Readers Write In #209: Mommy-fied, Or: The Supermom, according to Keerthy Suresh and Vidya Balan

Posted on June 19, 2020

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(by Piyush Pratik)

Spoilers for Kahaani (2012) and Penguin (2020) ahead.

First and foremost, I will get this off my chest (and duck swiftly): I find both Vidya Balan and Keerthy Suresh quite similar. And their physical presence, which is so affectionate, so delightful, so pleasing, so…homely, is the least of it. Both of them are instinctive performers. If Vidya Balan has her trademark guffaw where she throws her head back and laughs in perfect imitation of our unruly aunts, Keerthy Suresh’s head is always a bit off-axis, off-alignment, the way we crane our neck to get a better view. They both have this slightly deep voice (as opposed to the Soprano-thin pointedness of say, Raveena Tandon), which is why even when they are screaming, it sounds a bit restrained, a bit not-so-familiar. And as if to seal my assumption, providence ensured that both of them received their National Awards for playing an actress whose life was torn asunder by descent into alcoholism. Of course, they are not the same actress, of course their films and characters have varied wildly from one another. But at one primal (some would say oversimplified) level, they are similar. If you hold on to this argument, kindly let me take the study a notch higher. Let me delve into a dissection of what both of these actresses made of one strikingly similar template in two (very) different movies.

The pregnant woman has been employed in a wide array of services for the film. In the most typical Bollywood tradition, she is meant to go rolling down the stairs and wrestle away our tears in the process. In thriller movies she is the sufferer – her suffering adds a human dimension (and moral reasoning) to the vigilante’s bloodlust. And with the advent of stronger roles for women in films, the pregnant woman has also come to occupy more integral part of the screenplay. Case in point, the characters I picked: Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi in Kahaani (2012), and Rhythm in Penguin (2020).

In Kahaani, Vidya Bagchi isn’t just a part of the story, she is the story (Rana literally says so in the end). With a deceptively transparent emotional hook, Sujoy Ghosh drags us along his protagonist, and with a revelatory snap, jerks us back into reality. But whether or not the film works for you, this is undeniable : Vidya Balan as Bagchi is transcendent. She is as much an object of pity as of power. The protagonist sounds like a hero on paper, and the premise is suitably filmy (pregnant woman heads into alien country to find her husband! Whistles are in order!), but the little detours that the screenplay and the actor take, make the ride far more enjoyable than it would be as a straightforward revenge story.

The best instance is her fleeing from the office after breaking into a secure database. Initially, she walks out with Rana, unaware of the fact that Sridhar has stormed back to his office. She is tired, she walks with that typical pregnant hobble, arms swinging in semicircles. But then, one bit of information (a call) comes in, then another, then she looks back and sees they are being followed. Instead of starting to run, or slipping into panic mode, however, we see the most understated response. She turns her head away and tries to drag her (apparently) unresponsive body away. She starts huffing, her face becomes blank, the kind that it becomes when a thousand terrible thoughts are flying through your head. Of course, she is playing us here, clueing us into a false motive (how does one pull that rug otherwise?), but the magic lies in how easily she makes us fall for it.

Elsewhere, she does these little things that make Vidya a human – like that absent-mindedness with which she cleans her windows, like that impromptu high-five she throws at Vishnu, like that little extra force she puts in shaking her head at the lodge manager’s ‘your majesty’, or like that thinly stretched lip she employs (with foresight, one can easily see it’s as much annoyance as catharsis) while getting a room booked. Vidya’s approach to her character is with these tiny gestural dabs to construct the larger picture. Vidya Bagchi doesn’t have a single breakdown moment, no single outburst (the moment she starts weeping, we cut away to the next moment). Her inherent grief comes out in little moments, when she turns away when Rana praises her parenting skills or the sigh she exerts after lighting a candle in memory of her husband.

Keerthy’s Rhythm, in comparison, is a pretty straight character. The mapping is clean, A to B to Z. All the dramatic points are clearly marked and exploited, and there is no rug-pulling involved (at least as far as Rhythm is concerned). The genre, psycho-killer, has so many tropes worn to death (no pun intended), that it takes someone like Mysskin (with his own moral universe) to put something fresh to screen. And of course, the film is too concerned with the twist (it relentlessly pounds along, without pausing to breathe), too concerned we might miss what the director intended (even the echo moments are spelled out), it devolves into an incoherent screenplay. One might say Keerthy Suresh is given little to salvage.

In order to appreciate her performance, I think we need to take the events of the film for granted. It’s less of a would-she-have-reacted-this-way and more of how-credible-her-reaction-was-given-that-it-would-happen-so. I say so because she plays the role on her own, playing it on a scene-to-scene basis rather than on an integrated basis. Take the moment when she gets her first close-up in the movie (Bees. Cut. Face. Cut. Bouquet. Cut. Blood. Cut. Penguin). Normally, this is how our actors play frozen in horror – wide mouth, wider eyes, tremulous lips, trembling voice. Keerthy Suresh plays it off-note. She pulls her lips close, as if she were about to throw up. This just-off aspect is what I loved about it – it’s familiar, yet somewhat different.

Elsewhere, in that scene where she finds out that her son might have turned evil at the hands of the kidnapper – she plays it marvellously. She isn’t just disbelieving. She isn’t just anguished. She isn’t just shocked. Her face is a mixture of all of those emotions. It’s just a tad…obscure. Her best part comes up during the final ‘game sequence’. She flits between disgust, frustration (he wouldn’t answer her question, he’d riddle her endlessly), steely nerve (for an instant, when he asks her why she is so brave, we see a blanket of calmness spread across her face), helplessness (as she pleads the inspector to let the man continue with his antics), and finally, blank shock (as he asks her, point blank, which of her two children she would like to save). It just shows across her face, and goes – it melts into a torrent of increasing despair as she tries to wrench an answer out of him. Granted, her Rhythm isn’t as much a character as a slave to the (umm) rhythms of screenplay machinations. Granted, she plays off an overused template in overfamiliar surroundings (I mean, Gothic looks have been in fashion since, like, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari). And yet, she keeps you watching (assuming, of course, she did). That ‘yet’ is most likely a product of how well her instincts pay off on a moment-to-moment basis. She’s most likely acting on cue, not character.

As we can see, both of these characters, though with the same chalk-outline, blur and bludgeon the boundaries to present very different pictures. They intrigue, engage, deceive and frustrate the cinephile in us. And yet, most importantly, both the women evoke our interest. Both women make us wonder why, why they would simply ignore the well-meaning advisors and heave themselves onto the edge of the cliff. They make us wonder what happens at the edge of the cliff. They also make us care for what happens after.