November 3, 2017
Kalki Koechlin, Sumeet Vyas
Ribbon is not a neatly structured drama with an introduction and a conclusion. It is presented as an in-between. Sahana and Karan were around prior to our acquaintance with them, and no clumsy attempt is made to give us a crunched-down backstory. They existed before we knew them, and they will continue to exist afterwards – that is all the information available to us.
Director Rakhee Sandilya’s Ribbon feels like a home video of around half a decade of their lives: unpolished and achingly real. It has five names in the writing credits – story by Eklavya, screenplay by Rajeev Upadhyay and Sandilya herself, dialogues by Raghav Dutt and Manjiri Pupala – yet its brilliance lies in the fact that it comes across as being barely pre-written, and mostly an improv piece.
Sahana and Karan are 24x7 professionals with a plan that threatens to go awry when she discovers that she is pregnant. Ribbon takes off from this moment in their lives and takes us along with them through the dilemma of whether or not to have that baby, and thereafter.
On the face of it, it is a portrait of an urban marriage in 21st century India. That though is a literal interpretation. At a deeper level, Sandilya’s film is about what it means to share your life with another human being over a number of years. Sure, Sahana and Karan are heterosexual, married and based in contemporary Mumbai, but they could well have been unmarried, they could have been parents or without children, they could have been homosexual and of any gender, or friends with no romantic interest in each other (or friends with benefits) who have decided to stay in the same house on a long-term basis for whatever reasons and defying social norms, or siblings living together. The beauty of Ribbon is that in any of these specific scenarios, in a city, village or town, the external pulls and pushes would obviously change, but the underlying theme would remain and manifest itself in the internal wranglings in the relationship in question – the silly misunderstandings, the serious disagreements, the ammunition fished out of past experiences during fights, the laughter, the coping, the leaning on each other, the getting along.
At the end of it all, Ribbon reminds us, because such reminders are constantly needed, that there is no such thing as absolute normalcy or calm in any home, and that while many of us may be happy together, none of us has it easy.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
In their first encounter captured on camera, Sahana appears somewhat unfairly aggressive and unreasonable in her anger towards Karan. Later though, as we witness her fears – expressed in that scene – coming true, we see too that Sandilya is not taking sides in Ribbon, she is merely showing us what is and how it is between these two.
For such a film to stay true to itself, it was essential for it not to become fixated on one or two issues – because that is not how reality plays out – and Sandilya does not waver in her intent for a single second. That said, Ribbon does provide us with a bird’s eye view of several social concerns, without meting out superficial treatment to any. Gender discrimination at work, for one – notwithstanding favourable maternity-related laws on paper, anyone who cares to survey women in such situations will tell you that what Sahana comes up against is exactly what goes on in Indian offices. Then there is the stress of dealing with household help, and other blows and hurdles.
(Spoiler alert ends)
The stars of this enterprise seem to have left Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas somewhere outside their shoot locations. All we see are Sahana and Karan. Both artistes are so convincing that it becomes hard to believe this is not who they are off screen too. Ribbon is a demanding film, with the camera staying doggedly focused on them, and they do not wilt under the challenge for even an instant. We are offered glimpses of interesting satellite characters, but the gaze never shifts from Koechlin’s Sahana and Vyas’ Karan.
The most significant supporting player is a very young lady who is so well chosen and so incredibly spot on in her performance – if it can be called that – that casting director Neha Singh deserves special kudos, while Sandilya should get an award if nothing else then for directing her.
Crucial to the effectiveness of the cast is the deliberately unrefined camerawork. For the first 8-10 minutes, for instance, we do not get a clear frontal view of Vyas’ face. It is the kind of exasperating thing your cousin might do with a video of a family gathering, and with that the mood of the film is set. Subsequently too, there are no lingering close-ups or other sophisticated shots. The rawness of DoP Vikram Amladi’s frames turns us into unintrusive companions to our protagonists. It is as if we are hanging out with them and they trust us enough to let us stay.
Rakhee Sandilya’s conviction on debut is astonishing. Ribbon could be what Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee or Sai Paranjpye might have done if they had been asked to turn a reality TV show on Sahana and Karan into a feature film. It reminded me, too, of Krishan Chopra’s 1961 film Char Diwari (co-edited, by the way, by Mukherjee) which, in synopsis, can only be described as: what happens when Lakshmi (Nanda) marries Sunil (Shashi Kapoor).
As I write this review, a quote from Alfred Hitchcock is flashing on TV in an ad: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Ribbon contradicts the legend. It tells us that all life is inherently dramatic and what strikes the observer as mundane could well be transformative, traumatic and/or exhilarating for those going through it. Ribbon is a deceptively simple, remarkable film with a risky concept that has paid off. It is without question one of India’s best of 2017 so far.
Rating (out of five stars): ****1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/RibbonTheFilm/