Note – I have tried to keep the reviewy-ness to a minimum and focus more on my interpretation of the films plus a bit of ranting.
Let me commit a blasphemy by starting this article on Dibakar Banerjee’s film by stealing a bit from that gift to misunderstood-<insert masturbation joke>-mankind called Kya Cool Hain Hum and say that I originally wanted to title this article, Operation Fail. But then, I rechecked all my faculties and decided it was best not to be this Yeda this early in the article.
So now that I have given homage to Dibakar Banerjee’s film, all of which begin with an absurd opening sequence (Secret Camera /Churchgate ki Chudail in LSD, Criminal show in OLLO among others) we can, with all our strength, bang that Nariyal on the road and start with this trek through the highs and lows of Dibakar Banerjee’s films; not all 4 and one fourth of them (which feels like an absurd homage to Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ about a director dealing with a creative block, who has on him a mountain of expectation and who finally drowns in escapism) but three films which I liked to varying degree.
Let us begin with the reason why I decided to write. The tagline to Mr. Banerjee’s new film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, is ‘Expect the Unexpected’. I usually find that phrase exceedingly annoying like those RJs announcing “Non Stop Music for 40 minutes” every five minutes, the purpose is lost the first time one says it. But that’s usually.
It occurred to me how much energy this guy has spent on making each one of his films different not necessarily for better or for worse but just different; different not just from his contemporaries but even his previous films. Take for example Anurag Kashyap, we expect that his films will deal with revenge, devolution of plot, curse words among other things. With Vishal Bharadwaj one can expect great songs, well-oiled labyrinthine plotting, curse words among other things.
Its hard to expect something from Dibakar Banerjee film. We start with Khosla Ka Ghosla (KKG) with its “It’s a Wonderful (Middle Class) Life!” theme and how everybody jumped on the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee bandwagon. Then came Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (OLLO) which was Anti-Middle Class and the confusion began. Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) was a dark look at the many social mores in India. Shanghai was about the extreme intolerance & murder of dissent that has been cultivated in our politics. And Bombay Talkies’s Star is a very personal story about a man facing his failures as an actor & a father. This filmography speaks volumes about his desire to not just challenge himself but a hope to remain unknowable and maintain an impartial view to the film’s subject matter. But on the flip side one can observe that none of these matters dog him so that they either repeat themselves or overwhelms the audience at the end of the film (a notable exception to this would be OLLO but that has its own reasons which are discussed later in this article).
So with this prologue lets begin with,
The one I kind of liked – Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) (2010)
The first story is pretty basic Romcom but an underlying element of caste and a twist in tale (to put it mildly) elevates it slightly. The lovers in question are Director (Rahul played by Anshuman Jha) & Lead Actress (Shruti played by Shruti, a Daniel Day Lewis level of commitment there, changing one’s name for sake of a character) in a student diploma film. The rich girl poor guy dynamic comes in play with some genuinely hilarious sequences and the story floats along till the unexpected punch grounds it.
The second story is an office romance type story set in a 24X7 departmental store under CCTV surveillance except the Romeo is trying to get into Juliet’s pants for the greater good of paying off his debts. It has a nice setup, a bunch of interesting characters and a lot of Hungry Hungry Hippos but it ends at a very unconvincing note.
The third and final story is my favourite of the three. It’s the most complicated too. It involves a world weary TV journalist, sting, casting couch, and the winner of The Mika Singh Lookalike Contest (I am only half kidding with the last one).
All three stories deal with small ordinary people fighting a system that they find is rigged against them. They try climbing it and fall, they try running through the cracks and get caught with poisonous splinters; all of it under the gaze of a dutiful camera so that their efforts don’t seem like a complete waste.
The first story feels like an appetizer to this dark world so I’ll ignore it. The second story works to a limited extent because that cloud of desperation circling Adarsh (The Noble Romeo) is brought out so well. The third story has the best thought out love, sex and dhokha elements with crackling chemistry between leads Prakash (Amit Sial) & Naina (Arya Banerjee) which make LSD a necessary watch.
With everything backed by a neutral witness viz the camera, LSD is a commentary on truth. Akira Kurosawa’s seminal film Rashomon (1950) had four different witnesses of a single event with four different versions. LSD, while nowhere in this league, does add its chip to this debate. It gives us an unambiguous sequence of events but with a slight of editing tells us about the emotional truth of events which matter more than a clinical truth of that moment. The difference between these two has enabled the tabloid culture to edit out parts that don’t fit or aren’t sexy enough without care or concern for context.
