By Sharanya Gopinathan
I was quite relieved and excited when I finally got to watch Kalki Koechlin’s new movie, Ribbon because I was not sure it was really going to happen: the earlier show I tried to watch had been cancelled five minutes before showtime because I was the only one who had turned up or bought a ticket.
Ribbon’s trailer seemed so very promising, touching on a whole variety of interesting issues that have not been explored in Bollywood films: the dismay of discovering you are pregnant exactly when your career is about to take off, the urgency of pregnant sex, the tedium of sleepless nights, post-baby marital tension and the difficulty of reintegrating into an office after childbirth.
I did not realise that that was going to be it though. I assumed each of the snapshots we saw in the trailer — Sahana (Kalki Koechlin) shopping for diapers with baby Aashi in a carrier, passionately kissing her husband Karan (Sumeet Vyas) while clearly hugely pregnant, fighting with the boss over her unfair post-pregnancy demotion — would be explored more fully in the movie, partly because I really wanted to see these topics being discussed in cinema but also because that’s generally what a trailer does. Unfortunately, when I imagined the movie would touch upon these issues, I didn’t realise that that they would only just touch them with a fingertip and run away.
Ribbon (directed by Rakhee Sandilya) has broken the mould of trailerly expectations for sure because the trailer is the first half of the whole movie. The entire first half feels less like part of this story and more like a series of vignettes designed to educate an alien on the stages through which babies are born in our society.
There’s a scene where star employee Sahana finds out she is pregnant, feels sad, has a small fight with her husband about not being ready. They live in a small, dim flat. Suddenly it is three months later and she looks a bit bigger than she used to. Her boss says sexist things about her work being affected by pregnancy. Immediately she is nine months pregnant, uncomfortable and horny. She and her husband kiss. The baby is about to be born. The baby is born. Sahana shops for diapers. She goes back to work and finds herself demoted. She asks for three days leave and is fired. She goes through sexist job interviews; gets a new job. They now live in a fancy flat. Aashi (the incredibly talented and natural Kiearra Soni) seems to be about five, and we’re finally at intermission. None of it flowed and, honestly, it would have made as much sense if we were told we were watching random snapshots from the lives of ten different women.
The quick scenes showcased some of the (perhaps) lesser-known aspects of pregnancy, such as how all women do not jump with joy at the news, and that people in offices have horrible attitudes about pregnant women and maternity leave. But you want the filmmakers to do something more with these topics than simply showing you that they exist. It felt like someone had taken it upon themselves to shoot ten scenes taking a hatke (different) view of marriage and pregnancy outside of the Bollywood typical and put them together into half a movie. The first half did nothing to build anyone’s character or set up a plot line: it really just showed you some scenes about pregnancy without the satisfaction that getting your hands dirty would bring.
In fact, Ribbon would have been a much better movie had they just jumped into the story post-intermission. Immediately after, the story begins to take a really dark turn, which comes as a huge relief after an hour of learning how babies are born. When Karan accompanies the now about 5-year-old Aashi downstairs to her bus stop (the usual van attendant, Shibu uncle, is absent that day), he sees her in the lift lifting her skirt above her waist, saying, “Okay, now give me a chocolate.”
So after all that meandering, this is the real plot point: their very young daughter Aashi has been sexually abused (most probably by Shibu uncle) and she does not even know it. It is super unsettling and uncomfortable, and creates a lot of immediate tension that does the story good. The second half is filled with lots of action-packed scenes that make you cringe but in a good way. Like where an extremely jolly and friendly doctor aunty gets to the root of what happened to Aashi while examining her and asking jovial questions. Or the few seconds in between Karan opening the door to a Shibu uncle who does not know he has been caught yet and swinging back his fist to hit him. You see the reactions of school authorities and how Sahana and Karan deal with each other in the face of crisis. The second half feels like a nice, self-sufficient, complete object in itself, and you wonder why on earth you had to sit through an hour of Sahana’s pregnancy journey to get here.
Both Koechlin and Vyas are effortless in their roles, such as they are. Vyas is utterly relatable and at ease as Karan Mehra, and Koechlin navigates the movie’s time and space entirely on her own terms: her screen presence is enormous, and once the plot takes a sinister turn, her magnetism adds a genuine spookiness to the proceedings. You know that both actors were fully capable of taking these themes and all their messy emotions and really running with them but were constrained, not challenged, by the routine acting exercise that the beginning of the movie called for.
Unfortunately, the best way to describe Ribbon is simply that it is unsatisfying. It promised to do much more than just point a finger towards complicated feelings yet declines to explore these really interesting and emotionally loaded issues at a deeper or more fascinating level. I was also interested to see what Ribbon’s treatment of the gender discrimination pregnant women face would come to, especially against the backdrop of all the lively debate we are having around workplace sexual harassment right now. Unfortunately, it gives you nothing to take away. It merely tells you that pregnant women are discriminated against and that it sucks.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine.