‘The Shameless’ Is a Devastating Tale of Female Survival in India

“The Shameless,” playing in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, brings into sharp relief the reality for women in India, told through the story of a woman who has been done no favors and does what she must to survive.

It’s no secret to those who watch the news that women in India have struggled against cultural forces that leaves women of lower economic means little recourse. “The Shameless” puts a face and a soul on that broad canvas of inequality.

But the protagonist Rena, played with devastating force by Anasya Sengupta, is no victim. From the opening scene, where we see her in a brothel cleaning and folding her knife, having just killed her client, a policeman, Rena is angry, desperate and hardened by life on the street. She apologizes for nothing, and takes what she must in a world that has given her nothing.

On the run from the police, Rena flees to a small community in northern India where she can turn tricks, but also befriends (some would say grooms), a beautiful teenaged girl Devika (Omara Shetty) in the neighborhood whose mother is preparing to sell her virginity to the highest bidder.

Their unlikely friendship turns into love, but Rena lures Devika into her world of drugs, sex and crime. And although that reality is unstintingly bleak, Devika gets no protection from her own mother and grandmother. A devastating scene of her virginity being sold, and the violent rape that ensues under the auspices of her family, makes clear that Devika has no safe harbor anywhere in this world.

The drama by Bulgarian writer and director Konstantin Bojanov unfolds with the force of thwarted dreams and a dreamlike subtext of the two women planning their escape. Like the star-crossed lovers of so many classic romances, we know their fate is likely doomed. But the fierceness of their desire to survive propels them through one perilous situation after another.

Cannes can be counted on to deliver surprises and delights from remote corners of the world. And year after year, the stories emerge of how women are treated, or expected to survive in diverse cultures with economic and systemic challenges. It is never a pretty picture, but in this case, it is deeply moving with performances by the two leads that never allow you to take your eyes off them.

At the screening, Bojanov said the film took 12 years to make and judging by the many producers on the film, it was no easy task.

But the film received a prolonged standing ovation.

“The Shameless” at Cannes (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

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