Religious bias and the identity implications of names have emerged as prominent themes in Hindi cinema, often amidst controversy. Even average films with good intentions use religious discrimination and glimpses of humanity overcoming it to draw attention. Yet, when executed effectively, it reflects our daily experiences, turning name-based perceptions into a catalyst for deeper dialogue. Director Suraj Gunjal, a renowned editor in the Hindi film industry, explores this with his latest short film, “Naam” (“Identity”), which poignantly questions, “What’s in a name?”

The film centers on ‘Pooja,’ a name enclosed in quotation marks because the true identity of this quiet, young woman from the city’s chawls remains unknown. Abandoned by her husband, she is a mother whose name we don’t learn at first. She is referred to as Pooja throughout the film, a moniker falsely given by the watchman Akhilesh, which adds a layer of intrigue and builds anticipation for an event that never occurs. As a domestic worker, she moves from door to door, with particular attention to flat no. 1201, home to a typical urban couple. The wife, Jaya, is a composed and intelligent woman grappling with the challenges of an unexpected pregnancy. Our unlikely heroine’s presence brings relief to Jaya, alleviating her doubts and comforting her through the sixth month of her pregnancy as she introduces her to the joys and reassurances of impending motherhood.

Naam’s cleverness, innate wisdom, and simple allure are evident throughout. It seldom brings the central question and its surrounding themes to the forefront, instead focusing on a shared sisterhood that overcomes social divisions. Jaya and Pooja, the protagonists, quietly shape their identities within their homes, dealing with their husbands’ benign ignorance. A poignant scene unfolds when Pooja nearly loses her footing in front of Jaya, eliciting a reaction that is cool yet deliberate, mature, and poised. The idea of dismissal doesn’t strike Jaya as a radical epiphany; rather, it’s as personal and genuine as a betrayal of trust by someone she confided in. This moment allows us to sympathize with both characters instead of vilifying one and championing the other.

The minimalist aesthetic of Gunjal, bolstered by the subtly crafted world-building in writer Prem Singh’s script, is a significant asset. Memorable spaces are created, such as Pooja’s shanty home, glimpsed only briefly yet leaving a fair impression, especially in a visually powerful scene where she prepares food for her sleeping child, lost in thought. The disarrayed opulence of an apartment in a skyscraper, with its cool blues and whites, offers a refreshing contrast to the typically grandiose portrayals encountered in tales of the underprivileged navigating the urban domains of the affluent.

Naam (Identity) Short Film - hof
A still from “Naam” (Identity, 2024)

Zoom-ins, often intended to evoke discomfort, are employed here as unassuming tools for observation, capturing the protagonist’s everyday internal struggles. Remarkably, in the film’s final and most unsettling moment, the accompanying music is unexpectedly… chirpy. Indeed, the film’s central message is conveyed through the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. Despite the myriads of challenges she faces, she remains committed to her own low-stakes narrative, confronting the adversities of a tumultuous socio-political landscape with a faint smile and an ever-present air of disquiet and nervousness. She carries the simplicity of bygone days almost like a badge of honor, readying herself for the future world.

The performances significantly contribute to the ambiance of storytelling in “Naam.” Anjali Patil, as Pooja, is provided with exceptional material and she enhances it with her compelling presence. Her understated tenderness aligns her with actresses like Tilottama Shome and Bhumi Pednekar, who have eloquently portrayed the struggles and inner lives of housemaids in India’s urban settings. Patil’s sharp conversational acting emerges only when necessary, showcasing her disarming control over the craft. Palomi Ghosh’s portrayal of Jaya embodies the naturalism of an urban wife striving to define herself as an individual and a woman beyond just a family entity, with the refined artistry that characterizes her roles with autonomy and voice. Abhishek Jha’s pivotal extended cameo as Akhilesh, the watchman, adds a memorable element, eliciting smiles without resorting to forced humor or caricature.

The simple, makeshift pleasures of a modest social charmer like “Naam” come with their own unique challenges, acting as barriers to its full acceptance. The storytelling is intentionally constrained to create a sense of authenticity, risking the transformation of a potentially political narrative into something surprisingly apolitical. Moreover, the narrative occasionally loses its depth when it shifts focus to the marital discord between Jaya and Manish, with the complexities of their relationship being overshadowed by trivial events, such as a baby’s kick, as the film reaches its conclusion. This leaves one questioning whether the film’s understated approach is an evasion of its core themes.

Nevertheless, “Naam” successfully conveys its message and addresses the profound “question of name” with remarkable intelligence. Cloaked in the simplicity of a working-class tale, it evolves into a splendid, albeit slightly overly sweet, melodrama that effectively submits its thesis with minimal fanfare. Anjali Patil’s exceptional performance ensures the film achieves its goals without succumbing to excessive drama.

Read More: The 15 Best Movies About the Working Class

Naam (Identity, 2024) Short Film Link: IMDb
Naam (Identity, 2024) Short Film Cast: Rahul Bagga, Rekha Dahatonde, Bhakti Satish Dange
Naam (Identity, 2024) Short Film Genre: Drama | Runtime: 23m

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