Vasan Bala’s directorial debut premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 when Indian independent cinema was finally receiving the notice it merited transnationally. No one quite knows what happened to Peddlers in terms of finding distribution in both India and internationally. This remains a mystery yet points to one of the reasons why New Indian Cinema has not been embraced internationally; many of the key films have only just made it to the festival circuit and not reached cinema audiences. Peddlers is indubitably a crucial film in the fruition of the New Indian Cinema movement and the missing part of a filmic jigsaw puzzle helping to elucidate the iconoclastic intents of a young generation of bold Indian filmmakers. This is a very dark, very grim and very pitiless odyssey through a ghostly Mumbai populated by dreamers, outcasts and loners. Prior to directing Peddlers Bala assisted Anurag Kashyap and Michael Winterbottom (Trishna), which undoubtedly forged a healthy cinematic sensibility.
The narrative of Peddlers rotates around four characters; Ranjit, a Narcotics cop, Mandar, a middle class runaway teenager, Kuljeet, a married housewife and Bilkis, a migrant worker with terminal cancer. At first, Bala intercuts between these four characters in a seemingly unrelated way, gradually linking the stories through the Mumbai drug trade, finally connecting them unknowingly into a nexus of dissoluteness. Peddlers is a city film that reiterates a familiar class disparity; the interaction between the middle and lower class is both negative and destructive. Bala does use songs (lyrics by the talented Varun Grover) but sparingly and instinctively, complementing themes of loneliness and insecurity infecting the city’s anonymous inhabitants and their perilous emotional state.
Kashyap in particular is not afraid of flouting on screen cinematic taboos and much of the talent he has helped to cultivate share his proclivity for dealing with urban realisms habitually romanticised by mainstream Indian cinema. Arguably this comprises a gamut of traditional themes such as sexuality, identity, violence, gender, power and the subaltern experience re-presented in an unconventional narrative and visual style. In Peddlers, the urban noir cinematography by rising DOP Siddharth Diwan (Queen, Titli, Kahaani, The Lunchbox) shows us a contrary image of Mumbai in which the characters uncomfortably inhabit spaces, often projecting a personal disconnect that points to a wider sense of displacement epitomised in the transient Bilkis. All of the characters are grappling with self identity, trying but failing to carve out a trajectory through an impersonal Mumbai cityscape that can only offer an urban experience predicated on alienation. The only time when the city opens up in a traditional sense is during an exhilarating chase sequence through the slums, but then Bala undercuts this with a moment of horror that is relayed with a disturbing elliptical gravitas.
I want to return to my initial point about distribution. Peddlers seems to be without a UK distributor (or perhaps it does with Eros?) yet I have been lucky enough to see the film via festivalscope as a screener. However, we are now two years down the line and with many more Indian indie titles being released more regularly each month, the initial critical furore around Peddlers seems to have faded away which is a little frustrating for those involved and for such a significant film. Although Peddlers deserves a distribution deal and UK release, like much of New Indian Cinema, it’s status as a key film in the New Indian Cinema movement is a considerable achievement.