Shreya Dhanwanthary, Lillette Dubey’s short film doesn’t quite measure up

The premise of Shyam Sunder’s Birth is an interesting one – and it surely has some merits of its own. However, the final product doesn’t quite live up to its original promise, and that’s a tragedy.

It’s only recently that the mainstream has begun to delve into the paranoia surrounding pregnancies, and the pain and trauma associated with childbirth, making it almost a subgenre unto itself. Whether it’s the jaw-dropping 24-minute single take Woman’s Pieces (2020) or the harrowing childbirth scene that appeared in last week’s pilot of House of Dragons (2022), the harrowing process that conveniently happened off-screen not too long ago, is now getting more attention. In Shyam Sunder’s short Birth, starring Shreya Dhanwanthary and Lilette Dubey, the story unfolds closer to home.

Meera (Dhanwanthary) is eight months pregnant and has nightmares about what’s to come. In a dark and comedic first scene, she watches in disbelief as her partner (Abeer Meherish) is asked to choose between saving the child or her. She wakes up in a pool of sweat shortly after.

At least at first, Birth reminded me of Rakhee Sandhilya’s Ribbon – another film that seemed curious (not judgmental) about a woman’s state of mind during pregnancy. In the 2017 film, Kalki Koechlin plays the role of an ambitious young woman, who refreshingly expresses her fear and anxieties about how motherhood will change her life. Similarly in Birth, Dhanwanthary’s Meera appears to be a driven person who wants to “do things right” – and so her emotions often spill over to her husband and subordinates. There’s a nice little moment in the backseat of a car, where Meera looks longingly at Sushant as he mindlessly scrolls through his phone, and later Sushant leans in towards Meera for a kiss/hug before she doesn’t come down, but she’s already gone. Rare are the films which speak about the evolution of the intimacy of a couple during a pregnancy.

Meera attends a (lazily) maternity care center named “Happy Moms”. Here, Meera and other pregnant women do breathing exercises, share their anxieties with treats – like how coffee could be ‘poison’ for the baby. Mama Nithya (Lillette Dubey), who has an unsettling presence given that she wears a prosthetic belly presumably out of solidarity with pregnant women, leads these sessions. Meera and Nithya’s equation is intriguing: the more Meera searches for real answers, the more Nithya confuses it with vague verbiage.

“Happy Moms” seems to have a cult setting, filled with symbols, costumes and rituals. At first, it seems like the short is trying to satirize society’s uselessness for pregnant women, despite all the wealth of experience and knowledge. However, it is in this maternity center, when the film’s tone shifts from satire to thriller, that the film begins to go off the rails. The scenes play out inconsistently and there are still massive gaps for viewers to fill. The “twist” looks dull and typical of these shorts.

Dhanwanthary, who has made a career out of playing urban women with fierce ambition, is in fine form again here. The issue is how the shorts treat veteran Dubey. As Mama Nithya, Dubey never seemed more opaque, never straddling the lines between being the pushy neighborhood aunt or a creepy cult leader to steal babies from their mothers. Aiming to be both – she ends up somewhere in between (or as some might say, nowhere at all).

The short incorporates Braxton Hicks into the film’s dialogue a few times, suggesting that the short might have worked better as a drama – earnestly trying to dissect the pressures of a pregnant woman. The heaviness with which the film is transformed into a “thriller” – becomes the loss of the short.

The premise of Shyam Sunder Birth is interesting – and it surely has some merits of its own. However, the end product doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise, and it’s a
the tragedy.

1.5 (out of 5) stars

Birth, starring Shreya Dhanwanthary and Lillette Dubey, is streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based at Delhi NCR.

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