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Om Kanojiya, Shriya Pilgaonkar stun you in this poignant tale – Beyond Bollywood

Writer, director Abhinav Singh cleverly banks on mythology to trigger the faith vs conscience debate. The film simultaneously harps on the caste barriers.

Rating: 4 / 5

Shriya Pilgaonkar and Om Kanojiya in Sita [2023]

By Mayur Lookhar

The Oscar to The Elephant Whisperers is a shot in the arm for all Indian documentarians and filmmakers who mainly create shorts. Hopefully, the Oscar should motivate filmmakers, documentarians, and even the audience at large to open their eyes to short format content. No, we don’t include the fun videos on social media, but serious content told in a limited amount of time.

Fresh from watching The Elephant Whisperers, this reviewer is touched by another unheralded gem that has made its way on Disney + Hotstar. Sita is a 19-minute short by filmmaker Abhinav Singh.

A simple tale that harps on the never-ending caste divide. Singh smartly banks on a rather forbidden chapter from the Ramayana to hammer home his point in contemporary India.

A well dressed, most probably an upper caste man drops a dead infant girl on the steps of a local temple in the dark hours.  A Dalit boy [played by Om Kanojiya] sleeping by the pavement is shocked to find the infant. He goes back to the footpath but is then disturbed by the sight of a stray sniffing around the little corpse. The boy picks up the girl in his arms as he seeks an honorable cremation. Unfortunately, a motionless infant is as good as dead wood for the people who he reaches out to. There’s a fellow lowborn at the pyre, then he meets a Brahmin [M.M. Faruqui aka Lilliput]. There are some folks rejoicing by a bonfire but none paying heed to the boy or the infant in his hand.  He then comes across a mysterious woman Maithili [Shriya Pilgaonkar] across the ghat (bank), who tells him a moving tale from Ramayan involving Sita. We won’t reveal that save this legend occurred in Gaya.

Abhinav Singh stays clear of naming the region, but the tone is adequate to guess where this short is based. Much like the mythology, Abhinav Singh’s story too throws up the faith vs conscience debate. Importantly, he taps into mythology to press home the larger cause of casteism and infant feticide. Straight talks here often earn the brickbats. Throw in mythology and this society would at least take notice of what you have to say.

From a grim situation, there is a deliberate lack of emotion on the face of Singh’s principal characters – Dalit boy, Maithili, Pundit, the lowborn working at crematorium.  The Dalit boy may not be able to understand the gravity of the situation or the parable, but he still has a clean heart. Ironically, the one teary-eyed is the man who left the infant on the stairs of the temple. If he can grieve, what then stopped him from giving the infant a dignified cremation? The Pundit is too occupied with the caste pride, while the lowborn Dom community man is gripped by his insecurities. 

Young Om Kanojiya moves you with his intensity. Jeez, it’s not a pleasant sight to see a boy hold a dead infant. But in that moment, the boy turns into a man. Shriya Pilgaonkar’s Maithili is intimidating to begin with but as she narrates the parable, you can’t take your eyes off her.  The Maithili-Dalit boy conversation provides plenty food for thought.  

The dark shade goes well with its grim atmosphere. The fire though reveals the character of the humans that show up. The fine cinematography makes it an immersive experience.

It’s hard to win respect when your alive, but at least in death, humans, all living beings deserve dignity. Abhinav Singh’s Sita earns our respect.

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