An elderly Indian woman decides to live for herself in director Kislay’s debut feature.
Oppressive obligations and societal expectations are at the heart of debuting director Kislay's Just Like That, an indictment of the dismissiveness with which India treats elderly women after their duties as wives and mothers have been discharged.
Premiering in Busan's New Currents competition section, Just Like That has a clear-eyed, singular focus that ties its various, seemingly unrelated threads together for a larger comment on a woman's lack of agency in a society that still undervalues them. Beautifully shot and acted, with only a few novice filmmaker missteps we don't really need the family history inserts, Just Like That will slot in nicely in festival line-ups, and could garner some arthouse attention in Asia-Pacific as well as urban markets overseas.
After 52 years of marriage, the newly widowed Mrs. Sharma Mohini Sharma has decided to start living for herself and not, as is expected, act the good widow and move in with her son, Virendra Harish Khanna and his wife Sonia Sadhna Singh. She starts going out for ice cream, getting beauty treatments, learning the craft of doll-making with help from a local tailor and, most shockingly, controlling her own money: She opens her first bank account.
Despite pressure from Virendra to “shift” downstairs so that the financially strapped family can rent out the upper floor, she stubbornly resists falling in line. To make matters worse, she strikes up a friendship with a young woman who works in the salon she starts frequenting, Sugandhi Trimala Adhikari, and the Muslim man, Ali Mohammed Iqbal, who's teaching her to sew. Before long, Mrs. Sharma is the gossip of small Allahabad and she still winds up forced to sacrifice her independence.
Director Kislay has a light touch, and illustrates Mrs. Sharma's position with a clever combination of alienating images vividly and colorfully shot by Saumyananda Sahi that put her outside the crowd and a layered soundscape by Gautam Nair that insinuates the world into her new life. Crowded compositions often see Mrs. Sharma physically pushed to the edge of the frame, as if she's an insignificant afterthought, and ambient city noises become louder and clearer as she goes about her business of re-experiencing the world. It's a subtle effect — it gets duller and quieter when she's forced to give up her new life — but one that drives home Kislay's point.
Ahead of a disheartening, but not entirely pessimistic, ending, Kislay laces Just Like That with grace notes that highlight how unbending the rules can be — Mrs. Sharma's grandson Vicky Shiram Sharma starts exerting entitled male control over his sister Vinny Saumya Jhakmola when he finds out she might have a boyfriend — and how rocking the boat can have dire consequences; Ali's livelihood and life are all threatened at one point for simply befriending a curious, friendly Hindu widow.
This is an intimate film that relies on understanding how Mrs. Sharma goes from feeling utterly liberated to feeling trapped all over again. In the lead, Sharma shoulders the burden of making those feelings real with grace, nimbly jumping between satisfied curiosity and resignation.