I saw it! To celebrate the 4th of July! And it was quite quite good, in multiple ways. I encourage you to see it if you are a) interested in film narrative techniques or b) interested in confronting social issues. Don’t see it if you are a) interested in love stories or b) spend your entire life dealing with social issues and go to the movies to escape.
I am really very impressed by Anubhav Sinha. This is the third movie I have seen by him, after Dus and Ra.One. The first two are just a good time, a fun ride in terms of topic and style. And this one is something entirely different. So far as I can tell, sometime around the 2014 elections, Anubhav made a personal decision that he was going to tell the stories he wanted to tell, the ones India needed to see, and not consider anything else. Since then he has made Gulab Gang (issues of female abuse in villages), Mulk (issues of prejudice against Muslims), and this movie (issues of abuse related to caste). And also Tum Bin 2, just to put some money in the bank. I knew about his moral decision thanks to the interviews around Mulk, but what I did not realize until I watched this movie was the stylistic progress he has made as an artist since the Dus years.
This move is filmed in oppressive darkness and shadows, and the story is told in the same way. We never see a clear sunny sky, the darkness haunts the corners of the screen. Everything is in muted colors, faded and tired and old. And the story is the same, we jump from scene to scene, losing track of which day it is, who is talking, who knows what and who is doing what. That’s the point, real life is not made up of clear brightly lit moments of decision, it is made up of shadows and a million small moments in time when you can chose to go farther, think harder, do better, or just let it go. Not explore those shadows, except the straight path down the road. This constant draining feeling is made into an explicit metaphor late in the film when they discover the only way forward in the mystery is to leave the road, and go through a swamp into a jungle.
It took me a while to relax into this style, to accept that there was no point in trying to “solve” the mystery in advance, or try to understand everything that is happening. And it wasn’t exactly “relaxing”, more understanding that I would never be able to relax, there was no moment to wait for when the film would kick into gear and all would make sense. This is life, and the film is representing life. It is confused and unclear and all you can do is try to make your way through the swamp.
There are some clear American ancestors to this film, In the Heat of the Night, A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning. I’m acknowledging them just so I can reject that relationship. All these films tell the story of a small town that hides its sins and the outsider who comes in and reveals them. But that story, that is universal. Small towns everywhere have the ability to breed small minds, and small worlds that can be pierced by one outside influence. The outsider coming in can be used merely as a narrative device, someone for the audience to use as a surrogate as they come to learn this world. Or it can mean something more, they can create change through their own identity within this world.
“The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic. What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”Dr. BR Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution and the hope and faith of the Indian Dalit community
At the center of all of this is Ayushmann Khurrana. His role is an interesting and important one. He is not the “hero”, that is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. No, Ayushmann is the outsider who has the abilities to facilitate the hero. He comes in with enormous power and privilage, and floats above everything around him. His staff cleans up and simplifies and protects him from the messiness of reality. He is not a bad man, he is just a man who has had the luck to never be forced to consider these questions before. This is who the film is aimed at, the urban 1% who argue that India is wonderful, India is perfect, India is on the way up. Because they are never forced to consider the rest of India, the one that exists outside of their little bubble.
Early on Isha Talwar (Ayushmann’s love interest) teases him that he is coming in to this village like the British. And that’s how he plays the role, as though he is British. He is from a whole different country than the rest of the cast. He stands straighter, holds his head up higher, moves differently even. And like a colonizer, he has the option of trusting the “natives” and respecting their traditions, or forcing his own morality onto them. But this is a post-colonial India, and so Ayushmann struggles at first and then finds his own way, he is not respecting their traditions, or forcing his own morality, instead he is forcing the morality of the Indian constitution itself, the State, greater than one man or one village.