Saturday, November 01, 2014

Filimstaan - Why competence is sometimes not enough

I finally saw Filmistaan – two friends starred as the terrorists keeping the hostage. I was surprised that it turned to be quite watchable (the trailer did dreadful injustice to it), managing to engage me from the first scene to the last. Given the stasis inherent in the plot – a man being held in a rude brick cell almost through the length of the film, with only a few ramshackle huts and the desert beyond – I thought that the screenplay was good, the acting and direction capable. It definitely deserved a watch in the hall. But unfortunately, it never rose above this level of competence.
The issue with me was that the film set itself up so that it could never rise beyond the level it was being played at. The protagonists – Sunny Arora, a wannabe-actor from Bollywood held hostage in a border-post Pakistani village, and a Pakistani bootlegger of Indian films – are that and that alone. The fact that Sunny is Punju explains everything about him. Their inner narratives, their dialogue, almost never rises beyond the simplistic paradigms of their shared obsession, Bollywood, and since the plot does not allow for too many moments beyond these for character development, in the end, their characters and their relationship seem too easily arrived at; worse, contrived.
We never see Sunny’s isolation beyond his empty-headed optimism, nationalism and nostalgia. The thought of imminent death over many days does not change him, make him introspect deeper beyond a confession of knowing he was a bad actor all along. No relationship – friend, family – is mentioned beyond a brief brush with an old hakim where the two reminisce about the lives they left beyond the border. We never really get to know Sunny, the hero, forget the bootlegger. It seemed that Nitin (the writer-director) was just not interested in building the characters beyond the competent first-ideas.
And so you have the same clichés someone in Alaska who’s seen five-six of such stuff can write – what did Sunny remember his grandfather telling him about Lahore – Jinnne Lahore nai dekhiya... blahblah – that’s it. What do the protagonists talk about when they realise the irrationality of the border – the dreamteam with Sachin and Inzi opening. And these are two instances I remember because they ending up mediocratising some potentially very-good scenes building up. (The latter almost hurriedly stanching a potentially powerful turn when, to Sunny’s musing of what might have happened if the partition had not happened, the bootlegger darkly replies that rivers of blood would have flown then.)
And since besides these brief superficial excursions into their real lives, the fantasies they discuss are not exactly world cinema, or even stuff like Filmistaan itself, the depth of their inner worlds revealed in these fantasies remains at the level of Maine Pyaar Kiya and KKHH they watch together. No ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ here where the fantastic dialogic world the protagonists build to escape the reality reveals almost everything about them.
I am reading some collected stream-of-consciousness oral narratives from Rajasthani villagers these days. The stuff is so, so dense with overlapping references to their lands, their cattle, their folklore, their society, their history – the various categories and norms of their world – a world as rich as any, with its own grammar and vocabulary. If only the filmmaker had cared to dig these worlds out for his two protagonists a little deeper. If he had researched more to imagine them beyond first ideas, and brought forth what people from such two different worlds, overlapping but not quite, might really experience and share under this extreme and peculiar circumstance.
But alas. And so, as so many times before, a film in my mothertongue again settles for competency and I have to go back to the old favourites or scout elsewhere for true transcendental greatness.