Films have shown audiences a whole variety of parents; some are Godly-nice, some pure evil, some helpless and some angry, but few that are real. Family, childbirth and parenthood gain so much glorification within the medium of cinema, especially Hindi cinema, that it almost seems like a fairytale — the way marriages work out perfectly, the way babies are born, the way money keeps flowing to make life comfortable and how these babies always find a way of growing up well and happy. That is the idea of family for many, complete with an unquestioning faith in the belief that if families stick together, nothing can ever go wrong.
Within a film industry that has, for years, run on films loglined “It’s all about loving your family” and “We Stand United,” Rakhee Sandilya’s Ribbon features a healthy, real and way overdue narrative about a young couple that is stressed out about the birth of their first child. There is no palatial house where children strut around in ponies, but rather an apartment with mortgage rent that is due and a set of new parents worried about being in debt and, simply, being “not ready.”
Ribbon begins with Sahana (Kalki Koechlin) being told she is pregnant and, in one of the most real and yet rarely-depicted-in-films way, she is confused! She speaks to her husband, Karan (Sumeet Vyas), and they make a mess of the conversation; they are worried about the financial implications and Sahana is terrified of losing everything she has painstakingly achieved in her career. This in itself is a strong anomaly when it comes to Hindi films, where parents are mostly (and extremely) ecstatic or shameful with unplanned pregnancies. The harrowing HR policy complications that Sahana faces, and her subsequent demotion, are all too real consequences that women face when negotiating a body clock and a career ladder that runs together. Sandilya skillfully critiques how workplaces keep failing their female employees, especially at a time when most companies will have us believe in their facade of gender equality and equal pay.
After her daughter’s birth, Sahana’s situation mirrors the lives of hundreds of urban women who are new mothers trying to bring up their children without the support of a larger family around. She struggles to find a nanny, finds it difficult to trust her selection and then spirals down the rabbit hole of finding a good daycare for little Aashi. For those who have heard the Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi’s speech that went viral on social media (about the lack of daycare facilities for working mothers in the corporate sector), this intervention and critique is pertinent and well-timed. In her critique of hostile workplace conditions, Sandilya stays balanced and acknowledges that men don’t have it much easier either. Karan, the father, gets no paternity leave, has to borrow money to meet debts — and then, finally, he has to move to a different city just to earn enough to sustain the child’s comfortable upbringing.
Ribbon shows that parenthood isn’t easy, and, for once, it isn’t a story of parental sacrifice, blind love and relentless giving. It’s a conversation that involves real and everyday matters of money, sex, HR policies and unemployment. It has parents trying, failing, getting frustrated and shouting at one another, and it also makes the effort to establish that these parents are not monsters but just real people, in their early to mid-30s, who are trying to hustle their way into a comfortable life.
Sandilya tries packing in a commentary on many things with Ribbon — the whole gamut of issues that new, urban and, if I may add, millennial parents face while bringing up their children. On top of all that, there is the forever threat of raising a child in a society that is ruthless, largely unsafe and filled with predators. With child sexual harassment and abuse in schools on the rise, the film’s commentary on the absolute ineptitude and callousness of Aashi’s school draws tragically close home.
Ribbon’s biggest strength is its realness, its complete lack of spectacle and its consistent effort to show things as they are. Koechlin and Vyas fit into their characters so perfectly that they could be your friends who got married a couple of years back, or the couple who moved in next door. Vyas, with his contained, understated performance, is the perfect foil for Koechlin’s hyper, emotional and impulsive character.
Within the context of a cinema that is high-strung and often defined by its over-the-top, spectacle-driven family dramas, Ribbon and its smallness (and everydayness) is not just a refreshing break but an extremely well-timed breaking of the mold. Sandilya is not just competent in her reflections and critique, but also extremely skilled in breathing life into a narrative with so many layers, all of which are given their own time and space to breathe and expand.
As a female director making her debut in a film industry which, much like Hollywood, is dynasty and clique driven, I am sure Sandilya is no stranger to the harassment women face in workplaces. Fortunately, she is also courageous and gritty enough to put all this into a film and make audiences realize that a big social crisis is inching closer and closer towards home, and there really seems no way out.
This is the third and final article about films being shown at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York City.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.