What am I doing here? Alone at noon in a theatre, I feel disoriented. It is curiosity about Anurag Kashyap’s work after seeing ‘Dev D’ that has brought me here, as I am sure it has the others in the auditorium.
Within the first 20 minutes, Kay Kay Menon, Abhimanyu Singh and Deepak Dobriyal’s powerful performances, the landscape and the use of space, the play of light and shadow and the music have drawn me in despite my aversion to student politics films and a deja-vu effect from ‘Haasil’ and ‘Dil, Dosti, etc.’
There is no doubt that Anurag Kashyap has a firm grasp on the craft of film. Camera work, mise-en-scene, editing, performances, dialogue, credible minor and major characters and music, all create a world that is complete in itself.
But very soon the film begins to lurch clumsily into an excess of violence and abusive language. I think the film fails in holding together the various strands of narrative largely because Dilip Singh (Raj Singh Chaudhury) is a quasi-protagonist at best. He is an ineffective character, a coward and whiner, and while it is an unusual character rendered well, he fails to engage my attention.
He is too much a victim, he is ragged, he is dragged into a fight, he is forced to stand for elections, he is exploited in the power struggle between Dukey Menon and Karan (Aditya Srivastav) the illegitimate son of Raja Saheb. And when he does stand up for himself, it is only the frustrated rage of a betrayed lover.
Dilip Singh has neither the charm nor the innocence to make an audience root for him. And the story degenerates into more and more pointless violence. After you know that one person can be killed on the spur of the moment, then two, then three, the body count ceases to matter any more.
Ransa (Abhimanyu Singh) the legitimate son of Raja Saheb is a stronger, more vibrant character, with a loud bravado and open sexuality masking his real hatred for the feudal system and his more feudal father. He is both arrogant and yet vulnerable, living an “Amar Chitra Katha life” as he calls it. When Ransa is killed, the film flags.
And once again I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” The small fictional town in Rajasthan is not one I would visit of my own free will, even out of curiosity. Because there is no real place for a woman here. It is too machismo, too red, the red of blood, of betrayal, of power, of false honour and pride. Of violence and jingoistic patriotism.
Here sex is used as a tool of exploitation, and guns are the law of the land.
Anuja (Jesse Randhawa) is an assistant teacher who smokes weed and looks out of place in this small town. Perhaps that is the reason why she is ragged; she is too attractive to be a teacher and must be shown her place. Why she continues to stay there is unknown, we never really get to know her character as she comes and goes mysteriously. Yes, she shares a special bond with Dilip since they were ragged together. She likes him for what he is, and yet her relationship with him is tenuous and undemanding. One fails to understand what she is doing in the film.
Ayesha Mohan packs in quite a performance as the embittered bastard daughter of Raja Saheb being willingly used by her brother in the game of power. Here again, her pregnancy and abortion do nothing for the narrative, just adding another moment of pointless violence. However, her guitar-strumming persona is deeply rooted in this feudal world and to my mind, epitomizes the strange mix of tradition and modernity that all of us are.
Mahie Gill as the sensuous Madhuri, daytime beauty parlour owner and nighttime mujra dancer, mistress of Dukey Banna, and big fan of Tabu, is yet another thread in this narrative which ultimately serves no purpose. Neither does the wife (Jyoti Dogra) who sticks around patiently while she is ignored or insulted by her husband.
Anurag Kashyap has feisty, very real, unapologetic female characters, but here unlike in ‘Dev D’, they are overshadowed by the male violence.
The use of music in the film is solely through Piyush Mishra’s character, Prithvi Banna, an eccentric prince educated in the West, a John Lennon fan, and out-of-sorts in this violent, feudal world. Prithvi Banna is the voice of a collective conscience, pleading for rationality, peace, harmony. But the very fact that he is half mad and imprisoned in his home renders him ineffective. He remains a hapless witness.
The lyrics and music vocalize his concerns and while this device works well in some places like with the Aarambh or Raat ke Musafir tracks, it becomes raucous and heavy handed at others. The music never gets a chance to evoke emotion; it is too busy giving a message.
The track I hated the most was Duniya, a nerve-wracking rendition of the original soulful Sahir Ludhianvi track.
The fact that the film is inspired by the song Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye also makes me think that the film should have rightly belonged to Dukey Banna (Kay Kay Menon) and Prithvi Banna (Piyush Mishra). They represent the eternal war between greed and power and peace and harmony, between violence and music, between patriotism and poetry, between two brothers in the same house.
A particularly powerful moment is one when Dukey Banna stands alone in a silent rage, close to tears. You cannot help but feel what an unnatural effort is required to fuel an unnatural state of being, of living within a set of rigid beliefs about oneself, one’s community or one’s country.
Anurag chooses to end the film with the prevalence of power and violence. It’s not a choice I would have made, I can at best come away with a sigh of relief that I don’t live in these repressive conditions, with these characters who do not seem to have the option to leave.