Fight or flight? When faced by something overwhelmingly unexpected, we are psychologically conditioned to do one of two things: either to confront it head on, or to hightail it out of there. In Konkona Sensharma’s remarkable short film The Mirror (the second segment in Netflix’s anthology Lust Stories 2), an affluent woman is shocked when she walks into her apartment to find her maid making love on her bed. This upends her reality instantly, and she scrams out of her own home. In the moment, she chooses flight.
Yet desire is rarely as simple as one thing or the other. The woman returns, curious and (curiously) hungry. She wants to know. She wants to see. The director’s gaze mirrors the woman’s increasingly voyeuristic one: she furtively sneaks into her apartment afternoon after afternoon, finding perverse joy in watching these shenanigans in her bed. Her otherwise lonely, partnerless bed. She discovers that this real-time pornography scratches an itch she may not have known — or one she had long-suppressed — and she is thrilled. She confronts every sane instinct warning her to stop. She chooses to fight.
The maid suspects something the very next day when she sees the bedspread has been changed — without her being instructed to change it. This is an obvious sexual giveaway, and she wonders if she’s been caught out. Then again, her employer is behaving nonchalantly as ever… For now. Therefore, she carries on as well, every afternoon opening the door to a man in a blue shirt with a logo embroidered on his breast pocket, letting him in and using up this empty bedroom, one that is in stark contrast to her own living quarters, a spaceless heap of limbs and children.
Amruta Subhash is superb as Seema, the maid, a strong and unapologetic character. Much like her employer, Seema is by turns tentative, then terrified, then thrilled. As she realises what is going on, she understands that the dynamic between the women has changed — and she likes it. She may not have her name on the lease, but this is her bedroom now. Subhash is a striking actor who may not even know what a false-note is, and she owns her character with grace and fire.
Tillotama Shome is exceptional as Isheeta, the employer. The character is gobsmacked throughout — her initial consternation is comic gold — but then, giving in to urges she didn’t see coming, we see Isheeta vulnerable and lonely, bitterly aching for the excitement she has found with voyeurism. She was first surprised by what she saw, and now she’s surprising herself by how she’s behaving. Shome is the kind of actor who routinely lifts the films she’s in, and here she finds genuine meat. As Isheeta lambasts Seema — her voice rising with louder indignation, decibels she musters like a distracting news-anchor, trying hard to cover up her own exposed rudeness — we see her split apart by her own hypocrisy.
Though this is very much a story of two women, the director does not ignore the man in the middle. Shrikant Yadav is brilliant as the man in the blue shirt, a man who is appalled by the game these women have been playing, a sex game where he has unwittingly been made a pawn, but in him we find a character devoted to Seema’s pleasure. One of The Mirror’s most deft touches is this man’s identity, and his acceptance. When he sees how exhibitionism is making his partner bloom, he evokes it harder. He wants Seema at her most unbound.
The director herself features invisibly in the film, voicing an overbearing Bengali busybody on the other end of Isheeta’s phone, first ignoring her friend’s migraines to prattle on about her own EMIs and then exhorting her to fire her maid. In a city like Mumbai, however, that is never the simplest of solutions. It is the maid, Seema reminds, who runs a household and keeps it in order, and The Mirror winks at the fact that employers are far easier to replace than the help. One of my closest friends has a cook who has, on occasion, been caught stealing — the solution is not to fire her (she does great things with mutton, you see) but instead to avoid leaving anything valuable in the kitchen. The reward beats the risk.
So much of sex is subtext. The Mirror never quite takes the obvious route of showing Isheeta and Seema being attracted to each other, but they are visibly — and incorrigibly — turned on by each other’s fascination. What they have is as intimate as it is illicit. Isheeta tries to pleasure herself but can’t, Seema finds herself missing Isheeta’s gaze. With sensitivity and insight, Sensharma has crafted one of the finest Hindi films in recent years. It is remarkable for a multitude of reasons, not least because — despite all its layers — it is an incredibly sexy film, one that embraces desire instead of merely pointing at it. What, it asks, would we do? When eyes lock secretly across a bedroom, would we deny our impulses or allow ourselves pleasure? Would we fight it, or take flight?
Pakistan’s highly acclaimed entry for this year’s Oscars, Joyland, is now available on BookMyShow Stream. Directed by Saim Sadiq, the film is the tender romance between a married man and a transgender dancer.