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RK/RKAY (Dir. Rajat Kapoor, India, 2021) – Satirical Reflexivity

When we invited film director Rajat Kapoor to Manchester in 2017 as part of the first season of ‘Not Just Bollywood’, one of the things that came to light during our several conversations was his love of Federico Fellini. In many ways, RK/RKay is Rajat’s Eight and a Half (63) – a darkly comical love letter to the trials and tribulations of filmmaking. As I have noted in my earlier posts on Rajat’s films, he is a writer/filmmaker who has remained resolutely independent and the budget for his latest venture was crowd funded, reiterating his desire to make films on his own terms. Rajat must also be one of the few filmmakers working in Indian cinema today who religiously works with the same crew – this seems to be the case ever since he started making films. Working with the same creative people time and again not only breeds familiarity but offers a reassurance and comfort in terms of collaboration that unsurprisingly filters through into the congenial temperament of his films. What I mean by this is that there is often an on-screen camaraderie amongst his actors that extends from Rajat’s grasp of populating his scripts with quality supporting actors who add something tangible.

The gist of RK/RKay is a deeply self-reflexive one. RK, a filmmaker (Rajat), is making a classical Indian film – in the romantically inclined tradition of popular Hindi cinema. However, one day, the lead protagonist who goes by the name of Mahboob Alam (also played by Rajat) literally flees the fictional film world of the film he is starring in and enters the real world of RK, the filmmaker. But what of Mahboob? He is a magical filmi spirit from the past, a man of principles and a die-hard romantic who is on a search to be united with his Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat) – a reference to Waheeda Rehman’s character in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957). The film editor is first to discover this remarkable anomaly, realising Mahboob has gone missing out of all the scenes they have filmed, leaving behind a ghostly residue on the film negative. Of course, such a inexplicable phenomenon completely stumps the cast and crew notably the producer given the money he has invested, and which he wants to protect like the true capitalist he is. What arises is not only an existential crisis experienced by both RK and Mahboob but an exploration of the mechanics of filmmaking expressly the ways in which the reproduction of images is more than just an ephemeral occurrence but wholly spiritual and even sacred.

One of the funniest moments in trying to untangle the complications between fiction and reality unfolds in a police station as RK and his nervy producer attempt to engage in a paradoxical conversation with a police officer on the perils of creative imagination. Since Mahboob has fled the fictional world of the film he inhabits, his sudden absence has a marked effect on the narrative of RK’s film whereby Mahboob’s sworn enemy K. N. Singh (Ranvir Shorey in a memorable supporting role), a nostalgically villainous throwback to the likes of Pran, is determined to catch up with Mahboob whatever it takes. In doing so, director Rajat Kapoor increasingly blurs the tenuous lines between fiction and reality, continually juxtaposing the narrative action with scenes from the film. This emerges as an ongoing meta commentary on a hyper reality in which many us of inhabit on a daily basis.

The levels of reflexivity become increasingly complex in the film and at one point the film editor shows Mahboob a scene they have shot featuring Gulabo while RK the filmmaker looks on in complete dismay. At this point Mahboob experiences his own out of body jolt and his very existence dissolves into an emptiness with which he is unable to reconcile until later when RK tries desperately to make Mahboob understand his being is only useful in the confines of a film. Nonetheless, upon taking up temporary residence in RK’s home, Mahboob’s warmth for the family leaves an undeniably welcoming impression that contrasts stridently with RK’s self-absorbed and hurried persona. Here the film begins to explore more fully the ways in which creativity hacks away at relationships and since it is Mahboob who comforts Seema (RK’s wife) and children with his outdated but calming words it is altogether absurd because Mahboob is a blighted projection of RK’s own repressed romantic inclinations for the past and corresponding disconnect from contemporary reality.

Insisting that Mahboob should return back to the fictional world of the film he is trying to complete, RK realises that what amounts to a relatively straightforward request descends into Mahboob becoming increasingly convinced of his worth and significance in human terms. Seema and many of RK’s close friends are enamoured by Mahboob’s emotional sensitivity, a nostalgic charm that irks RK to such an extent that he wants to be rid of Mahboob. What transpires is the residual presence of Mahboob makes RK’s disdain for the real world radiate with a clarity that leads to a longing for a perpetual everlasting escape into his on-screen imaginings. And for all the criticism that RK directs at Mahboob for his idealistic and naïve musings, RK envies the ghostly protagonist he has forged since it is a persona that he wants to inhabit with an indefinite totalizing ease.

RK/RKay opens with a visual metaphor of Mahboob in a corridor full of doors to different apartments. As our protagonist opens the door and enters an apartment, Mahboob magically re-materialises until slowly through a series of playful cross dissolves the corridor is awash with the image of Mahboob. For what is certainly a surreal opening that neatly sets up the central concept of mirroring, the notion of multiple personas that are inherent in many of us is a central thematic preoccupation. However, in this exciting and innovative work from Rajat Kapoor it is escape that resonates most starkly – escape from ourselves, from the chaotic and at times meaningless world around us. And what remains is the solace we find in precarious illusions; a distraction and diversion that amounts to something far more satisfying for RK than most things in his life.

