Actor Radhika Prasidhha is a familiar face to the Tamil audiences, having acted in films like the critically acclaimed Kuttram Kadithal and later Kadugu. However, Radhika is also a talented writer and director. She has recently released her short film I Exist on YouTube, which she has written and co-directed with Vivek Raju.
Radhika plays three characters in the film – a young child, a young woman and an older woman. While the first two characters speak to the camera, as if taking the viewer into confidence, the older woman gives the impression that she is speaking to a law enforcement officer. There are no other actors in the 15-minute film, save a man on a bike who passes by one of the women on the road.
The title I Exist can be interpreted in two ways – one is a call for attention, asking viewers to look at hidden narratives and untold stories; the other is an assertion, as if declaring that ‘I’ can exist in spite of the odds against ‘me’. As it turns out, the characters in the short film reflect both these interpretations.
The young child is in a situation that we often read about in the newspapers with dread in our hearts. A friendly “uncle” is playing “games” with her, grooming her to accept little gifts like chocolates and dolls. The young woman, Vini, is in a state of confusion over a colleague to whom she’s attracted – does he really like her? Should she let him kiss her? What will her parents say? The older woman, Sowmya, who looks visibly traumatised, is answering someone’s invasive questions about her personal life, her face registering increasing consternation at what she’s being asked.
While the child and Sowmya are people whom we’d immediately classify as “victims” of violence, Vini’s struggle within a patriarchal society is less obvious. On one hand, she wants to give in to her romantic and sexual desires, but on the other hand, she’s always worried about being slut-shamed. She chastises herself, as if reading the minds of the viewers. It’s the non-intrusive but unsettling background score which runs through all three stories that reminds us that these are different facets of the same bedrock – patriarchy.
Vini’s story is also the one where the visuals show actual places – a street, a dressing room mirror, her bed, perhaps alluding to how ordinary and everyday her narrative is. The other two stories are less common, more erased, and likely to stay hidden. While the child appears against a white background (perhaps to suggest that she doesn’t understand yet what exactly is going on?), Sowmya is seated, against a black background, a harsh spotlight on her face. It’s through the change of clothes (or not) that we identify the timeline of the respective narratives – the child and Vini appear in different sets of clothes, and Sowmya remains in the same saree throughout her story.
What I found most interesting about the film, however, is that the characters tell their own stories, in their own voice, without anyone interpreting their experience for them. The child, for instance, does not immediately dislike the “games” that the uncle is playing with her – her narrative goes from joy to confusion, pain, dislike, and then hurt. Vini is in an eternal game of “He likes me - He likes me not”, doing the obsessive analyses that anyone who has ever fallen in love would be able to relate to. Sowmya starts out looking like a victim but takes charge by the time her story draws to an end.
Radhika does well in all three roles, shifting from childish bangs and squeals to a giggly young woman and then a stricken older person, but she’s most impressive as Vini and her elaborate dissections about the littlest things.
The film has won a couple of awards at international competitions, including Best Short in the ‘Gender’ category at the Woodpecker International Film Festival.