A BUSINESSWOMAN with a cheating husband, a mother too young for motherhood, and a polyamorous professor trying to survive in a monogamous society. Three Indian women locked in the life they are currently living are the protagonists of a new mini-series streaming on MX Player. Set in a modest housing complex in Bengaluru, the women share the same floor, same walls, but are almost strangers to each other. However, the one feature that seems to bind them is their idea of love. Love that’s self-fulfilling, and not sacrificial. Made on a shoestring budget, with crowdsourced funds, Love at 5th Floor is a classic and inspiring example of pure indie cinema. Filmmaker Aditi Banerjee created, wrote, directed and produced the series pretty much like a one-woman army, nearly seven years after having conceptualised it within a male-driven startup she used to be part of. Through the story she wanted to uncover the often unspoken desires of Indian women, plus the dichotomy of lives in box-type apartments in urban spaces.
“When I moved to Bangalore from Delhi, I lived in these closed apartments and it struck me that while the proximity of space is there, the intimacy was not there. Everybody was in their own world and how that unfolds was the story for me. What does it mean when you share a wall but you don’t know your neighbour? Also women’s desires are not often spoken about in India, especially women above 40, 50 who are supposed to sacrifice all physical desires after a certain age. I spoke to these women, and realised that there is so much that we don’t confront as a society because it makes us uncomfortable.
I wanted to put it out there through the lives of Uma, Anya and Ikjot,” says the 39-year-old filmmaker.
The show has a life-like pace and a visceral quality where, as viewers, we watch layers peel off the minds of these women. They are constantly trying to navigate their own idea of intimacy versus society’s expectations. Like Ikjot (played poignantly by debutant Rachna Gupta) who feels incomplete and invisible living the life of a housewife and young mother, which is supposed to be an ‘all-encompassing’ role. She loves her toddler, but misses the connection with her old self. She wants to do more. She misses having a life, and being loved. She often has heart-to-heart conversations on video chat with an old friend and realises there’s a whole world of online chatrooms that she wants to explore. It’s a space where she can truly be herself, and it’s her secret life. “I spoke to so many of my friends who are young mothers who said, ‘We have zero sex life. We have zero life of our own; we want to get out.’ And the expectation that society has that you will always be a loving mother, that creates guilt and it keeps building up. There’s a scene in the film where Ikjot tells her kid that she wishes he was dead—that is real. It’s a state of mind so many women go through, but no one looks at this all-consuming part of motherhood,” says Banerjee.
The research for the film came straight from reality, be it women sharing their troubles on social media chatrooms or live groups. Banerjee, who grew up witnessing conflict at home, doesn’t shy away from real conversations and breakdowns in the show. Like professor Uma who is living an independent life with multiple lovers, but can’t seem to get rid of her family’s judgement. In one scene, her 70-year-old mother, while oiling her hair, casually asks Uma if she feels like settling down. Uma replies, “No marriage for me, Maa.” The mother then kisses her on the back of her head, painfully realising that this is a choice her daughter has made. It’s a simple, effective scene between two women who have their own definitions of life and the idea of marriage. “My parents haven’t had a happy marriage and that’s something I grew up with. At one point my mum moved out. When I was 18, it made sense to me that she needed her own space. That is the first time I could look at my parents as human beings and not just mom and dad. There are always opposite elements within families and within people, and for all the characters I wanted to explore that. Like people have an idea of a polyamorous woman—she smokes and drinks and is vamp-like. I wanted to break that so I made Uma an ideal woman, a professor who listens to Carnatic music but who is also polyamorous,” says Banerjee. The character of Anya who is fiercely career driven, again is unapologetic about following her dreams despite a personal crisis. She tries hard to not let her unfaithful husband come in the way of work, but feels guilty as well. “I wanted to show how women are constantly living in guilt about their choices. She’s trying to make the marriage work, but she knows this is not her fault. As women it’s okay to not be maternal, it’s okay to want to walk out of a marriage, it’s okay to never want to be married—normalising this is important,” she says.
“Women’s desires are not often spoken about in India, especially women above 40 or 50. I spoke to these women, and realised that there is so much that we don’t confront as a society because it makes us uncomfortable,” says Aditi Banerjee, filmmaker
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Shot within a single home in 15 days, with a borrowed camera, and crew that mostly consisted of Banerjee’s former film students, the series grew out of multiple challenges. Banerjee often thought that they wouldn’t make it to the finishing line. “We were each doing five-six people’s work. A friend had given me her house for a very minimal rent. It was a sustainable shoot. Everybody had to wash their own steel plates every day and they were cursing me for it. I’ve felt like giving up at most points, but a large part of why that didn’t happen is my DoP [Director of Photography] Prahlad Gopakumar. I now know that if I could pull through this one, I can pull through anything,” she adds. She believes the explosion of OTT platforms is empowering for indie filmmakers, but it’s a long way to pave. “I am happy at least this one is out. It reinstates hope for so many others like me. That’s all we have to do—create and put it out there and it will reach the right people.”
Love at 5th Floor doesn’t censor a woman’s right to pleasure and respect. As each of the characters’ lives bleed into one another, you see that they are different, yet so similar and so close to life. It’s one of the few shows about sisterhood that says it like it is and deserves to be watched widely. The series which is gaining momentum slowly but surely is only the first among many such stories Banerjee hopes to capture. “So many women have been reaching out saying they want to hear more of what I have to say. That makes it all worth it. It’s been a tough process, but the thing that is important for me is authenticity. I want people to feel something, I don’t care if they remember plot points and the twists in it, but if my film makes you pause for a moment, I’m happy. As for the women, I just want to say be unapologetic and to own every part of yourself,” she says