How do we decide the genre of a film – or, for that matter, any story?
Is it based on how it ends? Is that why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is termed as a tragedy, when, in its heart, it is a story of love? I’m careful while using the phrase ‘love story’ here, because that again comes with its connotations of a happy ending – Meg Ryan standing on top of a windy Empire State Building and Tom Hanks admitting, “It’s you.”
To me, Roopa Rao’s 2019 Kannada film Gantumoote will always be a ‘story of love’ – of how two young hearts came together, a tale of school-time romance. This makes me think of the sentiments we stamp on to words. If I were to show someone my favourite part of the film (one of many, actually), I would show them the sequence where a 16-year-old Meera, with white ribbons in her double plaits, stood next to the teacher’s desk, erect and monitor-ly, and allowed her eyes to rest on Madhu – the playful and jovial, opposite to her shy and solemn nature, the boy who reminded her of her first love, her movie crush Salman Khan. Madhu spun his pencil aimlessly and looked at her from his corner bench, and Meera met his gaze – in that exchange, they knew; that Meera imagined holding his hand, and he hers.
This was how the entire film was clothed – in school uniforms, classrooms with walls of peeling plaster, exam sheets, boys and girls marching past across the school-yard. When I first looked at the collage of a few scenes of the film, on an Instagram post, I fell in love with the dialogues and knew that I had to watch it. The collage showcased the following exchange:
“Ding, Madhu said, is a short form for Darling. Meera furrowed her eyebrows, then reflected: Here I was, writing poetry for him.
There he is, fishing for the most unromantic word in the English dictionary.
“Darling”… Chopping it further to make it “Ding”!
But it still felt like mine. It was just for me, from him.”
I expected the film experience to be equivalent to sipping coffee under a winter blanket. Exciting, but protected, its linearity guided by the coming of age – but who is to discount the complexities of growing up? Rao tells this story expertly from the perspective of a young girl – her life, her days of romance in no way free from the trials we, as women, are taught to endure. Underneath the story of a first love, Meera battles the tribulations of the male gaze, of inappropriate encounters and harassment on the streets.
No one is to ignore the strong undercurrents of feminism in this film, as Meera overcomes every such event. “But why should I let that man ruin my experience?” she says, at every turn, and proceeds to go about her day.
There are other ways Rao makes the female audience relate to the characters. I can’t say if it is intentional, or if it is the decorum followed in independent South Indian cinema, but the characters are made to look like everyday people. No layers of make-up, no unrealistic polish, no disconnect in fitting the actors into their school-going alter-egos. We see Meera, hair dishevelled, bent over her notes, writing Madhu’s name amidst ink-stained hearts. We see Meera, in oversized kurtis and worn pyjamas, going to the market, seeing Madhu’s name on shopfronts or inscribed on someone’s bike, then smiling and hitting herself playfully on the head. “This is what I look like everyday”, we are bound to observe. No pomp, no glamour. This is what a woman looks like when she is in love.
A question I wish to ask the writer and director is whether she intended to make the film so Shakespearean. As the movie draws to a close, there is an unshakeable similarity to one of the Bard’s most famous plays –I cannot disclose it, in the spirit of the “No spoilers” code. Apart from that, I am moved by another Shakespearean element – the soliloquy. We hear Meera’s thoughts in long-drawn speeches, accompanying her through rainy auto rides and on tops of mountains.
“Love is heavy and light, bright and dark, hot and cold, sick and healthy, asleep and awake – it’s everything except what it is!”
I kept going back to my favourite quotes on love from Shakespeare, and remarked how most of them came out of “tragic” stories. The above is from Romeo and Juliet. Equally relevant is another one from the same play – it is when Meera tells us, in one of her background soliloquies, how Madhu has set up house in her heart, in her memory, in her life – how he is her gantumoote, her “baggage”, the weight she carries everywhere she goes. She admits that she cannot bear it, but she can never let it go. The quote that came to mind here was:
“O teach me how I should forget to think”.
So, what is Romeo and Juliet other than a tragedy? There is much else governing this Elizabethan tale of young love, just like that of Meera and Madhu that carries much more than its ending. I will remember the film for its warm nuances – like the time Meera was livid that Madhu told his friends about how they kissed in the cinema hall. “But it was our moment!” Meera exclaimed to herself, possessive of her memory, reluctant to lose it to the world lest it should become something else.
Because, in the end, the same story can mean different things to different people. Different viewers would dig up different jewels of love in this treasure hunt of a movie. It will always be difficult to file Gantumoote under any specific genre. “Slice of life” comes close, but then I remember the scene where it rains and Meera, after sharing a stolen moment with Madhu, tiptoes her way past the schoolyard – and, for the hopeless romantic in me, that breaks the stitches of that phrase too, because it feels larger than life.
Madhura Banerjee was born in Calcutta, and now works from Bangalore. She has two books of poetry to her name, and has contributed to Scholastic India’s Yearbooks, written freelance articles and children’s fiction for The Telegraph, and has had her thoughts preserved in a few other literary portals as well. She is 25 years old, and also a TEDx speaker. She pursues her passion for music, and, apart from being trained in Hindustani classical vocals, plays the piano and ukulele as well.