I remember investigating the concept of childhood sexuality when I was studying Sigmund Freud for psychology class during my final year in school. Although many have come to criticise and debunk Freud’s theories and ideas over the years, there was something about his work that always piqued my interest, and it was the same inquisitive feeling I got when I was watching Memories of a Machine, a Malayalam short film by Shailaja Padindala recently on Youtube.
I remember vaguely skimming over an article in the past when this short film came into the spotlight for its controversial subject matter but hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time. To put it simply, the storyline follows the recollection of a young women’s first sexual encounter. Played by actress Kani Kusruti, we see the film from her husbands point of view - it’s shot in that style - as she talks about being an 8-year-old that was intimately touched by a peon, an adult man, at her school and she got aroused. Her husband goads her on as she coyly gets into more detail, and we see the past unravel little by little, as she, in a very matter of fact manner, tells her husband, and us as a result, about it all.
Now, your initial reaction when she first starts talking about it is, well, that this was child abuse, but it’s not that simple. This film fell on both ends of the audience spectrum - it went viral on Youtube and got a great response when it premiered at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival, but it also drew in heavy criticism for its normalisation of child abuse, a very serious and rampant problem in India.
The criticism, that a part of me agrees with, is its nonchalant approach to paedophilia, but once the film was over and I went over everything in my head to try and rationalise the making of such a film, some things became clearer. What you notice by the end of it is that the director has left out an opinion of right and wrong, but does it romanticise child sexual abuse? There is a critical point in this 10-minute-long film when this question is brought up by the husband - “Do you think whatever happened was wrong?” he asks her, to which she replies, “I don’t know if it was right or wrong. At that time it was sexual exploration for me. I liked the way he touched me and he stopped when I did not want it. I am not concluding that it’s right or even wrong for that matter. I don’t think it is wrong. That’s all” - and here lies the crux of Pandindala’s defense of her creation.
“The movie aims to show how an eight-year-old girl was first introduced to sex and her natural thought towards it was that of pleasure. It is immaterial whether that introduction was by an adult or a peer,” said the director, in an interview with Narada News.
So, as per the directors own statement, the primary focus here is on the first sexual encounter - the morality, ethics and normality of the situation is not hinted nor commented upon, leaving the audience to form their own opinions, so to speak. There is a certain ambiguity when it comes to this film.
I discussed this film with my flatmates before I actually got down to writing about it, to try and get another person’s perspective. They both pointed out the same thing - there is, a kind of coquettish undertone to the entire thing. We see the women playfully chewing on her finger, taking off her bra, there’s ‘casually’ a copy of Lars Von Trier’s film Nymphomaniac lying on the bed - all hinting to the woman’s sexual prowess. But, I guess in a way I can understand what the director is trying to do here; in a voyeuristic manner we’re given an intimate look at a conversation between two lovers, who are discussing past experiences. The director doesn’t make a judgement regarding the woman’s character, nor that of the peon, because that is not what the film is about.
If you focus on that, then you can truly appreciate Kani Kusruti’s stellar performance, but it is hard to put your morals aside, and this film really isn’t for everyone. I, personally, think it’s great in the name of art, do I agree with critics that it condones paedophilia? No, and yet, it’s fair to question the lack of two things - first, a trigger warning at the beginning of the film for unsuspecting viewers, and second, on a larger scale, the lack of awareness for the protagonist at such a young age. From the couples conversation, what is clear is the lack of any kind of sex education, awareness and imparting of the concept of ‘good touch-bad touch’ that is very much needed in our country. But I’m going to try and see this film for what it is - art - and I guess the audience will just have to watch it themselves and create their own opinion of what is being portrayed - to debate, appreciate, criticise and/or discuss, which in a way, is the real purpose of art, starting a conversation.