A mother and daughter both come of age in “Girls Will Be Girls,” Shuchi Talati’s gentle English-Hindi high school drama set in the Himalayan foothills. In this engrossing feature debut about angst and desire, the draconian Indian boarding school setting robs its teen protagonist of the language to express (or fully understand) her burgeoning sexuality. Talati, however, fills in those wordless blanks with images both graceful and precise, yielding breathtaking tension when the boundaries between her mother and her boyfriend begin to blur.
At the start of 12th grade (“12th standard,” locally), 16-year-old Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) is the first girl at her institution ever named Head Prefect, a title earned for her impeccable academic record. The prestigious appointment comes with duties that involve reprimanding her friends and peers, either because their uniforms aren’t up to code, or because the girls have been spending too much time hanging around the boys (who are rarely held to the same standards). As Mira leads her school pledge during morning assembly, a key line in the recitation mentions the students honoring their “age-old Indian culture,” reflecting the deep-seated conservatism and culture of silence these repressed, hormonal teenagers must reckon with.
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Mira’s new role as her principle’s watchdog soon collides with her own desires, when tall, charismatic newcomer Srinivas, or “Sri” (Kesav Binoy Kiron), begins flirting with her during a nighttime astronomy lesson. As he calibrates the telescope she peers through, we catch a glimpse of the stars in all their glory — a brief, romantic burst to break up Talati’s calculated and intentionally grounded aesthetic. The more Mira and Sri talk in secret, the more exciting and interesting the frame becomes, with static wide shots replaced by livewire handheld sequences.
While most students stay at the dorms all week, Mira occasionally goes home to see her mother, Anila (Kani Kusruti), a former student who lives nearby. Like most Indian kids, Mira hides her interest in Sri from her mother, but having been a boarding school teen herself once, Anila spots all the telltale signs, and tries to play the role of an accepting, even helpful parent (albeit within limits), which eventually leads to Sri spending time with Mira under Anila’s supervision.
The closer Sri and Mira get, the more Anila begins to inadvertently see her daughter’s coming of age as a proxy for her own — or rather, the coming of age she was denied by her much stricter parents. In this way, Mira’s newfound romance is liberating to Anila as well, a situation for which none of the characters has any blueprint.
Adversarial glances between mother and daughter imbue even unassuming domestic scenes with electric interpersonal tension, as their mutual understanding clashes with their respective rebellious and over-protective tendencies. Both Panigrahi and Kusruti deliver immensely lived-in performances that write sonnets through silent stares, as a mother and daughter who aren’t accustomed to truly connecting, or communicating beyond customary debriefs.
The film’s wordlessness is expertly contextualized by Talati and cinematographer Jih-E Peng. Her thoughtful framing works in tandem with the performances — especially Panigrahi’s, which runs the gamut from despondency to joie de vivre — to create dynamic interior worlds that, although they exist in isolation from other people, are no less vivid. “Girls Will Be Girls” walks a complex tightrope, balancing the contrasting intentions of the characters with the overall narrative as its scattered pieces fall into place.
The way “Girls Will Be Girls” presents female teen sexuality — sensitively, sensuously, mischievously — is practically revolutionary in the broader context of Indian cinema (which, like Mira’s school, and Indian society at large, shames). This fearless depiction includes scenes of Mira practicing the act of kissing on her own wrist, studying her cleavage in the mirror, dancing alone in her room (a quiet form of rebellion) and even masturbating for the first time. It’s detailed, and above all, honest.
Its depiction of young love is just as vulnerable and awkward — which it makes it incredibly true-to-life — between Sri and Mira’s suppressed smirks, to their curious physical explorations, to the way they’re forced to rely on the internet for anatomical sex ed (in lieu of much at school or at home). However, the more involved they get, the more difficult it becomes to balance romance with academia, while avoiding watchful eyes both at home and at school.
Talati’s handling of the movie’s complex, often discomforting material is deft and empathetic, and as a first-time feature filmmaker, she has all the makings of a future auteur. Her silent close-ups hold just a little longer than most narrative dramas — credit surely must go to editor Amrita David as well — allowing her actors to fully immerse themselves in their performances, as the characters’ reaction shots to awkward situations become portraits of introspection, as Mira and Anali learn to see themselves in one another.
The director’s most thrilling flourish, however, is the way she constantly returns to her characters’ hands in numerous scenes, and in different contexts. By capturing hesitancy and the intimacy of touch, these close-up inserts become conversations unto themselves, and they start to function as a unique form of subjectivity, revealing behaviors, intentions and hidden desires when Mira and Sri have no choice but to stop speaking, or to avert their gaze. Talati, in essence, trains her camera to search for the story where most other filmmakers wouldn’t think to look, making “Girls Will Be Girls” a particularly promising debut.
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