NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS(2020)
Eliza Hittman had already secured a place as a keen observer of the internal worlds of adolescence and young adulthood with her first feature. That was 2017’s no-nonsense BEACH RATS, a work of acute observation, probing the behavioural downsides of working class homes, the teenagers who occupied a hyper-sexualized culture and were often rightfully adrift in finding their identities. Harris Dickinson’s growing pains and sensitively etched dilemmas about navigating the mirror house of sexuality as its protagonist was refreshingly unsentimental and piercingly aching. BEACH RATS hence was what ‘coming of age’ actually means devoid of sanitized plots and overwhelmingly emotional stakes. One individual life was the focus and ended up becoming a mirror for countless others, tipping its scales between apathy and empathy with its implosive tension.
It’s no surprise that Hittman follows that up with another individual odyssey on the part of a teenager, this time a young girl from small town Pennsylvania who leaves her already scattered and apathetic home for New York City. Her mission at hand is deeply personal. Actually, it’s a pursuit, a point of self-discovery that will determine her choice regarding her body. It’s the autonomy to decide for herself as nobody else would probably intervene at this hour of crisis for her, on her behalf. Like her previous feature, Hittman gives her protagonist the agency to decide and take a stand without any grandstanding conflicts from others or society at large. The microcosm of her world is directed at individual choices, capturing teenagers at a tender point where they cannot remain children nor can they fully become adults. The world around them has already made them renounce their adolescence by dint of a predominance of sexuality that bears little nuance or complexity regarding consent. Hittman makes NEVER RARELY… a different kind of vehicle for steering the conversation towards this personal choice for a young girl, looking for abortion after an unwanted and unexpected pregnancy.
Living in a world of apathetic men, the details of her constricted social radius are conveyed in subtle moments. Like when she sings at her school function and a boy disrupts her performance and then makes her uncomfortable at the restaurant with the same casually sarcastic, indifferent expression. The workplace is no different where she and her genuinely caring and naturally affable cousin are sexually harassed by their employer. Or dynamics of her home life can be taken as the strongest example where two younger siblings have diverted her mother’s attention from her completely while her male partner is dismissive of the teenager, the oldest girl in the family. So she has learned the ropes of living with a void within her. She clearly understands she cannot share her experiences with anyone. Her cousin’s support then is without employing falsified words and more of an extension of sharing her gender and all the components that come naturally to them both. She is the unassuming moral support during the course of this journey to the big city.
I truly appreciate the manner in which it is not so much about the reactions here as it is centred on dealing with a life-changing possibility. The interactions with officials and doctors at clinics have an almost documentary appeal because they need to be about dealing with a situation that is implosive and wrenching to millions of women and young girls. Being forced into a point of physical transformation and mental investment by oftentimes degradation, zero consent and other forms of sexual abuse makes this case for ‘choice’ paramount.
The screenplay is filled with moments of navigation within an alien space, that is New York City, as also an universal reckoning with being women in a big, bad world. Instances of being flashed in the subway, pursued without reciprocation by a fellow bus traveller all constitute the fabric of how both young girls feel and view a culture that only looks at them as sexualized beings and precious else. Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder lend utmost respect, credibility to its overall temper of negotiating with individual choices and faint hope here. There is a tender moment where interlocking fingers becomes a single act of acknowledgement as each other’s only source of support. Of course, the scene which illuminates the film’s title within the confines of an abortion clinic packs in the background, present state of mind and universal struggles invested for the protagonist. Hittman approaches her individual arc to bring to the spotlight every other case along similar lines.
In an era where the overturning of Roe v/s Wade has created ripple effects, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS came to my mind as an example to uphold the value of choice in our sexist and ethically manipulative society. I’m grateful to have watched it. It’s deeply personal, stripping away the aura of shame, prejudice or judgement about a pressing issue without discounting the buried core of trauma or the camaraderie that makes its composite whole so powerfully unforgettable.
Finally, I cannot finish this off without holding the merits of its sound design and cinematography in high regard. These technical aspects are so naturalistic that a subway ride or a check up at the clinic and even the beeping of the monitor moments before ‘the procedure’ here let us be emotionally and mentally invested, not just as viewers but empathetic individuals.
