A Woman of No Importance

By Gauri Adelkar | Drama
An undocumented, single mother in Queens finds herself at the crossroads.

Ismat is a single South Asian immigrant mother who has found work as a seamstress in New York City. She is raising her young daughter on her own and works long hours at a job with a callous, demanding boss that she tolerates with the hope of getting her papers. Hard-working and dedicated, Ismat is just trying to make a life for herself and her child, and she is willing to endure any number of small indignities to survive.

But as her boss increasingly favors a new employee -- and refuses to give Ismat time off for her daughter -- Ismat begins to struggle with the inherent vulnerability of her position. But when she witnesses something furtive and distressing at her job, she finds herself with the means to get what she wants, though it might compromise her morality.

Written and directed by Gauri Adelker, this short drama seems to be, on the surface, an intimate and thoughtful example of social realism, shot with a naturalistic eye and focused on social context as much as character in its storytelling. The excellent writing, directing and performances all have a precision and observant eye for small yet telling detail, letting quiet moments and gestures resonate with few words and little melodrama.

Ismat herself is very quiet, but she is hard-working, smart and watchful, as well as a dedicated mother. Through carefully molded, sensitive storytelling, she deals with her toxic workplace, small humiliations in her language class and a general feeling of isolation. She is on her own, fending for herself and her daughter, and at first glance, she seems to be more of a social type than a character.

But actor Kalieaswari Srinivasan's rich performance complicates the cheerful, hard-working stereotype of a South Asian immigrant, adding a layer of stoic enduring that begins to verge into simmering resentment -- and making Ismat flawed, human and fascinating in the process. As the story progresses, Ismat's tightening circumstances and a slow but surehanded increase in tension generate considerable suspense. When Ismat's boss commits a particularly egregious abuse, Ismat reveals surprising mettle and toughness, and a willingness to double down to get what she wants. Her confrontation with her boss is worthy of any crime drama, with its high stakes and its riveting sharpness -- and its sense of dark triumph at the end.

Subverting the tropes of both the immigrant drama and the thriller genre, "A Woman of No Importance" succeeds and fascinates because its sense of conflict doesn't just come from its social context but from human beings going to desperate lengths to get their deep desires and needs met. Though sensitive to the vulnerabilities of Ismat's position and told with a documentary-like sensibility, Ismat's story never reduces her to a stereotype. She builds resentments; she strategizes with cunning and smarts; she refuses to be a victim in a genre that can sometimes reduce its marginal figures in society to helplessness. With a moral ambiguity and a steely resolve, she emerges out of those margins, the main character in not just her story but her life.

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