Eating together, in Indian culture, is believed to have a way of bringing families together. At a reasonably large family gathering, I once saw a man feeding a little girl—serving chapati—with a bite of Jalebi. He jokingly said, “Seva karoge toh meva milega” (If you serve, you’ll be awarded), and the other men at the dining table instinctively broke out in laughter.
Let me paint you a picture of a soirée at a typical Indian household: the women serve the men water and food, lay plates for them, and even put their husbands’ dishes in the sink. After this, the women fetch dinner for themselves while the men march off to the living room. Now, if you don a cultural blindfold, you would think of this as an endearing tradition of looking after ‘each other’ even as the culture’s deeply-rooted patriarchy stares at you in exasperation.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s slapping short film Juice is an unfeigned rendering of this everyday affliction. The film is more than just a simplistic portrayal of patriarchal ignorance; it leaves you with a powerful feeling of disentanglement—via a cathartic rejoinder.
One of the film’s first scenes shows many comfortably perched, married, adult men at a family get-together. They engage in spiteful talk about their recently appointed female colleague: “Science ke mutaabik, aadmi aur aurat ki sharirik sanrachna mein farak hai” (According to science, men and women have different anatomies). While the children are mewed up in a stuffy room, and the women cede their leisure to rot in the kitchen, the men have no qualms about splaying themselves across the sofas in the living room.
Mrs Singh or Manju (Shefali Shah), the host or, more appropriately, the “leading lady in service,” sets out to make the women’s make-believe get-together more endurable and less humiliating by offering tea and fixing a table fan in the kitchen which, not long after, stops working. Ironically, the women’s own conceit reveals itself in the following scene where the maidservant is offered tea in a separate, unalike glass of steel. Even as they all suffer together, some women remain careful to maintain internal distinctions to protect their relative ‘superiority’.
The kitchen is the women’s abode and the countertop their seating; they discuss subjects close to their lives—marriage, children, and career. The following scene is stunning in that it lays bare Manju’s searing resentment. She almost aggressively questions why bringing up children must require a woman to abandon her career. “Diaper toh hum hi ko badalna padega na, logon ke haathon se toh remote chhoot jaayenge” (Changing diapers has to be only our duty, because our husbands have their hands tied to the remote). This is one small strand that builds towards the crescendo, the catalyst of a long-overdue reckoning.
Outside, the men engage in lowbrow banter about Akbar dying of “pechis” (dysentery), and the US presidential election. “Obama ne kya ukhad liya . . . Trumpva hi America mein jaan layega” (What good did Obama ever do . . . Only Trump can make America great again). One of the ladies, Mrs Sarla, calls on her little daughter to serve the boys their dinner, “Bhaiya logon ko khana khilao!” The remark discernibly provokes Manju as she witnesses a mother pass ignorance on to a daughter. Regardless, she decides to keep quiet.
Perhaps the most crucial instance in the film comes from a short, easy-to-ignore dialogue between Sarla and her daughter Dolly that may inch a little too close to home. Sarla instructs her daughter to not go into the living room where the “uncle log” rejoice in whiskey and cigarettes. Sarla says, “Kabhi humein dekha hai wahan jaate hue?” (Ever seen me going in like that?) and suppresses Dolly’s protest. The implication seems to be: a mother’s shoes are not always the right pair for her daughter to step into.
Juice is terrific and terrifying at the same time. The film’s nuanced storytelling does not explicitly spell out everything for its audience, but puts faith in their intelligence. The whistle of the pressure cooker, the recurrent sizzling, the sweltering kitchen, the non-functional fan, the accidental burning of a hand, the self-deceiving giggling of the wives, the ceaseless summoning by Manju’s husband—it all builds up. Manju takes a deep breath as she stands at the door of the living room with a glass of juice in one hand and a chair in the other. It is here that the film does its work. Until this point, the film acted as a mirror reflecting life as it is, but now it takes a different course—it jolts the audience with a taste of rebellion and possibly a little discomfort. Manju drags the chair in the room full of chortling men and sits before the water cooler. It is a palliative sight to see the men unsettle, awkwardly straighten up, and turn silent.
The gift of this film, most definitely, is Manju—a woman who puts herself on view in a room populated by men. She lifts her eyes, pans across the bunch of men, and finally meets her husband’s gaze. It is harrowing to witness a husband and wife so tragically pitted against each other that one has to put up a fight to reclaim their dignity from the other. Mr Singh seems infuriated at his wife’s ‘impolite’ march into the room but finds himself at a loss for words. The insensitivity in his eyes is frightening. Ghaywan would only hope that the spin-off doesn’t pass us by: it is easier said than done, but rebelling has us far better off than being obedient and easy-to-exploit. Shefali Shah’s powerful eyes blaze with betrayal, exasperation, abandonment, and disappointment; her gaze is a desperate question to her husband, how is masculinity so blown out of proportion that you nourish your self-conceit at the expense of your wife’s happiness?
If Juice hits too close to home, it is a reminder that you could incessantly—and even unknowingly—be exploited at the very hands of your loved ones. It is a reminder that it is through the small, taken-for-granted, intimate rituals of families that the societal architecture of gender is kept aflame. If Juice hits too close to home, it is a reminder that the spirit to defy lives within you; take a deep breath, and just drag that chair.
Sonal is a writer from New Delhi, India. She is currently studying literature at Ashoka University.