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View from Venice
An Indian Juror in De Sica Land
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Anurag Kashyap

It would seem strange that writer-director Anurag Kashyap who was once intensely moved by Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist “Bicycle Thieves” should face another Italian turning point. He will be on the jury of no less a festival than Venice.

Come September, Kashyap would be in the heart of De Sica country. He would be part of the main six-member international jury, headed by Ang Lee (“Lust Caution”, “Brokeback Mountain”). For Anurag, the journey from Mumbai to Venice was not easy.

During the 1990s, when he was in Delhi studying to be a scientist, he was not an angry young man, but a depressed soul, who tried elevating his mood through drink and drugs. Probably, these did not quite work, or, at best, they kept him floating just for a little while. And when he landed with a thud, he found himself in Jana Natya Manch, a Left-wing street theatre which men like Safdar Hashmi promoted and died for. Kashyap did several plays with the group. But he remained restless and perplexed.

It was the 1993 International Film Festival of India which his friends forced him to watch that provided the balm for his restiveness. He saw 50-odd movies in 10 days, and one of them was the De Sica classic. It created magic in his mind.

He says: “I saw movies from all different perspectives and in a way you can say that these films changed my life and it’s meaning completely for me. Just that one movie festival (and that one film), and I decided that this is what I want to be a part of. In the next five months I was in Mumbai”.

With just about five thousand rupees in his pocket, the man with a mission to make something out of his life gone haywire reached Mumbai in 1993 only to spend several months on the streets, sleeping in the beaches, sometimes under water tanks. Many failures later – which included ‘no’ for acting and aborted plays – he met Ram Gopal Varma who took a fancy for the young man and asked him to script “Satya”. This led to more writing: Kashyap penned dialogues for Mani Ratnam’s “Yuva” and Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated “Water” among others.

However, it was “Black Friday” that put him in the spotlight. For the wrong and the right reason. Based on the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings – believed to have been a revenge for the earlier riots in the city where Muslims were butchered — the movie was based on facts and talks about the aftermath of the bloody incident. In a docu-style, Kashyap plots the police investigation led by Deputy Commissioner Rakesh Maria. It was a gripping work aided by two strong performances, those of Kay Kay Menon as the cop and Pawan Malhotra essaying Tiger Memon.

“Black Friday” remained in the cans for two years, because the Censor Board would not certify it. When it finally opened in 2004, it was rapturously applauded, and British helmer Danny Boyle was inspired to base a chase scene in “Slumdog Millionaire” on one in “Black Friday”.

Kashyap has made a few more films, but they have not been as stirring as “Black Friday”. His 2007 “No Smoking”, adapted from Stephen King’s 1978 short story, “Quitters, Inc”, literally went over many heads. He told me just before I watched it that he had said a lot of things in it in a disguised, guarded fashion. He was obviously smarting from the two-year delay in getting “Black Friday” released. The movie about the John Abraham character being pushed into an unusually strange rehab centre to get him out of the nicotine addiction was too sophisticated for an Indian audience, hardly ever encouraged to think by writers and directors.

So Kashyap experimented with something easier on the mind and came up with “Dev D”, a contemporary account of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s early 20th century “Devdas”, beaten to pulp by masters and minors. What was most notable about this movie was Kashyap’s neat twist in the end that lifted the age-old story from tragedy and defeatism to a refreshingly new high. He neatly wove into it a strong woman character in Paro, sexually liberated and fearless in her commitment. Nobody could miss the messages, although some of them were hidden in suggestive actions. Here is one: frustrated Paro furiously pumping water!

“Dev D” will be part of a sidebar at Venice. So too “Gulaal”, Kashyap’s latest considered to be his angriest, though not his best. Based in Rajasthan, it has far too many players ranging from nobles to students all caught in a web of greed, arrogance and bravado.

Some of the scenes are brutal: a young woman professor striped naked by students and imprisoned in a room along with an equally nude boy. Exploring the dynamics of authoritarianism versus liberalism, Kashyap tries placing India in a certain perspective that many may not agree. Often abstract, the film has a colour palette that reminded me of Wong Kar-wai’s: the bizarre mixing of hues.

Kashyap may or may not have picked up this trait consciously, but his cameo appearances a la Hitchcock, make it difficult not to draw a parallel between the two. The Indian director appears in most of his movies for a few minutes. Other than this, no Hitchcockian style is discernable. But Kashyap has far to go, and much more to prove.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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