It is not very often that we get to see stories of women on-screen, especially told by a woman. Hence Tribhanga – Tedhi Medhi Crazy, written and directed by Renuka Shahane, a well-known actor herself, deserves not only our attention but also a thorough perusal.
On the first encounter, the much-celebrated, and discussed 95 minutes long movie, streaming now on Netflix, may appear a welcome relief and a nuanced look into the vulnerabilities that women can never rid themselves off entirely. The film derives its title from the ‘Tribhanga’ pose in Odissi dance. It is an imperfect, nonetheless a beautiful posture. It is a metaphor for the lives of the three women in the film. Courtesy to Shahane’s honest story-telling, Tribhanga is undoubtedly an emotional experience that may make one cry, flinch or cheer. One may even identify with the beautiful, smart, headstrong women who own their lives and their mistakes.
But a deeper engagement with the film may expose a strange soreness and discomfort. One may wonder, what the film is actually up to.
Does it really propagate free expression of women?
Or does it tend to posit liberation of women as the key to ‘messing up’ the lives of their children?
The film, therefore, is more problematic than it appears to be.
Tribhanga opens up the complex dynamic between three generations of mothers and daughters and makes us ponder over the very concept of motherhood vis-a-vis feminism. Mothers falter, they are fallible. It is important to not judge them, the film apparently aims to say. Yet it confuses us at several junctures. Are we not to judge a mother even if she allows a sex-determination test on her embryo? That’s a punishable offence and not a ‘choice’, of course.
It is essentially a story about a family—three women, their struggles and aspirations in life, and the dysfunctional relationship they share. Tanvi Azmi as Nayantara—an acclaimed author—struggles to find peace at home so that she can pursue writing. She falls short of her maternal and domestic duties. But she is reluctant to let her aspirations be shacked by domesticity. Hers is a struggle that every female author or artist can relate to. She divorces soon and Anuradha, her daughter, is sexually pestered by her step-father behind her back.
Anuradha, played by Kajol, grows up to be a Bollywood actor and Odissi dancer. She is anguished, foul-mouthed and loud. She succumbs to intimate partner violence, perpetrated by her live-in partner who she tolerates. She is also pregnant, and she questions of the safety of her unborn child which makes the bell ring in her head and she throws her partner out of her apartment for good. Mithila Palkar, who is playing Masha, Anuradha’s daughter, is different from the rest of the women in her family. She has opted for a more conventional lifestyle compared to her celebrity mother and grandmother. She is a housewife who is willing to compromise on anything to have the ‘normal life’ that she thinks she was deprived of in her growing years.
The story is told primarily from the perspective of a man, Milan (Kunaal Roy Kapur), who has been Nayantara’s aide in an autobiographical project . A sudden brain stroke puts Nayantara in a coma and this forces the broken family to reunite, deal with their differences and set off towards reconciliation, understanding and catharsis.
In a climactic moment of the movie, however, Anuradha elaborates, while Nayan (Tanvi Azmi) is ‘Abhanga’, an eccentric genius whose love for her writing precedes over her duties towards her family, her granddaughter Masha (Mithila Palkar) is ‘Sambhanga’, denoting balance, and Anu herself is the ‘Tribhanga’—unconventional, rebellious and imperfect. Generations of women have debated on how to balance the roles inside and outside home. Though apparently the film strives not to ‘judge’ a mother for her lacunas and limitations, in effect it does so, by showing how the eccentricity of the mothers have jeopardised the lives of their daughters.
The phrase ‘messing up’ can be heard so many times in whatever Kajol says about her mother (who has ‘messed up’ her life) and about herself (who has ‘messed up’ Masha’s life). The recurrence of the phrase leaves the spectator confused. A liberated woman does mess up many things—patriarchy, gender roles and status quo being some of them. But is’nt too much emphasis on the ‘messing up’ factor a sign of social conformity? Let us not forget that Masha is the ‘samabhanga’ of the story, the so-called ‘balanced woman’. Is this the ‘balance’ that a woman should ideally strike?
How far should she go to achieve that? As far as to allowing a sex determination test on the fetus?
Is this the balance that keeps families together, while the ‘abhanga’ and ‘tribhanga’ may drive them apart? If so, which state of being among the three should we strive for? Should we not let the revered ‘normal family’ fall apart?
It was certainly Masha’s choice to be a housewife. But once she becomes one, she actually has ‘no choice’. She reminds one of those lines by Virginia Woolf, ‘The eyes of others, our prisons; their thoughts, our cages.‘
The only thing Anuradha can blame her mother for is not being alert about the dark episodes of childhood sexual abuse that she had to face for two years. But she actually does blame her mother for several other choices. Can Nayan, the mother, be blamed for being divorced? For having several male partners after the divorce? Similarly, can Anuradha be blamed by Masha for choosing to have a child outside a wedlock? Tribhanga shows yes, they can.
It is not communicational gap, but rather communicational chasms between each mother-daughter duo that may have led to the gradual regression of the generations from subtler to coarser forms of gender exploitations; while we expected gradual progression, through transmission of feminist values. Masha is so desperate to keep her ‘normal family’ intact, that she even nods to a sex determination test proposed by her in laws. To add to our distress she calls it her ‘choice’, and her mother, the dauntless Anuradha who otherwise dissents and uses choicest of cuss words, abruptly jumps to conclude that it’s all ‘her’ fault.
She, like her mother, has ‘messed up’ her daughter’s life, Anu declares.
That the film tries to talk about too many things within 95-odd minutes is a problem too. The screenplay tries to accommodate everything—from domestic violence to child abuse to the orthodox mother-in-law, from professional aspiration of women to sexual liberty to single motherhood and finally sex-determination—in its limited screen time. Instead, it could have taken one of the issues at a time and peeled it off layer by layer. Kajol’s screechy outbursts often get on one’s nerves and Mithila has quite a short presence. It is Tanvi Azmi who holds the film together. The male actors like Kunal Roy Kapoor and Vaibhab Tatwawaadi function as supporting acts to the women.
I was reminded again and again of Rebecca Walker’s autobiographical saga, ‘Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence‘, while watching Tribhanga. A trail-blazing feminist and the author of ‘The Color Purple’, Alice Walker, may have touched the lives of a generation of women. However, the entire world was astonished when her daughter Rebecca Walker proclaimed, ‘I am my own woman and I have discovered what really matters – a happy family.‘
Rebecca then went on with her narrative on how it was to be grown up by a feminist mom, the bygone years that she hardly cherishes. The mother strongly believed that children enslaved women. The daughter, on the other hand deduces, ‘Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.‘
Nevertheless, Rebecca identifies herself as a feminist and it was she who coined the term ‘Third Wave’. At the age of 22, she wrote an article for Ms. Magazine titled “Becoming the Third Wave” and declared ardently, ‘I am the Third Wave‘. She presented herself as someone who is determined to claim her agency as both a feminist and a mother.
I wish I could have been able to say that of the final generation of Tribhanga as well.
Featured Image Source: Netflix