Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Rajan Modi
Director: Raj Singh Chaudhary
Here’s something you don’t see every day: a non-preachy, uncliched feminist story. Directed and co-written by Raj Singh Chaudhary, Shaadisthan is a moving drama about women breathing under patriarchy.
The film follows a conservative couple Sanjay (Rajan Modi) and Kamla Sharma (Nivedita Bhattacharya) from a small town of Rajasthan and their teenage daughter Arshi (Medha Shankar) who are forced to travel with four young, rebel musicians Freddie (Apurva Dogra), Jigme (Shenpenn Khymsar), Imaad (Ajay Jayanthi), and Sasha (Kirti Kulhari) to Ajmer for a family wedding.
As their contrasting ideologies collide inside a camper van, they reluctantly begin to share parts of their ordinarily segregated lives. In Sasha’s world, women can do whatever the hell they want to do. And for Sasha, that means a songwriter, a musician and a free spirit. On the other hand, Arshi is not even allowed to speak and verging on the breakdown, thanks to her father who is planning to marry her off as soon as she turns 18.
Chaudhary’s Shaadisthan is also about the roles of stay-at-home mothers from small towns of India. Kamla has been ignored, her spirit broken. It’s a tribute to the realness of the film and Nivedita Bhattacharya’s earnest performance that you end up wondering: What kind of life did Kamla dream of, this generous woman who ended up with a regressive partner and no room to breathe? Nivedita beautifully depicts the fears, insecurities, and pain that women deprived of social and economic independence go through. She slips into the skin of Kamla’s character so well that you feel for her throughout the movie.
Kirti Kulhari’s filmography is full of female-led stories. Take Falak Ali in Pink, Inspector Dalbir Kaur Bagga in The Girl on the Train, Advocate Anjana Menon in Four More Shots Please and her most recent award-worthy performance in Criminal Justice. But when she strips off the makeup and is embraced into the hippie group of young men to embody Sasha, the actress really roars as a woman. A scene where she schools Sanjay for calling their music “shor (noise)" is easily one of the best moments in the film.
However, Sasha’s feminism often comes across as privileged. She is educated, financially independent who can afford to leave her family and travel anywhere and everywhere, but she doesn’t realise that it’s not easy for Kamla to fight the entrenched societal sexism and patriarchy the way she does. Kamla is a non-working middle-class woman who is constantly facing an existential threat wherein freedom could mean loss of security and protection that patriarchy offers. Sasha reeks of privilege and naivety of the real world outside her insulated bubble when she tells Kamla, “Women like us fight so that women like you don’t have to fight in their world."
Medha channels a teenager’s vulnerabilities and simmering frustrations with utmost honesty and sincerity that acts as a catalyst for the family to address issues they’d rather leave unspoken. Besides, the men of Shaadisthan- Apurva, Shenpenn, and Ajay- deserve a special mention for delivering memorable performances. Their camaraderie with Kirti seems extremely natural and real. Rajan Modi brilliantly plays the strict patriarchal father who thankfully has a change of heart at the end.
Shaadisthan is refreshing storytelling powerfully backed by sensitive and memorable performances from the talented cast. PS: Its women look exhausted by the end, but also freed, open, honest- just as they should be.
Shaadisthan is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.