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Thampu / The Circus Tent (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1978, India/Malayalam)

In the dialogue-less opening to Aravindan’s 1978 film Thampu, an open-air truck filled with seemingly ordinary people weaves it way languidly through the sunlit coastal roads of Thalassery, Kerala. This close-knit travelling circus, made up of a troupe of intrepid misfits and fantasists, have habitually made this journey before, living out a transient existence of boredom, service and entrapment. It would be wrong to deny Aravindan’s films are plotless but Thampu is probably the closest he came to making a documentary. The use of a non-narrative framework that favours episodic situations and a refusal to introduce characters or make them substantial in anyway turns the superfluous such as the assembly of the circus tent into self-contained spectacles of social performance. Aside from the presence of Gopi as the manager, many of the characters that populate the circus troupe are non-professionals, another notable feature of neorealism, a style and form that is stridently transparent in Aravindan’s semi observational approach. By the same token, the black and white cinematography (exceptional work again by the distinguished Shaji N. Karun) is an aesthetic choice that also augments the neorealist style. Accordingly, when the circus delivers their inaugural performance, Aravindan repeatedly cuts to shots of spectators, real faces of the villagers, training his eye on their mesmerising expressions who are completely hypnotised by the spectacle, and in turn drawing out the parallels between the circus and film as intrinsic forms of escape for the masses. Before the advent of travelling cinema shows, the arrival of a circus was a major event in the lives of people craving diversion and what Aravindan captures unequivocally is the fleeting delight and short lived excitement the circus brings to the local area. For the most part, it is the sense of identity and belonging the circus gives to such a disparate community of people that chiefly interests Aravindan, conjuring a melancholic portrait of an occurrence that is evanescently material and magical.

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Chokh / The Eyes (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1982, India/Bengali)

The eyes speak, harbouring and chronicling histories, emotional sentiments and even memories. Chokh, a stark political exercise in neorealist aesthetics, opens with the petrified eyes of Jadunath (Om Puri in blistering form) who looks directly at us with a totalizing gaze of defiance. Jadunath, a union leader, has been convicted of murder, and waits impatiently in prison to be executed by the establishment. It is 1975, the time of the Emergency, and dissent is all but unthinkable. Still, the political impulse of the Left remains, manifested in the undeniable resistance articulated by Dr Mukherjee (Anil Chatterjee), a benevolent eye surgeon working at a government hospital, and who in the opening polemic draws the benign connection between poverty and blindness. Against this nexus of economic and social deprivation are inserts of colonial statues, spectral reminders of a colonial legacy that bears down on the people of West Bengal. It is a Bengal familiar to us from Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy in which the Naxals are in a constant struggle against a rotten underbelly intact after independence, transitioning from one elite to another.

As a final request before his execution, Jadunath consents to a conditional donation of his eyes to a fellow worker who is blind and in need of a transplant. Jadunath’s friends, comrade workers who were also in the union, stake their claim to the eyes, informing Dr Mukherjee of the news. It transpires that Jethia, industrialist and owner of a jute mill, has a young teenage son who is going blind and is also in need of an urgent eye transplant. Jethia’s son is a victim of political violence, blinded in a bomb blast, supposedly instigated by Naxals. With political support from the establishment, Jethia reaches out to the superintendent working at the hospital and convinces him that his son should be the recipient of the next pair of available eyes. The corrupt superintendent complies and sanctions the operation without approval from the panel at the hospital, abandoning his ethical responsibilities. In this contestation between rich and poor, director Utpalendu Chakraborty lays bare the ways in which entitlement and privilege bypasses the layers of bureaucracy typically faced by the powerless unionised workers who can do nothing but plead indefinitely. Within less than twenty-four hours, Jethia has his son admitted and readied for an eye operation that for many poor blind people is a distant dream.

Upon visiting Dr Mukherjee at his home, Jadunath’s worker friends relay a stark truth about Jethia’s crimes. The first of two extended flashbacks, details Jadunath’s influence to organise a collective resistance to Jethia’s inequitable rule. We learn that Jethia has dismissed labourers at the factory in an attempt to weaken the union but Jadunath refuses to back down, insisting the labourers be reinstated for the strike to end. When Jethia sends scab labourers to suppress the strike, Jadunath retaliates and orders the striking labourers to lie down at the gates of the factory, defying both the police and Jethia. Outraged, Jethia resorts to violent thuggery, sending his goons to drag the labourers out of their homes, humiliating them in front of their families, and executing three of them in cold blood. However, when Jadunath hears of this, he too retaliates with political violence, killing Jethia’s brother and the manager of the jute mill. Later Jadunath is arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Unlike Jethia’s violence and killings, which is legitimised by the establishment, Jadunath’s response is framed as terrorist acts against the state, leading to his incarceration. The union of the factory labourers is undermined, and essentially neutered. Jethia’s unchecked power to use violence to protect the status quo emerges as a terrifying metaphor for the 1975 Emergency while Jadunath’s imprisonment and death symbolises the victims of the Left who were rounded up, persecuted and made to disappear.

