) begins vigorously dusting the furniture, even as a first-bemused and then-irritated ‘Shelley’ (played by debutante Aiman Mukhtiar) stares at her, wondering whether she’s gone mad. But Mumu hasn’t gone mad – she is mad. Furious that her husband hasn’t come home, that her niece has – deliberately – sidled out of the visit, that her unwelcome visitor has just turned her seemingly ordered life topsy turvy.

It is the middle of the evening – an evening where Mumu has served Shelley wine, only to have the young woman knock it back like she’s drinking water; where she’s discovered that Shelley is not only useless in the kitchen but also that she has a few pertinent things to say, never mind if she’s being rude.

Shelley, on the other hand, has landed herself in an awkward situation because her lover has stood her up. They were supposed to meet the latter’s ‘Mumu didi’ together; to get her on their side so she would help them break the news of their relationship to the latter’s parents. Shelley is almost as mad at her lover as she is at Mumu’s implied judgement of her, her clothes, her hair, her make-up. She doesn’t realise – at first – that she’s equally culpable, judging Mumu’s lifestyle, choices, smoking, etc.

As the evening lengthens, bitter truths come tumbling out, surprising both teller and listener.

Mumu Shelley, directed by Batul Mukhtiar (Banno of Bum-Bum-Bhole-Land) and written by her daughter Aiman (who also stepped in as Shelley), is a dark comedy involving a young woman who has to come out as LGBTQ to a complete stranger. Comfortable in her own sexuality yet seeking the validation from a stranger regarding her relationship to that stranger’s relative, Shelley is forced to come to terms with seeing naked disapproval. What makes her situation more piquant is that her parents know.


In a bid to live as a ‘normal’ couple, Shelley doesn’t mind forcing the issue. But Mishti, her [absent-from-screen-yet-ever-present] girlfriend, is happy to leave the telling to her. And Mumu, obviously, is not as cool as Mishti portrayed her, or she thinks herself to be. The two women spend hours, neither comfortable with each other nor, in Shelley’s case, willing to leave without a resolution. And slowly, both women start to unravel.

A taut dramedy, Mumu Shelley plays out almost as a farce – the costumes are colourful and vibrant; the dialogues almost overwrought; the movements, stylised set pieces; the space so confined, you begin to feel claustrophobic.

Shelley moves from being a self-assured [if slightly irritated] young woman to feeling more and more out of place as Mumu’s judgement sears her. She is angered by Mumu’s words but also hurt, though she tries hard not to show it.

 

Mumu, cool and seemingly put together in the beginning, is realising [and letting Shelley know] that she’s not as cosmopolitan or as liberal as she sees herself. The nervous energy that Pubali invested Mumu with, brought the neurotic  character to life. Aiman gave me the impression of barely suppressed tension, as stiff in the beginning as her perfectly styled hair. But as she lets her hair down – both literally and metaphorically – her performance becomes ‘looser’ for want of a better word, and she seems to fit better into the skin of her character.  Eventually, as the evening wears on, 'Mumu', who confesses that her name is Charulata, and 'Shelley', who is actually 'Sudeshna', come to a better understanding of each other, and of themselves.

Directed during the pandemic, with friends and family forming cast and crew [Batul writes about it here], Mumu Shelley is a short film. But within those 50 minutes, Batul and Aiman fill the screen with several untold secrets, mountains of angst and regret, and a discomfort so palpable you can feel the tension.The screen also comes alive with several other characters, none of whom are visible on screen, but make their presence felt through the duo's interactions. The only thing that confused us [my husband and me] was the reference to the neighbour we weren't very sure of the relevance, even if that neighbour's actions sets the climax. 

*Spoilers*

The other thing that confused us was the reference to the 'dinner' Mumu asks Shelly to set the table for a dinner party; she's cooking vast quantities of food for it, including her famous kebabs; they are definitely dressed for one but, and this is a huge but, who cooks for a dinner party after the first guest shows up (albeit a little early)? And if there is to be a dinner party, why are the two women eating before their guests arrive? How does Shelly know that no one will arrive? 

*End*

Despite these confusing details which had us discussing the film for almost an hour after we finished watching, the film held our attention. The styling and set design [by Vivek Shah, the DOP (amongst other hats)] also was fabulously Kahlo-esque (there's even a portrait of Frieda Kahlo on the wall) with the elegant wall paper, overstuffed furniture and colourful decor that leaps off the wall. The setting was burlesque, indeed, but it just seemed so right, so fitting for the 'over-the-top-ness' of the treatment of what is essentially a very sensitive topic. Anand Nambiar's music combined a variety of genres to provide the whimsical background score that set off the slightly absurd theme of the film.

Meanwhile, Mumu Shelley kept us invested in what happens to the two characters, though a little confused about certain people and plot points. But, as I said earlier, we were interested enough to tease out our impressions of what we had just seen, and wanted to watch it again to poke around the edges a little more to see what we can dig up. It's the rare movie that makes me want to do that almost immediately. Indeed, I would love to have a discussion with both Batul and Aiman about this film to know more about the film and how our interpretation of events as a viewer meshes with what they intended to show.

[Mumu Shelley was screened in the competition section at the recently concluded Chicago South Asian Film Festival 2021.] 

UPDATE

Mumu Shelley is being screened on Eventscape until 31 January 2022, and can be viewed for the nominal amount of Rs99 (India) or USD 2 (US). Eventscape, in collaboration with StoryMirror, is also organising a story contest which encourages viewers to submit alternate endings to the movie. I encourage my readers to explore this film and support Indie films and filmmakers. 

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