Netlfix’s latest is a stack of four stories, each true to its title. The first one, ‘Majnu’, is about love, complicated relationships, and betrayal. The second, ‘Khilauna’, is the one I’ll be reviewing today and inevitably about a toy. The third, ‘Geeli Pucchi’, may come across as a comment on lesbianism in India but the underlying theme of the movie is casteism and patriarchy. The fourth, ‘Ankahi’, is arguably the most beautiful of them all. Aptly titled, it is a tale of a mute artist and the ultimate betrayal of his lover.
‘Khilauna’, translated as a toy, is a powerful yet dark, extremely dark, take on the social and economic disparity still rampant in a ‘modern’ India. What sets out as a common and done-to-death tale of two sisters struggling to survive and barely making ends meet, quickly turns dark when one of them is accused of murder.
‘Khilauna’ is a commentary on everything wrong in this society. From treating our domestic help as ‘naukars’ to using kids as leverage and sexually abusing someone in a position of less power. The tightly written script does not waste a single frame on daily nuances, rather uses them to throw in our faces issues we have conveniently either ignored or normalised and continue to do so. Economic disparity? Check. Sexual and verbal harassment? Check. Power abuse? Check. Physical harassment? Check. Stereotyping a certain community? Check. Workplace harassment? Check.
In a matter of 30 minutes, the film takes the viewers through the lives of a street-side vendor in a posh colony, domestic help and her seven-year-old sister, and the entitled residents of the neighbourhood.
While the older sister, Meenal, tries to survive and fend for her little sister by sending her to a school, giving her the ‘luxury of being able to fall asleep while watching TV, the street-side vendor struggles to keep his shop open. The kid, however, is like a sponge, absorbing everything she sees around, asking pertinent questions, understanding things way too complicated for her age, and then, making the viewers a little too uncomfortable.
Although the film is a beautifully woven narrative of all things wrong in and outside our houses, some tiny loopholes take away the perfection from it. One, Nushratt Bharruccha (domestic help), is just too proper for the role. Two, the seven-year-old knows too much about her sister’s life. Would you believe it if I were to tell you that she understood how babies are born? And three, she willingly becomes her sister’s companion when she allows her to hit her in order to leverage extra food, some clothes, and good treatment from her sister’s bosses. Well, that is another topic of debate.
The story then moves to how Meenal manages to get a cleaning job at the house of the community leader after she loses the electricity supply to her shanty. The boss, as you may have guessed, is nothing short of a leech who preys on young women. While he is desperate to get Meenal to sleep with him, Meenal is desperate to get the electricity back for her sister’s sake. And Meenal’s lover, Sushil, the street-side vendor, played by Abhishek Banerjee, is desperate for Meenal’s companionship.
On a regular day at work, Meenal is sexually harassed by her boss, who promises to restore the electricity supply to her house in return for sexual favours. Meenal hesitates and runs away from the scene. Mind you, this commotion is witnessed by her younger sister, Binny, who regularly accompanies Meenal to homes where she works and is playing with the boss’ newborn.
This tale of unending desperation of fulfilling needs ultimately leads to a completely shocking climax. A party thrown by the boss in honour of his newly born son takes a horrifying turn when the baby goes missing. Panic-stricken guests search for the baby. Worried parents search high and low.
Cut to a police station. Meenal is being slapped by a woman cop. She is accused of taking the baby. Sushil is dragged into the police station and interrogated. Binny, played by Inayat Verma, is sitting next to her sister, scared and confused. Meenal and Sushil cry, beg, and howl their innocence but cops refuse to believe them. Because obviously, they were the only poor people in the party and only people like them are criminals.
When nothing seems to work, one of the neighbours is called in for questioning. She points at Meenal and says she last saw ‘munna’ (baby) with Binny. It’s a eureka moment for the cops when they realise they were after all chasing the wrong people. What happens next is unsettling, difficult to comprehend, and quite hard to digest. So much so that my COO, during one of our edit meetings, asked the team, “Par munna kahan gaya? (Where did the baby go?)”.