I first saw Ajay Bahl’s B.A.Pass nearly 8 months in a private screening and was impressed. Luckily after all these months gone by the film does leave an impact on a repeat viewing as it has finally hit the theatres this week. Adapting a literary work into a film is never easy. There are always comparisons galore and it’s not easy to live up to expectations if the inspiration or source material in question has been well appreciated. Despite the obvious difficulties we have always had filmmakers looking forward to literature for inspiration. While Internationally this is a common phenomenon like the recent “The Great Gatsby” by Baz Luhrmann, based on the novel of the same name written way back in 1925 by F.Scott Fitzgerald, it’s not that all that common in India especially in Hindi Cinema.
Most authors are wary of how their work would interpreted into the cinematic medium, with the exceptions of someone like Chetan Bhagat (as seen in case of his involvement with Kai Po Che). Considering all this it’s heartening to know that Ajay Bahl’s film B.A.Pass, is not just an adaptation of Mohan Sikka’s short story “The Railway Aunty” (part of a book-Delhi Noir, a collection of short stories) but has always proudly mentioned the source everywhere. The film (written by Ritesh Shah) which caught the attention of cinephiles by winning a couple of awards at Osian last year also has been officially endorsed by Mohan Sikka in various capacities. Despite winning critical acclaim and doing well in the festival circuit it’s taken a while to get a theatrical release for various factors.
Mukesh (Shadab Kamal) is a youngster whose life takes a turn with the sudden death of his parents. His aged grandfather decides to support his 2 sisters while he reluctantly shifts to Delhi to live with his aunt’s family and complete his “B.A.Pass” course from Delhi University. Life is not smooth for Mukesh as he remains a loner at home and at college. The only thing which keeps him going is his love for chess which sees him become friendly with Johnny (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), a mortician. The shy and reticent Mukesh comes into contact with Sarika (Shilpa Shukla), the wife of Khanna (Rajesh Sharma), a senior Railway employee (with whom Mukesh’s uncle too works). The sexy Sarika aunty seduces Mukesh and they engage in a torrid physical relationship. Sarika tries to entice Mukesh into servicing bored housewives with paid sex, something that Mukesh initially resists. But with his sisters getting enrolled in a hostel after the demise of his grandfather, Mukesh gives in reluctantly; with the sole aim of making money to take care of his sisters.
Therein begins a downward spiral in the life of Mukesh as the film which had always hinted at being a dark brooding film, actually turns out to be more than that and serves as a fine example of noir. Watching the first half of the film there’s a possibility of wondering if you’ve stepped into a soft porn film by mistake (especially if you are not aware of the plot) but make no mistake as the film stays clear of that zone in remarkable fashion. It’s quite easy to end up with the focus on the sex quotient on a film like this but neither the film nor the film’s positioning has taken that route and this speaks very highly of highly of director Ajay Bahl’s intentions (the film is also produced by him along with Narendra Singh). The other concern that one might have about the film is that the film is a little too dark for comfort and here again I’d say that the source material itself is very much in that zone. Ajay Bahl has only accentuated it to suit the cinematic medium in the best fashion according to him.
The film does great justice to the environment it captures. Be it the seedy bylanes of Delhi’s Paharganj or the more middle class Railway Colony, the locations are as real as they could be. The cinematography, also incidentally by Ajay Bahl is first rate be it in the start brightness of the day shots that gets captured or in the brilliant hues that get captured in the bylanes of Paharganj at night. In fact the climax of the film brings in sharp memories of Dev D, thanks to the lights and use of camera angles but then the similarity ends there. The editing by Pravin Angre is taut and at a running length of just about 102 minutes, the pace of the film is just about what you’d want in a film of this kind. In a film which is already having a lot to convey in a limited time frame it’s nice to see that there are no unnecessary songs which break the flow and even the only song in the film appears during the end credits. But Alokananda Dasgupta’s BGM suits the mood of the film quite well.
The film’s strengths are also in a way derived from its characters and the actors portraying them. Shadab Kamal gets a rock solid debut as Mukesh the main lead who starts off as an innocent college student who unfortunately gets sucked into a vortex of sex, lies and money. Mukesh is vulnerable and lonely to begin with, goes on to become a little more savvy and friendly after his relationship with Sarika takes off and finally things take a turn for the worse in his life, thus making him do things without clarity of thought. And Shadab brings these multiple facets on to himself quite well. Shilpa Shukla is definitely the lifeline of the film and is the perfect choice for Sarika Aunty. As the friendly neighbourhood aunty who oozes with sex appeal and as someone who is capable of manipulating the people around her, Shilpa as Sarika is an extremely interesting character and someone who wears more than her heart on her sleeves. After a stellar presence in Chak De India this is another film which people would always talk with reverence when it comes to Shilpa’s career. Rajesh Sharma as Mr.Khanna, the husband of Sarika is adequate and so is Geeta Sharma, who plays Mukesh’s aunt. Dibyendu Bhattacharya as the friendly Johnny Bhai is again a good casting decision as the character has a lot of scope for performance despite limited screen time.
This may not be a great “date movie” or a film for a casual family outing but for the discerning audience this is a film which surely needs to be given a chance. With Bharat Shah’s involvement the film has already got a wide release across India, something very rare for indie/small films. Here’s hoping that more and more such films manage to also reach the regular audience apart from just languishing with/without a festival run.