There is something deeply and liberatingly powerful about finally owning who you are.
Finally being your “authentic self”, to dip into Oprah’s pool of reassuring words of New Age-tinged wisdom, not only quell those internal battles that come from living a double life, but free you to accomplish all those things you were held back from attempting because of fear of exposure.
Unfortunately, all of these self-realisation epiphanies don’t happen on a warm-and-fuzzy Oprah-esque talk show but in the real world where the very people who forced you to hide your true self in the first place remain ever-vigilant to ensure that the consensual ideas of what is societally right and wrong are upheld come what may.
None of this is news to anyone who has ever had to come out of the closet, and certainly not an unknown dynamic to Kartik (Devansh Joshi), the only child and kanna or son of warmly supportive Vasudha (Mona Ambegaonkar) and sternly, almost cruelly patriarchal Damodar (Ananth Narayan Mahadevan) who is forced to live far away from his conservative hometown in southern India to live the life he wants with his boyfriend Aman (Arpit Chaudhary).
Returning home for a much-delayed family visit, Kartik is confronted by a puja ceremony, a series of Hindu prayers designed as the first step in the process of arranged marriage, in this case to his childhood friend Neela (Disha Thakur), which triggers a cascading series of family revelations culminating in Kartik impulsively coming out to his mother and accidentally to his father.
Authenticity wins out but not without a great deal of trauma, tension and intense self-seeking, most particularly on the part of Vasudha who finds her expectations for the future, expressly a daughter-in-law who will take over the relentlessly oppressive mantel of household duties, thus freeing her to paint again, dashed completely.
Quite how she responds to Kartik’s bombshell and how this affects her relationship with her son and husband, who is far less a loving spouse than a misogynistic disciplinarian, is best left to a viewing of this finely-nuanced, emotionally powerful film, but suffice to say, writer/director Sridhar Rangayan (he co-wrote the screenplay with Saagar Gupta) succeeds in his goal of raising awareness of the largely hidden LGBTQI population in India but also in the stultifying hold of patriarchy on many women.
Made on a near-to-negligible budget, the result of an Indiegogo campaign, and with everyone involved working at near-cost or no cost, Evening Shadows belies its spartan production.
The cinematography is beautiful in every single respect, from the sweeping shots of the countryside to the more intimate moments of family life, with everything from major religious events to the comforting banality of everyday life given full authentic, lushly beautiful rendering.
Even the most tense moments, and they are there in great abundance given the fraught but ultimately somewhat resolved narrative, are presented beautifully and with exquisite insight and understanding of the dynamics at play.
Despite some fairly diabolically conservative positions, mostly expressed by Damodar who refuses to even remotely meet modern India’s changing social mores in any way, shape or form – his word is law, a government job is security, marriage and children is the only reasonably lifestyle option are just a few of his intractable beliefs – Rangayan takes great care not to demonise any of the participants.
That’s primarily because this drama is intended not simply to entertain and genially provoke, but to start a discussion among the wider population on homosexuality, how you should treat a family member who comes out to you and the place of old traditions where they fly in the face of fundamentally inalienable rights.
However confronting Demodar’s brutalist positioning might be, or volatilely uncertain Vasudha, who has been extremely close to Kartik all his life, is in her initial processing of her son’s wholly unexpected revelation, they are the face of traditional, often rural India and to speak to them, Rangayan wisely ensures that the film challenges but doesn’t condemn them outright.
What it does do, and does beautifully to such an impressive extent that Evening Shadows has been granted a general release classification in India rather than the adult one normally reserved for films dealing with homosexuality, is allow not simply the honest loving truth of Kartik and Aman’s relationship to shine forth but also the close bond between mother and son which proves pivotal to the trajectory of the tautly-engrossing storyline. (This desire to reach the mums and dads of India is evident too in the film’s engaging use of melodrama, a traditional mainstay of some elements of Indian filmmaking.)
It is the bond between Kartik and Vasudha, brought to stunning life by Ambegaonkar whose performance is superlative in every respect, acting as the emotional linchpin for the entire film, that carries the film to its powerful final act.
At its heart, Evening Shadows is the story of how real change only comes when people place personal relationships above social dogma, when we think through why we believe something and change as necessary, including any changes to the law that flow from this. (This remains a pertinent issue for LGBTQI people in India which, though slowly changing socially, is shackled to a British colonial-era law, Section 377, criminalising homosexual acts.)
It is the strength of mother and son bonds like Kartik and Vasudha’s that Rangayan argues, and argues with immensely powerful effect, are the key to freeing India from the straitjacket of an outmoded law but also to freeing women from millennia of enduring second-hand status in their marriages and lives.
Evening Shadows then is a strong social statement, written with clear society-changing intent, that never once feels ham-fisted or clumsily polemic, preferring to let the reality of its story speak for itself.
It’s quiet strength lies in simply presenting Kartik and Aman’s life together as one that’s as rich and mutually-supportive as any other, a position made all the more persuasive the relative paucity of Vasudha and Damodar’s strained bonds.
Suffused with delightful humour, mainly courtesy of Kartik’s gorgeously whimsical aunt, and Damodar’s sister, Sarita (Yamini Singh), some beautiful mother-son moments and some brutally shocking father-son ones (not to mention a complicated nephew-uncle dynamic), and a heart for change, and an emotionally intelligent approach to bringing it about, Evening Shadows is an impressive achievement, a film that is destined to make a substantial contribution to the dialogue for change, not only in India, but throughout the world.