Cannes Selection Illuminates Indian Womanhood

A radical vision of Indian womanhood collides with scattered storytelling in director Konstantin Bojanov‘s “The Shameless,” a provocative queer drama laid low by its oblique narrative. Following two women destined for a life of sex work, the drama is lucid in its politics, but often opaque in its drama — a dynamic embodied by two wildly different lead performances.

Anasuya Sengupta is remarkable as “Renuka,” a Muslim woman who dons the moniker of a Hindu goddess while on the run from police. When “The Shameless” begins, her crime of killing a policeman is already in her rearview, forcing her to take refuge in a small-town brothel in Northern India. While in hiding, she meets Devika (Omara Shetty), a young, meek wannabe rapper whose enigmatic grandmother (Mita Vasisht) is a revered holy woman. Devika’s stern mother (Auroshika Dey) has condemned her to an eventual life of religiously-inspired devadasi sex work, in the name of the aforementioned deity.

Devika and Renuka’s illicit romance quickly blossoms, but political and familial complications soon arise. One of Renuka’s new clients is a powerful Hindu Nationalist politician (Rohit Kokate), who demands not only discretion, but control over Renuka. Meanwhile, Devika’s family hopes to sell her virginity; though they’re engaged in the same line of work as Renuka, they look down on her as cheap and filthy. The former religious hypocrisy is mined for its inherent thematic tensions, but the latter storyline ends up falling by the wayside, as Bojanov frequently opts for dramatic implications, rather than detailed explorations.

The chain-smoking, foul-mouthed Renuka is an ill-fitting puzzle piece in any corner of Indian society, whose deeply conservative dynamics are illuminated through subtle details that hint at the religious and caste structures that make up the movie’s backdrop. Its foreground, meanwhile, springs to life thanks to Sengupta’s fierce, outspoken and immediately abrasive portrayal of a woman who has long since stopped living with a patriarchal mindset, despite existing within a patriarchal framework. (She’s a lesbian, and sex work is a way to get by). It’s an impeccably, self-assured performance, rife with enrapturing nuances that create a liberating sense of queer Indian femininity seldom depicted on screen.

Shetty, meanwhile, plays Devika with a more theatrical approach, despite her being a much quieter counterpart to Renuka. While she embodies some of the most volatile symptoms of repression (including a particularly incendiary depiction of self-harm), her style of acting results in a strange aesthetic bifurcation, as cinematic naturalism clashes with the filmic equivalent of classical Indian dance, in all its operatic glory. Whenever Renuka is on screen, the camera tracks each moment closely and intimately, as Sengupta lures the camera closer into her orbit with harsh, raspy, romantic whispers that cut the acidic sting of her words. However, in order to fully account for Shetty’s more showy performance, the frame doesn’t just grow wider, but becomes more distant. It can’t help but feel disconnected, even when the younger actress imbues Devika with a vivid sense of anguish through brazen physicality.

Bojanov often takes moments of physical and emotional self-discovery for granted, focusing instead on how these women deal not with exploration, but of having explored. The frame never shies away from physical intimacy, but its most emotionally intimate moments seem to occur between cuts, and between scenes, as the movie skips forward to dilemmas dictated by the plot — Can the two women escape together? Where will they go next?  — rather than by key moments of pathos. Bojanov’s approach stabs, but seldom twists.

“The Shameless” does occasionally try to supplement its flimsy character moments with superimposed, dreamlike premonitions, but these are more fleeting flourishes rather than a consistent visual language to get any coherent point across. However, despite its lacking emotional throughlines, the film’s frankness with regards to femininity and women’s bodies, and its vicious depictions of the violent forms of control enacted by men — ideas mapped out on Sengupta’s painful expressions in every scene — create a vivid texture, and a tactile sense of reality. “The Shameless” is mostly worthwhile, if also limited to being a realistic portrait of bleak circumstances punctuated by occasional spiritual resilience.

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