There’s something acutely slippery in the textures that director Megha Ramaswamy evokes in her short film, Lalanna’s Song. This slipperiness extends to widening the ruptures in systemic, taken-for-granted daily violence that runs through expectations of gendered behavior, unmooring an obligation to stiff realism in the process.
The film is a loose, uncertain creature, more comfortable in the languid, tentative pauses between sentences of perfectly expressed thought than it is within the folds of a wholly lucid subjectivity. Violence is rendered in the same breath as a shimmery sunset on a beach, shot with a hypnotic, all-encompassing glow by Kuldeep Mamania that recurrently submerge characters amidst their natural environment. In his hands, the ocean and sunset play off each other, inviting the characters to interact as well. Ramaswamy has the least concern for sober issue-based presentations. In her film, the thematic tangle makes its blunt, outright appearance felt overtly only in the final couple of minutes, much like those leaves matting the seaside.
Lalanna’s Song circles around two girlfriends, Miriam (Rima Kallingal) and Shoby (Parvathy Thiruvothu), who had had a presumably long shared history of friendship before they came to Bombay the film’s larger and central setting. Both are mothers, Shoby to a nine-year-old girl and Miriam to an eight-month-old baby. Their friendship has that easy, pert edge, unmindful of any decency, accrued from years of deep intimacy. Their association projects itself as cutting across economic and religious affiliations, yet an episode at the supermarket only accentuates sharply one’s absolute frivolous unawareness of the other in terms of negotiating everyday realities. Shoby, in her’ dressing solidarity’ with Miriam of putting on the burkha for going out to the supermarket, jokes about the accouterment with a gleeful abandon, calling it sexy and envisaging themselves dressed as heroines of detective novels, with their scarves buffeted by the wind.
Their repartee is fuss-free and inconsiderate of posing niceties. After they are harassed on apprehension at the supermarket tied to their attire, Shoby is thoroughly perturbed and reels from the harrowing experience. Miriam does not flinch from her direct, biting address to her friend, setting her straight about her misplaced delusions with an almost vindictive, satiated amusement. Ramaswamy plays out this scene twice, with a perceptible difference in Miriam’s approach to Shoby’s scarring by the episode. The first’s display of soft, mild compassion is supplanted by an unmistakable cruel fulfillment in the unfolding of the second time, pertaining to the extenuated gap between Shoby’s initial jokey ignorance and the wounds of actually undergoing the counter-echoes of her words.
The bounciness of their dynamic is tossed off while they make their way to a birthday party of one of the classmates of Shoby’s daughter, Meenu. They encounter Lalanne (Nakshatra Indrajith), whose precocity and starkly unusual behavior disconcerts them and throws them off guard, testing and straining their own self-assuredness. Lalanne is mostly by herself and seems to confidently navigate spaces, irrespective of being propped up with the safety of a paternal hand around. She shoots brusque questions at the two, all the while being very sure in her own skin and entirely unaffected by the impact of her presence.
Lalanne is blasé about the stinging impressions her demeanor and way of talking make or rather unsettles people off an assumed code of responses. She shatters the composure of everyone she meets, especially Miriam and Shoby, with whom she begins to chart willingness to know more intimately and forge a bond of sorts. She ruffles them towards a breakdown and realization.
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This willingness to know more, to advance towards a clear understanding of everything that unspools sits at ironic, near-mocking counterpoise with the deliberate drippings of abstractions and the peculiar that spatter the film throughout its span. Ramaswamy often shifts to what initially appears as inscrutable and rivetingly nebulous in her recourse to particular techniques and styles of shaping the rhythm, movement, and unfurling of scenes or circumstances.
The uncanny is transmuted into banal interactions, the eerie interposed slyly into the domestic. Mothers anxiously scurrying off to attend to their crying, needy babies are captured in an unnerving style of the tilted camera sidling towards the room, the vigorous beating and thrashing of a pinion in the aural setup (special props to Sohel Sanwari’s knife-edge sound design), effectively conveying a sense of dread in a flurry. As soon as they enter Miriam’s house, Meenu watches an old couple trundle out what appears as a covered corpse on a stretcher. In the car, she peers up to catch the old couple drilling their deadbeat stare onto them while leaving. These early ebbs of striking, chilling unease Ramaswamy is able to stew up are gradually amped up into acquiring a steady cueing of the spectral and otherworldly into the film’s fabric.
