Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:
This story depicts animal abuse.
Kusul burns the birds on camera. The shot is wide so that you can see all seven birds, yellow-billed babblers that won’t sit still long enough to catch fire. Whenever she lights a match and squats to hold it under their tails, they flutter up and come down again a few feet further away, so she crab-walks over to them and lights another match.
The scene is set in front of Kusul’s wattle and daub house, lonely in this dry scrubland except for the solitary tree next to it, a Cassia fistula in full golden bloom, which the Director considers both a visual cliché and thematically incongruous. But nobody wants to go to the effort of cutting it down.
“My nephew is good at the CGI,” the Director says. “We’ll replace it with a palm tree. The birds are drifting out of the shot, no? Someone reset them so we can try again? Thanks.”
Vanasa, who is Kusul’s responsible eldest daughter, shoos the birds back to their original spot. The birds represent Kusul’s other seven children, the Director has explained. It is a symbolism only, and also saving on the hassle of casting minors and getting them to emote.
While the birds are being fussed back into place, Kusul stands up and stretches, rubbing the small of her back. The camera leers at her and she hisses at it. The Director hisses back.
The rest of the cast get back into starting position for the scene. Other than the two women and the seven birds, there are three other actors, all men, their characters unnamed except by title: the Fisherman, the Informer, and the Paramilitant. They are tightly grouped to the side of the house opposite the tree, for symmetry.
The Director waves at them. “Go on, get on with it before we lose the light again,” he says.
The character of the Fisherman is Kusul’s husband and Vanasa’s father. He will be credited as the Fisherman though there’s no fishing in the film and there’s no indication of his occupation visible on screen. No boat, no net, not even a sea. The twist is that he is secretly a militant, a recruiter for an unnamed Marxist group. He is about to be exposed as such by the Informer. The film is ambiguous on how it feels about Marxism, except that it is something that exposes the Fisherman to danger. He is kneeling in the dust, hands tied. He begins to hyperventilate noisily, working himself up into a panic. He is wearing a sarong. His chest is bare, apart from the blood and bruises.
The Paramilitant, in a black t-shirt and skinny jeans, stands behind him with a prop gun. The gun doesn’t look very realistic, but the Director has declared that he’s looking for the impression only, not mere realism. The symbol is the thing.
The last man is the Informer, who is wearing a gunny sack over his head. The sack goes all the way down to his thighs, making him look like a cartoon, an indistinct blob on legs, his feet in anonymously generic rubber slippers. The sack is to hide his identity and protect him from later reckonings, revenge plots, or truth and reconciliation commissions. There are small eye-holes cut in the sack for him to see. His role is to damn: he will identify, and then nod to the Paramilitant to confirm the identification. The Informer doesn’t have any speaking lines, but the nod will have to be greatly exaggerated because the sack obscures nearly all of his body language. He has been practicing the nod all week at home, both with and without the sack. The nod is a word in a language all of its own.
“Him?” the Paramilitant asks, jabbing the prop gun into the Fisherman’s back, where a fresh bruise is forming. This is the Paramilitant’s only line, the demand for a gratuitous complicity. His jeans may be anachronistically skinny for 1989, but the Director has allowed it. The Director says it makes the Paramilitant look cool and dangerous, the gun in his hands juxtaposed with his legs as delicate as a fawn’s. The Paramilitant represents a counterrevolutionary death squad, of the type later disavowed by the state. The state is not an actor in this film at all, the Director says, and no questions of accountability will be raised, so there’s no reason to censor this one. The Director is tired of being censored. This film is about the suffering of a woman. Everybody agrees that women suffer.
The Informer takes his time. He peers at the Fisherman through the sack’s eye-holes, taking a few crabwise steps to get a better view, before he finally nods. For the nod, he bends all the way from the waist, so that there is no ambiguity. He’s sweating under the sack. The Director has insisted on his full commitment to the part, so every morning he puts the sack on before he leaves the house. None of his fellow actors have seen his face. The Director wants him to wear the sack to the premiere, too, and to the inevitable award ceremonies. The Informer is uncertain about this. Part of him looks forward to taking the sack off for good when filming ends but, on the other hand, he’s started wearing the sack to bed some nights. He sleeps better inside it, especially after he started practicing the nod. Now that he’s finally performing it on camera, every time they do this scene he holds the nod a moment longer before straightening up again. It looks like a slow, respectful bow.
The Paramilitant fires the prop gun, and the Fisherman collapses clumsily to the earth. The blood spatter will be added in later, the Director says. All the Fisherman has to do for the rest of the scene is lie still, his dead eyes staring at Kusul and Vanasa, his wife and daughter. His death, as the breadwinner and secret activist, is the tragedy that casts their lives into ruin. He tries very hard not to blink during the long closeup on his dead face. The Director usually waits until a fly settles on his face before cutting away.
The camera switches back to Kusul. It spends most of its time on her, because she’s what this film is about. The script is a litany of misery and assault, a great redundancy of pain. The camera is hungry to get to that part. It tracks every tremble in Kusul’s calf as she squats, every twitch in her cheek as she lights a match. She is wearing the ugliest dress in the world — ill-fitting, sweat-stained, dirt-coloured — because the Director wants to convey grinding poverty. The camera is very conscious of her body inside the ugly dress in a way that makes Kusul less so. Her body feels like a utensil, something awkward and workaday, like a clay pot blackened from the cook-fire and breakable. The match goes out, so she has to light another one, cupping it against the dry wind. The babblers are chattering to themselves.
She’d refused to burn the birds at first, but the Director had insisted.
“They are rated Least Concern by the IUCN,” the Director had said, triumphantly. “Least Concern! You should be least concerned also.”
She holds the match to the nearest babbler’s tail, more slowly and gently than before. The birds are a pale grey-brown, the same colour as her dress.
As the tailfeathers begin to smoke, Vanasa says her one line: “Mother, no!” The Director has asked her to infuse this with as much rage and contempt as is humanly possible. It sounds like a burning paddy field, a harvest of smoke.
Kusul bares her teeth at her daughter. The camera zooms in on the grimace. She has bad teeth, misaligned and stained from betel and tobacco. These are Kusul’s teeth, not the teeth of the woman playing her. She has no lines either, except the line formed by her bent back, the line of her outstretched arm, and the lines of her crooked teeth.
“Show us with your body,” the Director says. “Show us how this world breaks you.”