Another haunting image shot from a distance, from the other side of the road, is that of a demonstration by religious groups which the cousin is privy to. We don’t know if it is outside the abortion clinic or just another act of countering status quo through faith and its fiats but that framed glass portrait of Virgin Mary in the centre and the crowd of people sure captures the essence of what has been primarily responsible for overturning Roe v/s Wade currently.
I had watched the first twenty minutes or so of this refreshingly tasteful classic twice in the past. Due to paucity of time, I was unable to watch any further. That was rectified few days earlier when Mrinal Sen’s bitingly funny, observational and technically innovative BHUVAN SHOME made its way to MUBI and I divided watching the two halves over two days. That it is freely accessible on YouTube makes it all the more special for any cinephile.
K.K. Mahajan’s naturalistic cinematography here has an unique disposition towards unraveling the protagonist’s personal temperament and journey along with capturing the natural beauty of rural, seaside Gujarat complete with its stark dunes, village huts devoid of ornamentation, bullock cart rides and of course the birds who come to fascinate our often misunderstood middle-aged leading man. In this location, he is akin to a clean slate, beginning anew and afresh, away from his reserved, fearful and caustic personality in the eyes of others, as a railway officer with impeccable character and zero tolerance for corruption or bureaucratic laxity of any kind . He is a tourist, wanderer, unlikely hunter and absorber of people and places.
Mahajan’s camerawork always becomes interiorised with the characterisation in each New Wave classic he contributed his artistic credits to. BHUVAN SHOME, along with Mani Kaul’s USKI ROTI/ OUR DAILY BREAD, shares his black and white cinematography, the same year of release as also the betokened distinction of heralding India’s much-cherished Parallel Cinema omnibus. I’m so lucky to now be a part of this cinephilic history as viewer and writer.
BHUVAN SHOME is a fascinating character study of one man( the always great Utpal Dutt). He is a Government Man. An Everyman. An Ordinary Man. His predilection for following rules and the credo of honesty is legendary, inviting much ridicule and derision from the famously corrupt government apparatus but never inviting a volte-face or justification on his own part. This constant hankering and attempting to curry favour with him has obviously made him irritable, sharp-tongued and edgy. Almost distant as he seems to be the only odd one out in this sea of compromises and under the table negotiations. One of my close relatives once told me that government jobs have a way of sucking the life and youthful vigour out of men so much so that they seem to prematurely age. Bhuvan Shome is a good way of justifying that observation.
However, instead of dwelling on his moral infallibility as a straight jacket, Mrinal Sen, one of the few original auteurs, makes it a comic blast. He utilises animation, Amitabh Bachchan’s famous baritone, freeze frames, asides (ala what we only seem to know from FLEABAG) and zooms to inject a lively character to the proceedings. He succeeds handsomely owing to the economy of his execution and the right composite of emotions and reactions. The funniest bits revolve around Shome’s cart ride, his flight from a raging bull and his bemused tempers at watching a village girl ride atop the same bull, now restrained by her, like a veritable princess of this sanctuary. The humour hence is observational, never intended to be here for the sake of it.
Bhuvan Shome takes on a colour of empathy, interpersonal charm when the same young village girl( a young and eternally delightful Suhasini Mulay) opens up her simple world of gratitude, love for birds and animals and plays host for the senior figure she has encountered in her village. She is educated, can restrain bulls, hunt and be a practical voice of reason. Shome’s natural paternal core makes him feel content in her innocent company. Essentially, given his honest stature unsullied by corruption or wheeling-dealings, he is just as innocent as the teenager. In her, he finds a daughter figure he never had. Her care, banter and one on one talks with him over the course of a single day gives this simple screenplay a glow of camaraderie that’s truly earned. The quirks remain such as when he discovers the photograph of the young man he has suspended at work in the room, implying he is the girl’s better half and especially when he has to assume the position of a tree to catch a bird in sight.
He doesn’t end up shooting the bird, the lovely young girl gets to look after it and, in turn, leads him to mellow down and not be so stringent in life at all times.
Cue the use of a classical vocal with the shot of the railway tracks, the use of the camera within a freeze frame to suggest the girl riding a swing and the beautiful symmetry of birds in the sky.
BHUVAN SHOME is an unusually light-hearted ode to self-discovery. I recommend you watch it for the execution, photography, excellent performances by the leading duo and its impressive editing choices, always in consonance with the speed and rhythm of personal exploration for Mr. Shome.