The otherworldly flits beyond the constricted definition and can be approximated into parsing the seamlessness with which the film shifts around with perception, our sense of reality, and the imaginary, the two colliding in a dreamy fugue. As a woman makes out with a man who she then proceeds to indict, fantasy and the real close in on themselves, diffusing our sense of easy comprehension. The supernatural that the film is interspersed with hurries to achieve a bracing finality concretizes and articulates the anxieties and breakages in and around the female continuum, leaving breathlessness in the viewer just by sheer dint of the paciness and dissolving of certainties.
In many ways, Lalanna’s Song accomplishes an effect that is both extraordinarily chiseled and flirtatiously fuzzy, the kookiness that leaks through the entirety of the disturbingly beguiling world Ramaswamy crafts. She creates full-bodied women, complete and whole with their misgiving and lashings out, whose motherhood can be seen through an unfriendly lens of frequent brashness; Shoby isn’t all saintly and quietly passive in her maternal impulses; she suffers no tantrums from Meenu, nor does she demur from any affectations of harshness in casually lobbed uncharitable remarks about her mother to her daughter. She excels in expertly maneuvering the hairpin shifts and bends of mood, tone, and form in her film; the characters’ dynamics swing from cheeky affection to alienation with a subtly expressed truthfulness. The viewer shifts while trying to clasp onto the varying registers and gasps.
Aided by a pair of superlatively alert and razor-sharp performances by Kallingal and Thiruvothu, Ramaswamy extracts the occasional coarseness and recalcitrance in womanhood, the whiff of cruelties levied, the internalization of received ruthlessness, the capacity to hurt and be unhesitatingly vengeful and shirk geniality when several buttons are pushed, questioning what they thought they knew best. The rules of conformity that prescribe and proscribe the woman’s limited terrain of behavior, right from girlhood, are laid out and then destabilized immediately. Any fanciful notion of ideal, ennobling womanhood or motherhood quickly exploded as both Miriam and Shoby pushed Lalanna against her wishes to do and act in a way that she explicitly stated would cause her discomfort.
The Song Lalanna sings a primal wake-up call to the women, reminding them of the superseding female continuum, their indifferent breach of it leading to a denial of gentleness and kindness. The violence that the women themselves have edged off in their realities is transferred by them onto others, conjuring a cyclicality of abuse that jars against the supposed chain of unbroken connection of natural empathy across women of all demographics, which Miriam and Shoby seem to transgress and thereby invoke the wrathful remembrance through the Song. Casual, wayward unkindness builds on and on and prepares the path for more oversized, hyper-real gestures of demonstration.
However, where the film falters and loses the slipperiness, the bite and the simultaneously coolly relaxed and febrile thrust of the storytelling is precisely the execution of the Song, which is an undeniable impressive conceit to thread things together. The plainness with which the culminating big showy supernatural touch is mapped out heightens things beyond the necessary, dialing up and uncharacteristically amplifying what is essentially a wisp of a tale crucially oneiric in narration, capitalizing loudly on the murmurs of disquiet.
Those nascent thrums ascend to a full-blown anthem. The strangeness inherent in the telling becomes yoked to a compulsion towards thematic underlining, despite the supernatural being a clever device to confront the violence head-on. All the irreverence and tantalizing mischief in filmmaking so akin to Ramaswamy become decisively heavy-handed, the off-kilter-ness veering into an ungainly excess.
Yet, both Kallingal and Thiruvothu power through, electric, unapologetic, and hurtling forth, refusing to buckle up while toeing the tenuousness and distinctive precariousness of the circumstances Miriam and Shoby find themselves in. Both are shorn of the artifice of being likable and pleasing. Ramaswamy gifts them with characters in firm control of their desires and sexual being, sans any frills, not shying from what would come across as possible mistakes or misdemeanors, seeping with a rich inner life, animating their interpersonal dynamic with nuance and shades and glimmers of their past that is beautifully, faintly transmitted through the ways in which the actors interpret the proximity of their characters to one another and the others in the narrative.
Despite a few inelegant missteps, Ramaswamy constantly stays one foot ahead of the viewer, retaining her tight leash on the nervous mood oscillations in her film, all the while creating an experience that will stoke speculation and conversation among its viewers, never settling for the immediate, lazily explainable course of things.