KADAKH (Dir. RAJAT KAPOOR, 2019, India) [spoilers]

There is a dead body in your apartment but you have a plethora of guests arriving for a party to celebrate Diwali very shortly. So what exactly do you do? It is a sinister dilemma faced by somewhat ordinary people going through a tinderbox of emotions. In other words, the perfect Hitchcockian predicament since the extraordinary is often critical to the notion of building suspense, sustaining dramatic tension and reeling in your audience. The first thing that sprung to my mind when watching Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh, a devilishly scripted black comedy about middle class hypocrisy, was the visual design of the apartment including the costumes and décor, refracted and unified through differing shades of violet (sometimes symbolically associated with reincarnation in terms of Indian culture), infusing the film with an unconventional aesthetic tone. The use of violet also stretches to the autumnal colours which undoubtedly creates a muted colour scheme very much in line with the macabre undertones of Sunil’s (Ranvir Shorey) infidelities. With much of the narrative unfolding within one confined space, the piercing claustrophobic ambience amplifies the atrocious secret that Sunil and Maalti (Mansi Multani) have to conceal while the real time Diwali festivities which are organised around a series of impromptu short conversations between friends and family captures the banal small talk rituals of middle class India with their shallow, stunted aspirations.

As more people arrive at the Diwali party, tensions and rivalries come to the fore, culminating in the gut wrenching moment when the trunk holding the dead body (a certain nod to Hitchcock’s Rope) is dragged into the living room to act as a makeshift table for a game of cards, all of this juxtaposed to the aghast Sunil and Maalti. Both Shorey and Multani are excellent, conveying dread and unease as they precariously navigate the party, trying their best to placate the prickly house guests who in turn have brought their own complicated psychological baggage. When Sunil’s infidelity is finally unmasked by Maalti and openly scolded by his friends for such a betrayal, the admission of the dead body that has been with them the whole time provokes an outcry of revulsion. And although Sunil’s unforgivable crimes are roundly critiqued by his friends, the consensus forged at the end to essentially stage a conspiracy and save face amounts to a discordant analysis of middle class pretence; reputation, privilege and friendship are the values that take precedent. In a masterstroke at the end of the film Rajat succeeds in condensing and staging the emotional landscape of the wounded characters into an audacious single master shot, part tableaux, evoking the Epic cinema of Shahani.

Kadakh continues a consistent and richly diverse series of director-actor collaborations between Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey beginning with Mixed Doubles in 2006, and is a work that holds its own against brilliant films like Mithya (2008), arguably a key work in the development of Indian independent cinema, and which for some reason is never really talked about enough. In some respects, Rajat manages to get the best out of Shorey in many of the films they have worked on together, nurturing and coercing a darkly comedic vein that in turn demonstrates Rajat’s exceptional capacity to work in the comedy form with an understated elegance that tips into the grotesque with often surreal results.

AWAARA / THE VAGABOND / THE TRAMP (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1951, India)

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The Kapoor dynasty continues to be measured against the hugely popular cinema of Raj Kapoor and one can see why such a truism exists when isolating the brilliance of a film like ‘Awaara’. Though the 1956 film, ‘Jagte Raho’, may certainly have been imbued with a sense of outrage directed against social equality and also seemed to offer a more ideologically inclined manifesto keeping in line with the emergence of neo realism, it was the Kapoor directed 1951 spectacle ‘Awaara’ that blended poverty as a theme with expressionist melodramatic fantasies to produce cinema that bridged the gap between realism and escapism. RK Studios came of age in the early 1950s with the production and release of their first film ‘Awaara’ which unexpectedly opened to international critical acclaim. The generic label of showman often associated with Raj Kapoor detracts greatly from taking such a film maker seriously as an influential auteur who succeeded at marrying the traditions of Hollywood narrative cinema with melodramatic concerns. With ‘Awaara’, Raj Kapoor not only mastered the art of mainstream melodrama but he was able to outline and refine a template that is still being imitated today.

With a script by the celebrated and influential neo realist writer and film maker K A Abbas, who would remain central to Raj Kapoor’s career, ‘Awaara’ is essentially a story about a bullish patriarch who ostracises both his wife and son for personal prejudices, formidably articulating the social anxieties of class and caste that plagued a post partition Nehruite society. Such a familial estrangement finds a startling and feverish manifestation in the stark, monochrome compositions evident in the opening sequences, with much of the imagery recalling both Welles, Toland and film noir. Daringly mounted as a first production in a studio that had yet to be completed, Raj Kapoor’s handling of the ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ dream sequence is an astonishing achievement in terms of set design, choreography and thematic trickery. Additionally, the uncompromising ending in which the figure of the vagabond remains a prisoner of class prejudice is principally remarkable for a mainstream film that offered audiences the romantic on screen star pairing of Raj Kapoor and the iconic Nargis. A spirited classic.

ANKHON DEKHI / THROUGH MY OWN EYES (Rajat Kapoor, 2014, India) – As Never Before

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The ascent of Hindie cinema, a funky way of saying Indian Independent Cinema, is not a fresh occurrence. It is appealing to write about Hindie cinema in terms of the ways in which funding has opened up for independent filmmakers. But as I have noted before the story of Indian Independent Cinema has its geneses in the 1990s when directors like Rajat Kapoor had already started to make Hindie films. A graduate of the Film and Television institute, Kapoor closes his latest feature with a dedication to his film teachers: Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Kapoor may have been one of the last directors of the 1990s new wave generation to have such illustrious teachers. Whereas Kaul and Shahani were perhaps filmmakers in the avant-garde mode, their faculty to make films on their own terms is a likely source of inspiration for many independent filmmakers trying to break through into an over crowded indie scene. To date, Kapoor has made six feature films and five shorts, many of which he has written. The 2003 film Raghu Romeo indubitably marked him out as an exciting talent. Unfortunately, his talents have gone unnoticed expressly in terms of the current discourse on Hindie cinema. Kapoor has also worked as an actor in order to supplement his ambitions as a director. Incidentally, he is a very fine actor indeed.

His latest film, Ankhon Dekhi, a semi philosophical dark comedy, mixing Bergman, Fellini and De Sica into an exact story about family, self identity and life reiterates Kapoor’s capacity to juggle the art of comedy along with a darker vein of social realism. Is it hardly surprising Ankhon Dekhi never saw the light of day in terms of UK distribution? Not really. Anything remotely stimulating or dissimilar in terms of content is simply a death sentence for Indian independent films these days. Hindie films like Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, and The Lunchbox all appeared in UK cinema screens as an expression of tokenism with star names like Aamir Khan propelling them onto the festival circuit with ease. The other point to make is that Ankhon Dekhi is far more idiosyncratic than the films I have just mentioned, as they all seem to replicate a familiar indie aesthetic and patent visual look that makes them far more attractive to audiences in the west since they can easily recognise something within them that they have seen before in British or American independent cinema. Personally, I feel the poster to Ankhon Dekhi should have mentioned Bergman, Fellini and De Sica as that may have certainly piqued the interests of a cinephile crowd at least and given the film somekind of platform from which to self promote its many filmic accomplishments. The real star of the film is Sanjay Mishra’s career defining performance.