Wednesday, 17 February 2010

More seek than hide: the simple riddles of Vihir

The guy in green played: Nachiket
The guy in white played: Samya
The small girl played: Soni
The man in black: Umesh Kulkarni (director)
The man in white churidaar: Girish Kulkarni (producer and co-script writer).

More seek than hide: the simple riddles of Vihir

Writing a review or even a critical note on Vihir is a daunting task for two reasons: one, the film has such a rich polyphonic repertoire that it is almost impossible for an untrained reviewer like me to do any justice to the film, and second, it has already been brilliantly written about by Shekhar Deshpande on The Berlinale 2010 screening has also been reported there . Therefore, rather than a standard review that recounts the basic storyline, this note tries to raise certain issues related to the thematics of the film.

In teh post-screening interaction, the first question thrown at Umesh Kulkarni, the director of the movie, was about the fate of Nachiket. The film I guess left a section of audience puzzled: did he really die or not? Kulkarni’s answer was simple; the intention, he said, was to leave the question vague, which means that although death is a form of finality, the understanding of it need not be certain. In fact it is hardly ever so. However, some do get caught up in chasing not only ‘life’ but also ‘death’, and Samya was one such character. Out of his immense affection, bonding, love and respect for his Nachchada, Samya couldn’t bear the loss of Nachiket. And here, from the point of view of Samya, I would insist on maintaining the difference between ‘death’ and ‘loss’ which at the emotional level could mean the same but at the level on which Samya was struggling to find Nachiket meant differently. Nachiket’s disappearance was preceded by a long preface: he very intimately shared his thoughts with Samya and came to the resolution that he will run away, most probably by a train. And this angered and peeved Samya who was expecting him to come to Pune for his college studies. Given his skill of putting high philosophy in the most effusive and simple manner Nachiket in his own mind might have meant something completely different (perhaps signifying to freedom and liberation through the allegory of 'running away'), but for Samya, very probably, it appeared as a worldly act of an adolescent. Thus the trope of ‘death’ and ‘loss’ worked on two different registers, at least until the time when Samya himself undertook the journey to discover Nachiket. In this regard, Kulkarni couldn’t be more correct when he said that the film is about how Samya finds Nachiket.

Nachiket’s restlessness with the world started at the spatial site of domesticity. Although in Shekhar Deshpande’s opinion the director's brilliance lies in what he has done with time (this is used just for reflecting back on the film and ought not to be construed as criticism), I think it’s the portrayal of space that marks Kulkarni's excellence. Broadly, the film revolves around four spaces: the village home, the Pune flat, the swimming pool, and the open space (both in Nachiket’s village and also during Samya’s journey). The first three in paradoxically varying ways are sites of disassociation: the closed interiors, argued Kulkarni, were deliberately used to create an effect of claustrophobic space. The camera moved between the interior dark corners of these spaces producing a synchrony with the interiorisation of the self – first of Nachiket and later of Samya. While Nachiket took recourse to open fields, haystacks and riversides, Samya’s movement, unfortunately, was restricted between two claustrophobic spaces: his home where the leaking water from the roof accumulating in a tin bowl symbolised his growing restlessness, and the swimming pool, where the water reminded him of the well (Vihir) which supposedly had the dead body of Nachiket. It is no surprise then that the director chose to liberate Samya on the day when Ganesh idols were being immersed in the water.

Samya in his diary entries often pleaded Nachiket to at least once come to him and narrate what happened to him, to tell him his present whereabouts. But as Nachiket did not come, the only recourse was that Samya seeks him out. And this is the last part of the movie which portrays an aimless journey of a lost soul in a train, lorry, and bus and so on until he meets a wise shepherd (whose character reminded me of Herman Hesse’s Sidhartha). For the first time after his flight from home, Samya in the company of the old man appeared at peace with himself and it became inevitable that he will soon find Nachiket. That moment of realisation, as was expected, has also been left vague in the movie. Amidst the melody of the Dhangar folksongs (and not providing the subtitles was a deliberate choice of the director) Samya sleeps into the lap of the old man, only to awaken with the realisation that he has found Nachiket. Sounds and not words became crucial. He went to the well and jumped into the water to feel that he is swimming with Nachiket. Conventionally, the film should have ended there, but as Kulkarni later explained, he wanted to end the movie not at this note but at the onward journey. The last frame showed the bus leaving the village. Samya’s earlier movement between the spaces now became transcendental as he was now able to carry Nachiket with him.

In this depiction, what struck me was the technique of story-telling, with which I would like to end this brief note. Nachiket’s persistent effort to attain invisibility in the realm of visible was marvellously captured by the game of hide and seek, which means that he did not defy adolescence but re-created itself for his own experimental quest. The second technique was the use of riddles that Soni (Samya’s sister) kept throwing at everyone. At every crucial junction, the narrative moved ahead with the use of the riddle but it was pleasing to see the post-screening interaction ending with a riddle thrown at the audience. She asked: There is an elephant and there are lots of sweets and bananas in front of him but he is not touching them, why? And she explained that there could be three answers: one, it’s a plastic elephant; second, the sweets and bananas are made of plastic; and third, the elephant is diabetic.

A truly pleasing note to end watching a lovely film!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Road Movie: Enlivening cinema, critiquing modernity

Road Movie: Enlivening cinema, critiquing modernity

I was a bit disappointed when I realised that there wouldn’t be any post-screening discussion on the movie. It was so because this brilliant film made me hungry to listen to the words coming from the horse’s mouth. And partly because I also wanted to stick up my neck for asking certain questions that, more or less, are still the first-impressions (yes, its still not more than a few hours that I saw the movie).

