Reel Life: The ‘Funny Business’

With June marking the Pride Month for the LGBTQIA+ community, it felt opportune to kickstart the next 30 days of my movie viewing with two pertinent films—Shiva Baby and Rafiki

A still from Shiva Baby
A still from Shiva Baby
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Namrata Joshi

With June marking the Pride Month for the LGBTQIA+ community, it felt opportune to kickstart the next 30 days of my movie viewing with two pertinent films—Shiva Baby and Rafiki—part of MUBI India’s thoughtfully curated queer focus programming for the month.

In one word Emma Seligman’s debut feature Shiva Baby, that played at the South by Southwest film festival (SXSW) and the Toronto International Film Festival last year, is a refreshing and audacious new addition to the growing genre—as hilarious as it is dark, as playful and irreverent as it is intense, as quirky as it is delicate and perceptive.

About the dilemmas and confusions of an aimless, young woman Danielle (Rachel Sennott), it is set in real time at a “shiva”, a ritualistic Jewish gathering of friends and family to mourn the dear departed.

The camera keeps drifting along (quite like the film’s protagonist), moving around in circles in this crowded setting, pausing occasionally to focus on specific individuals, especially Danielle.

Sennott, as Danielle, is remarkable in the tight closeups that she is constantly framed in, with innumerable emotions flitting across unceasingly across her face—the awkwardness in expressing condolences, the uneasiness of being caught between her two lovers, an extreme awareness about her own self and a curiosity for the world around her in general as she keeps looking and observing from the corner of her eyes.

There is also the self-consciousness about her own misdemeanours, the guilt at misusing herself and allowing herself to be used by another and the accompanying suffocation, resentment and the unstated urge for some sort of reconciliation and peace within.

A still from Rafiki
A still from Rafiki

All along there is constant chatter in the background with some chosen, significant conversations foregrounded. There are the judgmental, traditional aunties on the one hand, obsessed with Danielle’s future and loss of weight, comparing her “skin-n-bone” look to that of Gwyneth Paltrow. Danielle tries her best to make them understand her inclination for gender studies—"Feminism is not a career but a lens”; the one with which she wants to view her life. But would it so much as register on them?

On the other hand, there is a welcome candour, ease and warmth in the way Danielle’s bisexuality is acknowledged and accepted by her open-minded mother, even though she puts a spin on it by referring to it as “experimenting” and “funny business”.

While Danielle’s mind is at its most feverish and hallucinatory and totally incapable of grappling with the many issues that she finds herself in the midst of, her mom has some simple words of profound wisdom to offer: “You will figure it out”. An elemental optimism, confidence and comfort that every child would want bequeathed from its parents.

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Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, the first Kenyan film to be screened at Cannes Film Festival, had its international premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival in 2018. About two young women in Nairobi, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), who want more from life than marriage and motherhood, the film is poised at the intersectionality of gender and sexuality. It has a wonderful, modern, “female-centric” and “Kenya-focused” soundtrack as Kahiu said in an interview at Cannes. Nairobi is captured in all its brilliant, youthful colours.

However, the sweet romance is seemingly conventional and light and doesn’t appear to push the artistic envelope in the way a Shiva Baby does. But that also stems from a conservative and confrontational reality that it has roots in and grown from. Rafiki was banned in Kenya for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship and for “normalising homosexuality”. Kahiu was threatened with arrest by Kenya Film Classification Board, even as she questioned the violation of the constitution and the curbs on freedom of expression.

Later she demanded that the film be screened in the country for it to be eligible for Kenya’s submission at the Oscars. The Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film in September 2018, allowing it to be screened for seven days in a Nairobi cinema, to meet the required criteria. It ran to packed shows for the week but was still not picked up as Kenya’s official entry.

Rafiki plays on MUBI India from June 1. Shiva Baby plays from June 11.

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