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.

GURGAON (Dir. Shanker Raman, 2017, India) – The Horrors of Economic Liberalization

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Gurgaon is a vicious, nihilistic denunciation of India’s on going project of economic liberalization. I didn’t know much about Gurgaon but I soon discovered it is an emerging place for business and technology. This may not be important to our viewing pleasure but this film is very much about what Gurgaon symbolises in India right now – the question of economic progress. This vexing socio-economic question is articulated through the story of the landowner who is seduced by and concedes to capitalist overtures. In many ways, the story is a flipside to Bimal Roy’s pathbreaking Do Bigha Zamin, the definitive tale of capitalism vs. the worker, in which the peasant farmers go to extraordinary lengths to protect and hold on to land they have helped to cultivate over generations. The ending to Do Bigha Zamin sees the defeat of the farmer in the face of the inevitability of modernization, progress and capitalism. Whereas Bimal Roy suggested that resistance to industrialization was futile, the economic liberalization that we witness in Gurgaon is a corrosive phenomenon. The gambit of real estate development and exploitation has led to the creation of a new Indian elite that seems to be completely lost and vacant, unable to function at all other than as sociopaths.

Director Shanker Raman brings a chilling touch to the staging of the family scenes – a deadening paralysis, a result of infanticide and new elitist arrogance, conjures a family of sleepwalkers, notably the cruel men. Is this the new India that had been promised to the farmers, peasants and workers? Morally bankrupt, violent and bleak. The neo noir aesthetic and non-linear narrative of Gurgaon recalls recent films like Peddlers, Titli, Mantra, Moh Maya Money and The Hungry. But these are not the only tentative similarities shared by this cycle of films. Perhaps more significant is the ugly face of economic liberalization juxtaposed against the milieu of a new urban elite in which a betrayal of ancestry and the nation has led to the sadistic implosion of the family unit. There is also a grotesque quality to these films; the lecherous face of masculinity and wanton sadism is manifested in exhibitions of misogyny. Arguably, in Gurgaon, the only fully alive people are the women, although the mother and daughter are also unsurprising victims. And it is up to the mother to restore a grudging social order at the end as if to redress the fatalism of economic liberalization. In doing so, the ending to Gurgaon recalls Mother India (1957) but with a vehemently self-destructive twist.

Raman’s film has strong overtures of the horror genre, a satirical horror on capitalism perhaps. I have tried impressionistically to note a few of the more obvious characteristics of this loose cycle of films. But how do we label such films? The tropes of melodrama still prevail no matter how deftly Gurgaon fuses noir and horror. In some respects, this is why so much of Indian cinema has never been delineated along strict genre lines. It is a magnificently porous cinema that throws up a plethora of genre anomalies and delights. There is one overarching theme though. This is to do with the youth, expressly disenchantment with politics, family and society. But since this is largely a middle and upper class representation, sympathy for such youthful anxieties is partial. One fascinating sub-plot that lingered in my mind involves the character of Jonty (Yogi Singha), a destitute man from the slums, who is hired to kidnap the only daughter of Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). What this sub-plot points to is the static reality of socio-economic exploitation in which the people from the slums are instrumentalized to keep in check their own oppression. We come to discover real estate development, a corrupt enterprise, has meant the disappearance of the poorest people, their land swallowed up in the name of progress. The analogy between capitalism and the horror genre is not new – both Marx and Lenin made the equivocation. And it is a socio-political equation that marks the insidious ways, in which capitalism is a self-devouring force in Gurgaon, clearing a path in which greed, corruption and entitlement are vestiges of a new nation.

The spectre of classic Indian cinema resurfaces in one of the penultimate shots of a pathetic plaque that is erected to memorialize the death of Preeto (Ragini Khaana), the adopted daughter of Kheri Singh. But this is not a sacrifice for the good of the nation that is alluded to at the end of Mehboob’s Mother India when Radha is present for the opening of a new dam. After all, the imagery of blood at the end of Mother India remains a tangible afterthought in the name of progress. Just as the price of blood remains as fresh and vivid as the one spilt on the land and witnessed by Radha in Mother India, the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who helped to erect the new metropolises of India are invisible, there is no plague to memorialize their spirit and contribution. The land that once spoke of sacrifice, toil and labour, now reeks of an unchecked violence, corruption and murder. But capitalism, economic liberalization, hedonism, all seem to have forgotten about one thing which they are unable to corrupt or defile, which is the mother. Whereas Sukhilala’s defeat, the parasitic moneylender in Mother India, has won out over the course of time, as evidenced in the narrative of economic liberalization, the mother in Indian cinema remains indubitably visible and embedded as a symbol of resistance on many different fronts. Is it not safe to say then Radha’s gunshot that slays Birju still reverberates and finds a distant yet eerie echo in the contemporary imaginings of the nation in Indian cinema.

It is worth mentioning that Gurgaon is the directorial debut of award winning cinematographer Shanker Raman (Harud, Frozen, Peepli Live). Sadly, the film did not get a UK cinema release but is now on Netflix. I haven’t seen an amazing amount of Indian films of late but Gurgaon really stands out in terms of its terrifying political discourse.

MACHINES (Dir. Rahul Jain, 2016, India/Germany/Finland)

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The worker as machine is not a new phenomenon. It goes as far back as the industrial revolution. But I have to admit though. I thought this documentary was going to be about the singularity of the physical, industrial and technological symbolism of machines. It still is in some respects. But Rahul Jain trains his eye on translating the processes of manufacture, waste and labour into a hypnotically poetic synthesis of the toils and uncertain rituals of economic liberalisation. And what rises to the surface through a series of revelatory interviews with the factory workers in particular is a voice that speaks not of Marxist revolution but of the want for better (and safer) working conditions, a reasonable work shift, and acknowledgement from the boss that they exist. The interviews with the workers are interspersed with observational footage in the labyrinthine textile factory, relaying a socio-political discourse aligned to a wider social conscience. But this sort of comes undone towards the end. In an instant, the quizzical workers reduce the filmic apparatus to an obsolete ideological entity – deftly overturning the gaze of the documentarian and raising doubts about the ethical validity of the entire project. Machines is a tactile work that has a remarkable tempo that draws you in with its sincere political testimony of the migratory, factory worker. A masterful, accomplished exposition on the perpetual effects of globalisation.