Not Today (India, Hindi 2021)

Aliah keeps the call going seated on the central reservation of a major road

Not Today is the enigmatic title of a film that is difficult to categorise. Writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s first three films all focused primarily on women’s lives and the misogyny they face, especially in India’s major cities. Exploitation as sex workers, targets for rapists and domestic abusers are all dangers for women and seen as contemporary social issues. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017), The Incessant Fear of Rape (2019) and The Goddess and the Hero (2019) don’t shirk from violent confrontations. Not Today is also in a way a ‘social film’, announced as being about ‘suicide prevention’. However, although the narrative is concerned initially with a call to a suicide prevention centre, it develops into a more complex kind of drama acted out between the caller and the young woman who answers the phone. It is also a calmer and more reflective form of drama than the earlier films for much of its running time, though it does have moments of suspense.

The narrative opens with Aliah, a young woman who has secretly applied for a job as a counsellor with a Suicide Prevention Team, being put through a role play by a supervisor (Vibhawari Deshpande who appeared in two of the the earlier films). The credit sequence then shows us Aliah in her bedroom, decorated with vinyl discs and posters of Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Amy Whitehouse and Ella Fitzgerald. She has sophisticated tastes for a young Muslim woman. Jazz-tinged songs in English on the soundtrack run throughout the credit sequence. We see her slip out to visit a graveyard across town late at night and peer through the gates. Outside her bedroom, Aliah wears the ridah, a two piece garment covering everything except her face, hands and feet and this is how she faces the world each day. 

The director and crew on the rooftop used for all of Ashwin’s scenes.

Aliah starts her trial period on the phone lines and after a prank call (which she correctly ends, blocking the caller), she gets one from an older man on a rooftop, threatening to jump. As the call continues it becomes an increasingly tense and emotionally-charged exchange and the supervisor intervenes. Aliah is not prepared to abandon the caller and leaves the centre, calling the number on her own phone as she makes her way across Mumbai. What follows is a two-hander between Aliah (Rucha Inamdar) and Ashwin (Harsh Chhaya). Both performances are very good and we gradually learn about their backgrounds and what has motivated them – in Aliah’s case to apply to join the suicide prevention team and in Ashwin’s case to go up to the roof and threaten to jump. There are surprises in what is revealed, but the narrative becomes more about their personal engagement and what we learn about the two individuals rather than an exploration of the social issue itself, although there is a form of commentary on the ‘rules’ designed to guide the suicide prevention team.

Out of interest, I researched the figures for suicide worldwide. I was surprised by the differences between sources so I can’t be sure about the data but India doesn’t appear to be one of the countries with the highest suicide rates, though it is certainly not towards the bottom end (i.e. the lowest rates) either. Rates can be affected by religious and other factors such as illegality which means cases might not be reported. Anecdotally, suicides among farmers in parts of India are seen as constituting a social issue. I’m not sure anything in the stories that we hear refers to a specific issue associated with suicide and on that basis I think this is primarily a drama about two people. I’m not going to spoil the plot development. But I will say it is refreshing to see a long conversation between a young woman and an older man which is not about seduction or sexual power. We do also discover the precise meaning of the title.

This is a narrative that takes place over about 30 hours. It is particularly interesting in terms of mobile phone use. Personally, I don’t use my mobile much so I was fascinated and intrigued by the possibilities offered by video phone calls and merging calls. The script is well written and although there are passages when the connection is broken or one of the pair remains silent, the narrative drive and the sense of engagement remains. This is an independent film offered in Hindi. I think the visuals are well presented through the photography of Aditi Sharma and the film editing of Rachita Singh. With the performances and the music, the whole package directed by Aditya Kripalani is impressive. I did find the film difficult to watch at some points because of the fear that the man might jump. Watching it on my computer, I broke off several times but that’s probably a bad habit I’ve developed during the last two years away from cinema screens. I don’t think I would have had any trouble in the cinema and it is relatively short for an Indian film at around 90 minutes.

If you get the chance to see this film, I would certainly recommend it. In India it will become available on various ‘OTT platforms’ – what in the UK are usually referred to as ‘streamers’.

(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)

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