The worker as drone is a familiar enough image these days, ubiquitous with the way corporate companies suffocate the life out of its employees so that they can maximise profits. The worker drone, dispossessed of all pleasure, is drolly captured in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City.
The first story eponymously titled ‘The Fun Committee’ is a darkly comedic parable featuring a deadpan absurdist turn by Vinay Pathak, synthesizing Tati and Kaurismaki into a sardonic comment on the emptiness of office culture, shopping malls and consumerist hedonism. Oberoi even has a go at terrorism. In this first story Oberoi uncovers that most ideologies induce systemic structures imposing a rigour that inevitably cultivates fascistic practices in both the private and public sphere.
Ghost in the Machine, the second story, is the best of the three. A major theme linking the three stories is that of imprisonment; societal anxieties entomb all three characters, repressing desires. The second story is a melodrama about the middle class figure of the repressed housewife who is re-centred as an agent and catalyst for reconstituting the family along altruistic lines. Oberoi’s instructive skill with this second story is the way she parallels the misery and euphoria of the family with the fictional popular Indian soap ‘Purshottam: The Ideal Man’, a parochial, mythological paradigm. This complicated narrative address juxtaposes the fictional utopian constructions of masculinity with the painful realities of an oppressive vision of the despotic Indian husband. With the man of the real family in a coma, liberates the family, but leaves them with a final decision that Oberoi frames incongruently. The final episode is also sensitively observed, a bittersweet deconstruction of romance that narrates the story of an impoverished young girl searching for an idea of love, which cannot exist in such a hopeless lower class milieu.
The portmanteau form is well suited to tales about the city and this has become a popular narrative mode in Indian independent cinema, having spawned a cycle of films including Shor in the City, Dhobi Ghat, Peddlers to name a few. Island City signals an exciting new talent in the shape of director Ruchika Oberoi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, and this is a compelling first work. Performances by Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash are notable.
Kalki Koechlin’s rise has been somewhat meteoric and deservedly so in many respects. She is a fine actress and her 2010 collaboration with husband-director Anurag Kashyap on That Girl in Yellow Boots (the title refers to the yellow Doc Martins worn by Koechlin) suggests she will inevitable shift into filmmaking. Koechlin wrote the screenplay with Kashyap and she is also the main lead. The story involves Ruth Edscer (Koechlin) who comes to India in search of her father who abandoned her in England a long time ago. Ruth finds work in a massage parlour to supplement her obsessive attempts to track down her father. For a film that was shot in just 13 days, the end product is exceptional and much of the iconoclastic spirit generated by the film is largely down to Kashyap’s ability to improvise with both locations and narrative. Many of Kashyap’s films including Satya (for which he wrote the screenplay), Dev D, No Smoking, Black Friday and Gulaal have a strong visual style that comes directly out of the topography of the modern Indian city notably Mumbai. And what makes his representations of the city so distinctive is the unconventional choice of locations – the living and breathing milieu of alleyways, bars, apartments and roads construct a dystopian melting point. Given the narrative revolves around a search, Kashyap let’s his camera roam through the underbelly of Mumbai as Ruth goes about her quest to find her father. Not to over emphasise Kashyap’s authorial contributions, this film is very much an important collaboration between actor and director. Apparently, the trigger for the story was from Koechlin having experienced the judgemental gaze a white girl or foreigner can be subjected to in a city like Mumbai – a point made expressively transparent in the opening minutes. Koechlin is not your typical Indian film lead and for an actress, she is even more unconventional in terms of her looks. I think this is what makes her quite appealing and starkly distinctive when compared to many of the contemporary film actresses. Koechlin is prepared to take a risk. In the film, working in a massage parlour, Ruth resorts to performing a ‘handshake’ for her male clients at the price of 1,000 rupees.
Very few Indian actresses would be prepared to breach such an on screen taboo in fear of losing either box office credibility or deconstructing their star image. In one point in the film, Ruth is told by someone she is a cross between ‘bugs bunny and Julia Roberts’, to which Ruth replies, ‘I like bugs bunny’. It is obvious from this exchange that Koechlin feels very self aware about her looks and is not afraid of using reflexivity as a performance device. Ruth is an outsider and her encounters with all of the men in the film presents us with some unsavoury characters such as a drug addict, demented gangster and a self righteous elderly man. Perhaps Ruth’s position as an outsider is extenuated by the anxious representations of male identity – they all want or need something from Ruth. If Ruth’s relationships with the men in the film points to a familiar theme of patriarchal exploitation then the final revelation at the end suggests that masculinity is altogether more corrupt, perverse and archaic than first imagined. Unfortunately, the film was never released in UK cinemas and was not given much of a distribution in India. I guess we could say the same for Kashyap’s best work to date such as Gulaal. That Girl in Yellow Boots was partly financed by NFDC and it is an iconoclastic art film with a dark subject matter. The most direct link between the film and parallel cinema of the past is the presence of stalwart Naseeruddin Shah. Kashyap is such an exciting and uncompromising new voice in Indian cinema and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming gangster project. What separates Kashyap from his contemporaries is innovation, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.
Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film Shanghai is a brave attempt at the political thriller genre. The film adapts the 1967 novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, which was made into a film in 1969 by Costas Gavras, and updates the material to contemporary India. Weaving together the lives of four key characters, the narrative focuses on the murder of an outspoken social activist and charismatic leader Dr. Ahmadi. The murder of Ahmadi by the major political party, which is running for election, brings together filmmaker (specialising in porn films) Joginder (Emraan Hashmi) who was present at the time of Ahmadi’s murder, Ahmadi’s staunch supporter Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an emerging civil servant. The murder of Ahmadi, which takes place as a spectacle before the eyes of his supporters, results in the current government implementing an enquiry headed up by Krishnan into the Ahmadi’s killing. It is only later that Krishnan discovers that the enquiry was set up primarily by the current government as a way of covering up the crime since it involves the Chief Minister. Joginder and Shalini’s amateurish investigation lifts the lid on a quagmire of corrupt politics with the main political party, the IBP, using its members to intimidate and kill Ahmadi while attempting to cover up the truth. Ahmadi’s concerns seem real enough, arguing that the government’s longing to steal land that belongs to the oppressed underclass of India so that it can be used for an expensive infrastructure project is very much about corporate expansionism. Ideologically, Ahmadi’s outspoken political position makes him a target and the silencing of his voice is familiar signs of a government that cannot offer protection to those who speak out against prevailing economic and social interests.
Director Banerjee succeeds in capturing the nexus of power relations that intersects amongst the people of a city in a state of unease and on the edge of self-destruction. For me the weak link in the film is Kalki Koechlin who plays Shalini. Her character seems underwritten and the role she plays in the narrative should have been more critical and dynamic. Additionally, Kalki is miscast in the role of Shalini unlike Emraan Hashmi who is effectively creepy as an unsavoury amateur filmmaker. When Shalini and Joginder finally present their audio and visual evidence to the enquiry it falls upon Krishnan to take action. At first Krishnan is coerced into accepting that the enquiry set up to deal with the murder of Ahmadi be closed due to lack of evidence. Krishnan is trying to forge himself a political career, which is expedited by the backing of the Chief Minister who appoints him as an adviser to the government. Banerjee dares to debate a very important issue in India today, that of development, and the price the oppressed have to pay so that the ruling elite can continue to rule unequivocally and with a frightening impunity. Shanghai is certainly his most ambitious film to date and what makes it one of the best Indian films of the year are the closing moments in which the juxtaposition between development and dissent coalesce into a terrifying reality.