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.

Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal / The Evil Deeds of Cherian (Dir. John Abraham, 1979, India [Malayalam]

Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.

Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.

Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.

Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.

The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.

IN WHICH ANNIE GIVES IT THOSE ONES (1989, India, Dir. Pradip Krishen)

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Annie is the nickname of Anand Grover, a laidback and idealistic student training to be an architect and who also happens to have a chicken living in his dorm that lays eggs. This is one of many idiosyncratic characters that we encounter. In which Annie gives it those ones, contender for the quirkiest film title ever conceived, has taken on a mythical status amongst Parallel Cinema aficionados, a cult film from the late 1980s partially funded by Doordarshan. Legend has it the film only survives on existing video copies circulating through subterranean channels, allusiveness that adds to the mystique and cult status, along with SRK’s first screen role as a stoner.

Set in the 1970s and with a script by Arundhati Roy and who also stars in the film, it was the second of only two feature length collaborations between Roy and director Pradip Krishen. Roy’s script is very personal, a semi autobiographical take on the counter culture experiences of her time at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, a benign institution symbolised in the character of Yamdoot Bilmoria (the brilliant Roshan Seth), a Head of Department who is lofty and disingenuous towards his students, and a remnant of colonial power and pretentious etiquettes. Adopting an episodic structure, the rapport amongst the students is wonderfully brought to life with Roy and Krishen choosing to present the dorms as an extended hippy commune with pot smoking loafers who embrace the joys of youthful cynicism, sticking up two fingers at the establishment.

Roy takes up the role of Radha, a young trainee architect who has the most scathing political voice, attempting to critique the ideological usage of space in urban planning and what this heralds for the citizen. But Yamdoot effectively censures Radha. Later when Radha gets the chance to polemicize as part of the final exam, Yamdoot and his panel of all male professors are more interested in the dinner menu than affording her the chance to speak her mind. An underlining theme that steadily gains momentum is the farcical nature of civil and government institutions that largely promote conformity and discourage dissent but it is exactly this speaking out against the prevailing powers that be which has made Roy such a significant political activist and voice in India.

Punctuated with covers of The Beatles, an eclectic ensemble cast and end titles that seem to recall American Graffiti (1973), this is a cult film that occupies the similarly eccentric comedic terrain of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Together, they make the perfect double bill.

MATINEE (Dir. Joe Dante, 1993, US) – Cold War Creature Comforts

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Joe Dante is by far the most mischievous of the filmmakers spawned by exploitation maestro Roger Corman. Unlike his contemporaries Dante has made fewer films. His oeuvre is characterised by a darkly satirical edge and his nightmarish representations of American suburbia have run contrary to the mainstream. Consider the way he smuggles a creepiness about Reagan’s America into a populist film like Gremlins but all with a sense of anarchic fun. Dante’s mischief did him no favours with the studios so it was lucky directors turned producers like Spielberg shared such zany and cartoonish tendencies. Both Gremlins and Innerspace were backed by Spielberg and Amblin. Dante’s finest satire is his 1993 film Matinee and it is a terrific genre film that deals with three of my favourite cinematic themes; childhood, politics and cinema. The backdrop is the cold war era and the Cuban missile crisis. As tension between America and Russia escalates, a small town in Key West Florida anticipates the arrival of B movie horror director Lawrence Woolsey (a riff on Hitchcock and played by John Goodman) with his latest shlock flick Mant (a man who is exposed to radiation and an ant). A young boy Gene, whose father is part of the US navy assigned to defend American waters, is a lover of cinema especially bad horror movies. Gene prefers his movies to girls and when Woolsey comes to town Gene confesses an unhealthy love of the horror genre. Dante juxtaposes the imminent threat of the atom bomb to the way cinema offers fictional solutions and escapist diversions; it’s a potent satirical combination since Woolsey’s horror creation Mant is an anxious manifestation of nuclear radiation. Woolsey makes no excuses for the way he exploits and benefits from the pervasive climate of cold war anxiety, producing films that are hyperbolic and demented. The local cinema, owned by a neurotic manager, has only one screen and caters to mostly the adolescent school kids who converge on the screening of Mant turning the auditorium into a controlled chaos. Woolsey’s plans of self promotion involves placing buzzers under seats, using his own state of the art Rumble-rama and getting the town’s delinquent to don a rubbery Mant suit. In case you’re wondering, yes, all three succeed in convincing an observant cinema chain owner to invest in Woolsey’s taste for theatrics. Dante’s nostalgic depiction of cinema going is one to be savoured as it is the cinema theatre that becomes a microcosm of the town’s various social, political and personal dilemmas. The ending is also powerfully self reflexive demonstrating with great fun the way audiences can be duped so easily by the most seductive of illusions. Also watch out for the terrific cameo by director John Sayles.