But it is not so much about safety, as it is about everything else that contributes to making a woman feel unsafe in this country. Through the film’s central character Sonu, an impressionable boy (a deft portrayal by Sanika Patel), we see the inexhaustible glorification of patriarchy; a pronounced nemesis in Sonu’s world. Only, he extols it.
Sonu is led to believe that machismo is cool. He wants to fit in, and thinks traumatising his classmates — for standing up to bullies who pull their braids — is an apposite punishment. Sonu operates from a high-ground because he sees his father do the same, and his uncle, and most importantly, the patriarch of the family — his grandfather.
The familial set-up reeks of toxicity: men first, women second. A toxicity that has been naturalised in many Indian households. The school is dangerously similar. One night, when the grown-ups discuss a female politician and Sonu offers a sinister suggestion, he is met with laughter. While his father finds it unfunny, his grandfather pulls the classic ‘ladka hai, ho jaati hain aisi baatein; will you hang him by the gallows, now?’
It is here that his docile mother — a powerfully-subtle and restrained Vidya Balan — gets triggered. She panics, is appalled, and flummoxed. Maybe, even disgusted. The subservient character, thence, takes matters into her own hands. She revolts every night when she narrates a series of bedtime stories to sensitise the young mind.
There is a fresh wound on her person every day, which she claims is the doing of Sonu, as he has been ‘natkhat‘. The bedtime story juxtaposes with real-world happenings until Sonu actually witnesses the brutality which his mother had — for the longest time — normalised. Rape culture, mainly from the prism of domestic violence, plays out.
Bruised and battered, while Balan finally completes her story, she also manages to enkindle a change in her son.
Written by Annukampa Harsh and Vyas himself, the movie is sardonically titled ‘Natkhat‘. The ‘brat’ is every child (boy) who has not been gender-schooled and sensitised. The short discusses gender violence and toys with the idea that normalising it, as opposed to addressing it, can be detrimental for society, leading to an absolute collapse. It is a nod to the many films with similar tropes that preceded it, and a poignant tearing-apart of every other that dares to exalt toxic masculinity.
A beautifully-symbolic and emotional climax brings an end to this nurturing story, which lingers hauntingly for hours.
(Natkhat is playing at the Yellowstone International Film Festival founded by award-winning filmmaker Tushar Tyagi, and curated by festival director and author Aseem Chhabra. The short is among the seven such Oscar-affiliated films and documentaries.)