In the beginning of the second segment of the Netflix anthology Lust Stories 2, directed by Konkona Sen Sharma, we meet Isheeta (played by the inimitable Tillotama Shome). She’s having a bad day: her migraine has kicked in and she has to take an emergency leave from office to take some rest. While she drives herself home, her friend Sameera calls to complain about her own relationship. Isheeta reluctantly listens, and looks past the Mumbai driveway crowded by young couples enjoying their day. Isheeta is a successful woman with a house of her own, but it is her singledom that continues to ache her silently. (Also read: Lust Stories 2 review: With more hits than misses, Netflix delivers another winner on desi sexuality)
Then, she arrives inside her apartment to spot a sight that shakes the ground beneath her feet. Seema (a terrific Amruta Subhash), Isheeta’s house help, is having sex with her husband on the bed. It is this shock that transpires into a complex, uncompromising puzzle that forms the centre of the standout shot in the otherwise middling series. The conventional reaction would be to confront the house help and fire her immediately. But Isheeta pauses and subjects herself to this taboo pleasure of watching two people drowning themselves in pleasure. She doesn’t fire her. Instead, she makes it a point to arrive exactly on time for watching them have sex.
Konkona Sen Sharma, along with cinematographer Anand Bansal, fix their gaze squarely on Isheeta’s face as she takes on the role of a voyeur. The focus is not on extracting answers from her, but to understand the place from which her choices have arrived. Later, when she’s alone in her apartment, Isheeta masturbates, and breaks down in tears. Seema doesn’t have access to the space and privacy that Isheeta has, living in a small house in the underbelly of the bustling city.
The positioning of the mirror is crucial. It exists in the middle, serving as a juxtaposition between class and desire. Sen Sharma displays tremendous sensitivity and nuance in depicting the ways in which these two women are interlinked into this ambivalent space of their own. Watch out for the match cut she employs in showing how Isheeta and Seema are weaved in through the passage of time. It is also a deviously smart use of space. A brilliantly directed scene arrives when Seema realizes that she is being watched by Isheeta, and steadily catches her breath to walk towards the room, ready to embrace her husband. The shift of power- how she is in control for the first time in her life perhaps, instantly turns her on.
In the hands of a less attuned director, The Mirror would have descended into serving unnecessary skin show and comic relief. Here, the space occupied by these two women become a battleground of power and authority. The asymmetry of their socio-economic background leads these characters towards a dangerous obsession with lust and pleasure. In the shared privacy of the apartment, away from the moral policing of the world outside, desire becomes a battleground of escape.
The confrontation, where the two women finally try to hide in each other’s prejudices, erupts like a volcano. The scene is handled with superb precision and control- not a single outburst feels stretched. For Isheeta, its easy to fire her. But it is also her image that is ultimately maligned in her immediate social circles. It is in these moments, when the walls between the private and the public crashes down. Isheeta’s flatmates point fingers at her. Even Sameera has her own doubts. Someone has written ‘despo buddhi’ (desperate hag) on her car. Seema is left to deal with the loss of space through her misplaced anger and surrender.
The Mirror cuts a clear, forensic statement on the volatile culture of shaming an individual based on their personal lives and choices. This is a remarkable short film pointing inwards in its reflective world, towards the mirror. It is elevated by two actors at the height of their powers. In the current climate of 24×7 reality TV shows shamelessly pinpointing on digging in private moments of someone’s life, there’s a certain emphasis on the politics of that exhibitionism. When two women take control of that narrative, the moral compass suddenly feels shaken. Who’s to blame?