Armed with this new wider historical and political context, Dr Mukherjee resists the unruly demands of the superintendent, arguing he cannot operate on Jethia’s son until he has seen and verified the papers. Dr Mukherjee recognises a case of conditional donation is not only an ethical issue and unmasks the entitled political machinations of Jethia in getting what he wants and at all costs. Nonetheless, the superintendent takes Dr Mukherjee out of the equation and assigns the operation to another surgeon. It is only later when Jethia reads a hospital file does he come to realise the donating party is none other than Jadunath, which horrifies him to such an extent that he cancels the operation. This discovery by Jethia leads to the second of two flashbacks. In this flashback Jadunath is at loggerheads with the owners of the factory and refuses to deal with any kind of revisionism to the demands of the workers, demarcating his intense political integrity and incorruptible nature for which he will have to pay a price. The thought of his son inheriting the eyes of a supposed criminal leads to further outrage, and in a final act of defilement, Jethia instructs his goons to steal the eyes from the hospital and dispose of them, which they do, burying the eyes as if to silence and smother what remains of Jadunath’s political dissent. For the establishment particularly capitalism, the physical destruction of Jadunath has to be totalizing since it comes to exist as proof of not only their unspeakable dread but paralysing omnipotence.

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Chidambaram (1985, Dir. Govindan Aravindan, India [Tamil])

When Shivagami (Smita Patil) arrives at a Mooraru government run farmhouse in Niligri as a newly wedded bride she is enamoured by the mountainous landscapes and in these fleeting moments of rapture Aravindan carves and crafts this awakening as a synchronic event that ties Shivagami to nature, an elemental conceptualization. Chidambaram is structured as a classical parable and morality tale on fragile masculinities with a latent critique of caste politics while retaining characteristic poetic refrains that define Aravindan’s rhythmical approach. It is a work that remains largely transcendentally tactile with bird song punctuating the soundtrack in an everlasting chorus of repose. Lensed by regular DOP Shaji N. Karun, the impressionistic photography imbues the film with a painterly texture, a classic Aravindan signature.   

In an early sequence, Shankaran (Gopi), a superintendent of the farm, invites Muniyandi (Srinivas), a lower caste labourer, to have an evening drink with him. Jacob, the bigoted farm supervisor, objects to the presence of Muniyandi, openly revealing his casteist prejudices. While Shankaran ignores Jacob’s hostile sentiments, Muniyandi seems to belittle himself when he spontaneously bursts into a song lamenting his enslavement to the master, a gesture that makes Shankaran uncomfortable, hinting at the complicated hypocrisies at work in the shredded mentality of the men. When Muniyandi gets married and requests an extended leave so he can consummate his new relationship, Jacob arrives prematurely at Muniyandi’s home and instructs him to return immediately while lecherously sizing up his new bride. Smita Patil typically underplays, exuding an intelligence and naivety that marks Shivagami as incorruptible.

It is Muniyandi and Shivagami’s lower caste status that makes them susceptible to an exploitation that incorporates Shankaran as the unlikely perpetrator, reiterating the ways in which casteism is systemic and omnipresent. The dynamics between Shivagami and Shankaran, which is framed as a friendship, is only hinted at briefly as something far more sexual, in a flashback insert when Shankaran wanders aimlessly in search of absolution for his transgression. Muniyandi’s realisation that someone has visited Shivagami when he is at work on night duty is depicted elliptically, Aravindan refusing to explicitly point out who it might be. For a lowly caste oppressed labourer like Muniyandi all that matters is his honour, which he is convinced resides in his sanctity of marriage and his wife. While it comes as a shock to discover that it is Shankaran who has strips away what little dignity Muniyandi has left, the wound of betrayal that is inflicted is a traumatic one, nightmarishly visualised in the dreaded image of Muniyandi swinging from a rope in the cow shed, having committed suicide in an insufferably tragic act of self-destruction.

The final third details the residual psychological deterioration of Shankaran who is consumed by the terrifying, debilitating guilt of his actions, which in turns leads him on a haphazard metaphysical journey for absolution. When Shankaran looks upon the dead body of poor Muniyandi he bolts through the forest in horror, trying desperately to block out the blinding dagger like rays of sunlight streaming through the trees and subsequently throwing himself into a pool of water, a symbolic gesture, so to cleanse himself of his misdeeds. The sacred, ancient Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is where an aging Shankaran retreats, coming face to face with Shivagami, a haunting mythological moment that arguably represents Shivagami as an ethereal yet tortured figure. Carrying with her the mark of violence left by her late husband, Shivagami’s supernatural appearance is arguably a projection of Shankaran’s painful imaginings trying in vain to reconcile with a past from which he cannot escape no matter how greatly he seeks exoneration.