LSD has a lot to say about the overhyped “Youth Power”. The film etches out the strange mutation of progressive & regressive thought that is happily accepted as the norm. It’s a generation that accepts inter caste love (when they are personally involved) but does not relent on male privilege, it’s a generation which can admire women for their courageous acts but holds up shit stains like Loki Local as its icon.
To conclude, that day time saucy bitch at the store, Sonal should have a spin off film called Better Call Sonal where her Russian Boyfriend forgets to call her on her birthday and a barrage of bitchiness ensues.
The one I liked – Shanghai
Shanghai is the story of skeletons wrapped inside a metaphor buried under the palace of Acche Din. It is the story of the sorry state of our institutions. It is the story told with such high rage & supreme craft that somewhere in between the filmmakers confused specificity with reality.
Shanghai, adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’s novel Z, fuses political drama & police procedural to stare into the acres of darkness that lie a few miles past our metros. The film opens with the all the characters preparing, in their own way, for Dr. Ahmedi’s (Prosenjit Chatterjee) arrival in fictional town of Bharat Nagar which is ground zero for a massive SEZ-like development, dubbed IBP. A clique of locals lead by Dr. Ahmedi is protesting the injustices perpetuated due to the government sponsored & lumpen catalysed IBP.
The film’s lead characters are like its title, symbolic (except Emraan Hashmi’s Jogi but that comes later). Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) is a character overburdened with misery & dare I say, details. She is Dr. Ahmedi’s student & his squeeze (on the side). She is clinically depressed even before the murder and becomes more unstable as the plot progresses. Her unexplained ghostly whiteness makes her look like an outsider without being an outsider. Through these and many other things the film hammers in the symbolic nature of Shalini’s existence. She symbolises the almost dead idealistic, leftism flirting, Nehruvian styled elitism that once formed the intellectual & cultural base for modern post-independent India. She works great as symbol not much as an actual person.
Krishnan (Abhay Deol) heads the IBP effort and in a major conflict of interest, is called upon to spear head the murder investigation to its pre-determined acceptable conclusion. But Krishnan isn’t interested in such conclusion. I’m going take a leap of faith & openly invite anybody’s wrath who is dumb enough not to realise from the word go by saying that the Top Leaders, the CM & the allies of the government, were involved in this murder. Hell everybody can guess this from the trailers. Everybody except Krishnan that is, because he symbolises the efficient, neutral & competent administration who have somehow contained this mess of a country much like tight jeans does for a fairly obese person’s behind.
They (like the metaphorical jeans) have accomplished this by exercising a non-judgemental impassivity in their day-to-day work. This is another reason why we didn’t experience any coups unlike other post-colonial countries. The thing that bothers me is that although they maintained the above mentioned quality in their professional life; all of them knew what the fuck was going on, on a personal level. So the symbol called Krishnan refuses to be human (inspite of all the calls to his amma).
Now we come to Jogi played excellently by Emraan Hashmi. Jogi is a hustler we have met many times in our life. Somewhere in the film, he is offhandedly referred as Ramdev Baba. I don’t think anything describes him better. The man sees a demand and fulfils it. He flaunts his unpolished self and antiquated beliefs. He isn’t nearly a smooth player as he purports to be. And when he tries to be brave the government clamps down on him.
But I have to admit I feel much more sympathy for Jogi than I ever could for Babaji (No offense to Baba Ramdev fans though, you guys are the best! Pl. don’t burn my house down with Patanjali products). Ahhh digression feels so good. Jogi may symbolise many things but he is the only lead who also feels like a well fleshed out human being.
Like all Dibakar Banerjee films the detailing is immaculate and an extension of metaphors that dot the landscape of the film. The little quirks like Shalini’s number saved as ‘Dreemgirl’ or the ‘Bed is unclean’ line or everybody’s obsession with English or two references to the Dr. Strangelove’s “You can’t fight here gentlemen. This is the War Room” try to humanise the mechanics of story & storytelling. The smaller characters like Krishnan’s Secretary Mrs. Kamdar, Partners in Crime Jaggu & Bhagu, Evil Teddy Bear Damle, Rickshaw wala cum Porn Star remain with you.
Yellow & Red, two of the most popular Indian curry colours, become Shanghai’s Black & White. Every frame of this symbolic film has a yellow object in addition to the visual tone while no frame has a statement on the uppity middle class of the country because they are replaced with the colour yellow. The film is a wake-up alarm for this class which has exhausted its empathy for the underprivileged who turn to the Jhopdi-Dada one of whom later becomes Deshnayak. Red is what our public discourse has become, a violent & loud arena where sense, nuance & dissent is murdered under suspicious circumstances and a commission is engaged in adding two plus two for a lifetime.
