A still from Counterfeit Kunkoo, which looks at difficult themes such as marital rape. Photo: Courtesy Reema Sengupta
A still from Counterfeit Kunkoo, which looks at difficult themes such as marital rape. Photo: Courtesy Reema Sengupta

A young independent filmmaker from India is set to showcase her work at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this week.

Counterfeit Kunkoo‘, shot by 27-year-old Reema Sengupta, takes on difficult themes that are rarely acknowledged.

Rape within a marriage, which the government of India refuses to accept as a crime, is one. The discrimination that residents of Mumbai face while trying to rent apartments – because they are single, meat-eaters or Muslims – is another she has addressed in her work.

Sengupta remembers the “debilitating” effect that news had on her when she was just eight years old.

“I would spend hours sobbing about some act of injustice somewhere in the world,” she says from her home in suburban Mumbai, where she lives with her mother and their two cats. “I think some of us are given this ability — which is also a curse — of heightened sensitivity, so that we can do something about it, because doing comes from feeling.”

Sengupta is doing things and going places. Her short film Counterfeit Kunkoo will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City in the United States from January 18 to 28.

It is among 69 other shorts from various countries that were selected from more than 9,000 entries sent in for the International Narrative Short Films category. In the past, Sundance’s short film programme has led to the discovery of filmmakers who have gone on to become famous, such as Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson.

And in early February, the film will compete in the international section at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, considered the equivalent of Cannes for short filmmakers.

In both festivals, Counterfeit Kunkoo is the only entry from India, the largest and most prolific filmmaking nation in the world.

The film ambitiously touches on the themes of housing discrimination, marital rape, and “the need for liberation — both sexual and societal” within a nimble 15-minute runtime. Its protagonist, Sunita Nikam –played by acclaimed Malayalam actress Kani Kusruti, known for her work in films such as Kerala Café and Cocktail – is a recently divorced woman looking for an apartment to rent in Mumbai.

Sengupta shot with a minimal crew in the city’s northern suburbs. “We worked in pretty difficult shooting conditions sometimes,” she said. “The crew was mostly relatives, friends, and acquaintances. A cousin was an AD [assistant director]; another was a production assistant. A cousin’s friend was helping with costumes. Her ex-boyfriend was the first AD. Neighbours [in apartments next door to where they filmed] would cook for everyone in the crew.”

Sunita’s journey is shown mostly through events that transpire and how people — almost exclusively men — react to her. Her husband Sunil, played by Vikas Varma, known for his work in the Bollywood films Pink and Monsoon Shootout, is a leery, unpleasant man prone to violence. It is revealed later that she divorced him because he used to rape her. And in brisk sequences, we see a number of brokers who either turn her away or disparage her attempts to find an apartment for herself.

Reema Sengupta 2
Sengupta checks scenes on the camera while shooting Counterfeit Kunkoo. Photo: Courtesy Reema Sengupta

Several housing societies in Mumbai operate on their own bylaws and deny housing to tenants on several grounds; one common requirement is ‘families only’, which subjects Sunita to rejection, harassment, and danger. It is a desperate situation — like most people in unrealistically overpriced Mumbai, which has some of the highest real estate prices in the world – renting a home is the only option available to her.

Sengupta insists this is a fictional piece, but Sunita’s cinematic story has many elements in common with her mother’s experience. Seven years ago, when Sengupta was in London studying at the University of Westminister, her parents’ marriage, which she described as “never the best”, deteriorated beyond repair. After 24 years of living together, her father asked her mother, then 45, to move out within a week. She ended up taking a few more weeks to find a place, but not without having to deal with rejection from agents, landlords, and societies. “Everyone had the same question: ‘Where is your husband?’” Sengupta said.

Sunita’s journey is largely wordless — symbolic of a society where men routinely talk over or down to women. This worked out perfectly for the casting of Kusruti, who doesn’t speak any Marathi or Hindi and had lines in both. “I couldn’t extricate her face from the character,” said Sengupta. “So I checked my script — she had just five lines — and asked her to try saying them. She obviously nailed them quite quickly.”

The film title hints at the main character’s predicament. Kunkoo is the vermillion powder applied by traditional Hindu women to show they are married. In other words, she has to take on a fake identity to avoid discrimination while looking to rent a new home.

Sengupta herself resides in a rented apartment in the northern Mumbai suburb of Goregaon. Her mother, she said, had chosen to educate her about buying a home. “We’re a lot better off in that we only have to deal with the whole harrowing process of finding a place every four or five years,” she said, with a laugh. “Tenants are always treated like second-class citizens.”

So, Sundance will soon introduce another promising filmmaker to the world.