As the name suggests, quite literally, the film is about two things: road and movie(s). The storyline is simple and elegant: Vishnu (Abhay Deol) is unhappy to support and take over his father’s business of producing and selling Atma hair oil. He got a chance to ‘do a favour to his friend’ (as he kept saying throughout the movie) to drive a truck to Samudrapur) – I guess an imaginative place situated by the sea. The journey then becomes the central focus of the film, as different events and plots unfold in the course. He is stopped at a dhabha by a kid, and then that kid becomes part of Vishnu’s onward journey. The reason was that the kid wanted to change his job. On seeing the kid mocking at the speed of the truck, Vishnu accelerates and the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The kid smarts off with a guy seated on a donkey who bypassed them, only to return back with a mechanic (Satish Kaushik). The kid had made a deal with the mechanic that the latter would be dropped at a mela, and now much to the dislike of Vishnu, the journey proceeds with three people on the truck.

The actual happenings, so to say, start with the cops stopping the truck and asking for its papers. The immediate context was the presence of waterlords in the region, who smuggled water. Obviously, neither Vishnu had the right licence nor had the papers. This led to the truck’s search, and it was then realised by the travellers including Vishnu that this was a cinema truck of 1942 model (the age of the truck was known before but not its function). The cop demanded an entertaining screening as a bribe to set the three off. The film depicts humorously (and sensitively) how they prepared the screening, for instance, by illegal power-theft (which the cops also did) and by pouring a bottle of Atma hair oil to lubricate the machine.

The next turning point comes when Vishnu asks a banjarin for water. She was one of the many who were wandering around in the desert for the search of water. Apparently smitten by her beauty (Kaushik was able to see ‘passion’ in Vishnu’s eyes), and against the initial reservations of the other two, Vishnu made banjarin the part of the journey, which was now headed towards the mela (and not Samudrapur). Perched by thirst, Vishnu goes to a protected well and tried abortively to fetch some water, which the waterlord came to know later.

The recounting must take a break here to reflect on some of the larger issues portrayed through this journey. At the allegorical level, road signifies life. On the journey, an individual meets new people, exchange both pleasure and bitterness, and not least, both betrays and forms bonding with each other (and together). Contrary emotions overlap and exist mutually. This is one obvious register on which the narrative unfolds.

The second register is of depicting the crisis and critique of modernity and consumerism. It does that, however, in a subtle and not dismissive way: very early on, the film showed Vishnu accompanying his father to the 7th Annual Hair Oil Competition. The ad-line for his hair oil was unwillingly memorised by every member of the family as it was part of the dinner talk. Thus, the film is sensitive towards showing the ‘reach’ (and perhaps aspirations) created in small-town middle class families. However, intrinsic to this spread is the limitation of that consumerism which comes out brilliantly in the interstices of the encounters that take place between a city-boy (Vishnu) and his co-travellers. The kid’s mock at the speed was thus couched in terms of Vishnu not driving a ‘Toyota’. Before that, the disgust on Vishnu’s face that came up after having a sip of the tea at the dhabha was rebuked by the kid by reminding him that he was not sitting at Starbucks. The very tangible example was Vishnu’s inability to use his mobile: the terrain denied connectivity.

Kaushik reached his mela-place which turned out to be a barren rickety area. Everyone was baffled but the narrative takes recourse to the ‘magic’ of cinema as an alchemy to hold the story together. Kaushik insists that a screening will bring the crowd, and ‘create’ a mela. Obviously, the director’s agenda comes out clearly here: twice in the movie (earlier during the encounter with the police) ‘movie’ came to the rescue: both, to the actors, as screening did lead to mela and huge earning (Rs 45,000), but also to the narrative that pushed the story forward. By recounting the ‘past’ as an assemblage of footage ranging from Deewar to Charlie Chaplin, the film also made a strong statement for and in (of) the ‘present’. The smile the screening brought on the faces of the desert people affirms the entertaining value of this medium even for us.

The trickiest part came in the last. The narrative reaches its crisis once again when the waterlord seizes the truck and also insists on making the banjarin his own. However, before that there is once again a fuzziness created between the boundaries that define our modernity and civilisation in opposition to barbarity and criminality. The waterlord insists that he is fairer in his dealings than many of the corporate houses who package and give fancy brand names to the water bottles. Since he stands outside the realm of the codes of capitalism that somehow works on the basis of ‘mutual loot’, it does not make him more criminal than big corporate players.

As one would have expected that the charm of ‘cinema’ will be invoked again to fuse this crisis, the director betrays all expectations by choosing to encounter the waterlord on the terrain of market itself. Vishnu comes forward with his memorised ad-lines of his father’s oil venture to assure the waterlord that the use of oil will transform him into a 'man'. After a champi and combing, when the waterlord looks at his reflection in the bowl of water, he is indeed convinced of his transformation. At the face of it, the resolution is funny and exalts director’s maverick. At the deeper level, when Vishnu insists that the oil doesn’t come for free, and thus he strikes a deal with the waterlord to get some litres of water in exchange and also his truck back, we are reminded of the power of branding and marketing.

Now it’s the ‘cinema’ that follows the resolution. A final screening to remind of the happiness of the journey takes place with the villagers, which saw Kaushik dying with a smiling face. That serves also as a reminder to bring the narrative to a close, which takes place by parting the ways. The city-boy had to return to the city, reminded the banjarin. Their love had to end that once again symbolised the allegorical meaning of the road and the journey. It does however leave an open question: were the two worlds, of city and desert, mutually exclusive? Are transgressions only momentary and sporadic? Does the return of Vishnu symbolises the return of market, and perhaps, of 'humane' consumerism?