Shanghai is best seen strictly as a symbol; Jogi with the smoking gun surrounded by hapless but well-meaning symbols set in the wild wild west, frequently punctuated by the quirks & chaos of democracy. But the problem with symbols in films is that they are darn hard to empathise with.
To conclude, though location of Bharat Nagar remains explicitly vague, the names & other pointers like the company Genron (a reference to Enron) guide us in direction of The ‘Great-State’. In that spirit I like to end with a quote of a very influential leader of that state – “This country (Desh) can fail, but my orders (Aadesh) can’t.”
The one I really liked – Oye Lucky Lucky Oye
Think of the most typical Bollywood movie, the hero & heroine are more or less idols of purity. They are surrounded by evil people who try to keep them apart and a few song, dance & dead henchmen later they live happily ever after. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (OLLO) has all those elements (Ok maybe it doesn’t have as many dead henchmen) except that they are not presented in a manner that is apparently recognizable which where the genius of it all comes in.
Forget plot, OLLO doesn’t even have a real storyline. It starts with a Crime Patrol / Sawadhan India type show titled ‘Criminal’ and jumps around a bit in time before settling in with the life & times of our protagonist Lucky (Abhay Deol), a professional thief. A brief look into Lucky’s childhood (Manjot Singh nailing Young Lucky’s fragility & veneer of toughness alongwith terrific timing) growing up in dysfunctional family establishes his need for a loving father figure. Paresh Raval is baap actor, that is fact in OLLO. He plays all the father figure that Lucky encounters throughout his life and all of them in some form betray him. Sonal (Neetu Chandra) is the love interest & Bangali (Manu Rishi, who also wrote those delicious dialogues) is the best friend.
The film’s purpose makes sense if we consider the way it is opens and closes. The opening sequence is an over the top TV show ‘Criminal’ where the host (Rajender ‘Nic Cage’ Sethi) introduces Lucky in his dramatic fashion and closes with a zooming in on nostalgia tinted photo of lucky with those fairytale like bells & chimes. These TV shows do the easiest job in the world i.e. demonize the criminal & deify the victim. OLLO is turning the table on that.
The film is visually alive & uses them to take the film forward than spoon feeding the audience. For example it conveys who the ‘good’ characters (Lucky & Sonal) are by introducing them with their faces kept deliberately obscured lending a certain superhero like quality and heightening curiosity towards the lead couple or the way a steely cold starkness & a sense of being trapped engulfs us when Lucky realises he was swindled by Handa.
It also shows filmmaker’s obsessions with movies & master craftsmen. There are the classics like – Raging Bull (The guys fighting are escorted out the party), GoodFellas (I’m Funny how, funny like a clown), Dr. Strangelove (Triple Role of an actor without any apparent relationship) Black Friday (Yeh Scooter Kiska Hai) among many other. Then there are mythological references like Valya / Valmiki story among others.
The casting decisions become part of the story telling. There’s using Paresh Rawal for three roles, a mix of actors & non-actors, the deliberate miscasting of young and old Lucky & Bangali to highlight the boyhood-manhood related themes of the film. Before becoming coin operated laughter box, I always associated Archana Puran Singh with Shriman Shrimati, her persona from that show is very effectively used to create the role for Mrs. Handa.
To conclude, “Yeh Kiski Tasvir Hai” “Mummy Daddy” “Toh Bedroom Main Kiski Hai?” “Woh Bhi Mummy Daddy” “Kitne Hai!!” certainly this film has lot of roots and lot of interpretations making it one of my most favourite films.
Coming to the ‘Expect the Unexpected’ part, while on a story level Dibakar Banerjee films can go from complex to absent there are things you can expect from his films like it would be well crafted, it would have off beat & engaging background music, it would have interesting small character, there would be great detailing & Indianness to the setting, there would be a criticism of the new rich & upper middle class and something about speaking in English.
And finally the reason why I wanted to commit the blasphemy mentioned in the first para by calling it Operation Fail. It’s because the many interpretations offered above are not the only ‘right’ ones. Don’t get me wrong I believe in them completely but I agree that others might not see it that way. I want the most passionate voices disagreeing and putting forth their own views because few films offer its audience the freedom for interpretation while being supremely entertaining and Dibakar Banerjee has an uncanny ability to make them.
Man is Dog.
– Tejas Chitre