Friday, March 27, 2009

Gulaal by Anurag Kashyap

I can recall only a few realistic feature films about democracy and politics in India. Gulaal is a cross between realism and style, whereas New Delhi Times (Romesh Sharma, 1986), Woh Chokri (Subhankar Ghosh, 1994), Yeh Wo Manzil to Nahin (Sudhir Mishra, 1987) and Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) are exercises in realism without a self-conscious cinematic language.

Gulaal has a complex narrative. It has multiple protagonists, none of them black or white. The film does not have an explicit message. It, however, expresses the complexity of politics (gender, caste, state) and is ultimately a tragic film which offers no solutions.

The film is quite dense and though the narrative proceeds somewhat linearly, there are multiple parallel stories. There are stories of homes and parents and siblings, of young men and women, of politics and ambition, and of violence and retribution. This is a film with elliptical narrative streams.

The multiple characters are quite interesting and complex. The four main male characters in the film: Dukey Bana (the revolutionary), Ransa (the hedonist-escapist), Karan (the aggrieved lion in waiting) and Dileep (the impotent-introvert) are contrasted with the four female characters in the film: Madhuri (the appearance-centric one) Anuja (the angst-centric one), Kiran (the pragmatism-centric one), and Dukey's wife (the suffering one).

Gulaal, at least partially, is an oblique take on Mahabharata, but one in which the defeated are still alive.

If Karan is the Karna of Mahabharata, Dukey Bana is the Duryodhana (the similar sounding name would be too much of a coincidence). Pandavas (the democratic politicians taking turns at bedding Draupadi, the nation) have got their power through Vallabh Bhai Patel (the wily Krishna) and Duryodhana is assembling his army while Karna is plotting his revenge against both the Pandavas and Duryodhana.

Pandavas are now an institution, whereas Duryodhana and his 99 brothers are powerless. The film narrates the story of how Duryodhana seeks to reassert his power, and how Karna outwits him and takes his place. Whether Karna succeeds or not is left unsaid. What the film does say, however, is that there is no essential difference between the Pandavas and Kauravs in today's age, and that power has become an end in itself. At multiple points in the film, the question is raised, "Power to do what?", and the answer is strangely conspicuous by its absence. The question sounds absurd, and that is the whole point.

The tale is quite involving, though and one never knows how it will all end. Apart from keeping the audience guessing, the director seems to at times consciously defeat audience expectation (for example during the "respect the uniform" scene, where a policeman is murdered).

And being Anurag Kashyap, he is not too subtle about his surreal touches as well. I am not too sure if he has been inspired by Kubrick or Lynch, but some of his touches are going to be lost on Indian audiences. Observe the surreal costumes in Jadwal's room, or at Dukey Bana's home. Speaking of which, I found certain of these surreal juxtapositions jarring. In the middle of many a serious scene, the director seems to revel in expressing his surrealism, to the detriment of the film, I think.

Some cinematic flourishes do work, however. The poetry is quite funny (and thought-provoking), for example. And notice the names of the liquors in Ransa's bar (Liberty, Constitution, Republic). Some visual treats as well: the saturated colours, the playing around with the depth of field in various scenes, and the lighting. I particularly noted the spinning dots in Prithvi Bana's glasses when he is grieving towards the end.

However, just like Dev.D, I find the editing in the film a little too fast for me to properly appreciate certain compositions. For example, the arid landscape where Dileep and Ransa live should have been given a more patient treatment. Same goes for certain close-ups. Let the camera linger!

And like in Dev.D, the modern Indian woman is shown as subjectively aware, or rather, having a "soul" of her own. She is not merely a piece of furniture, even though she is treated like one at times.

I did find certain parts of the dialogue self-consciously crass. Normal folks don't use so many expletives. Mere expletives do not make for realism. The director seems to be sometimes playing for the gallery when he uses phrases which have till date not been heard on a big screen.

One final note: it is very interesting to analyse the trinity of Dukey Bana, Prithvi Bana and the half-man. I am not too sure if the director meant it the way I understood it, but anyway! On reflection, I saw the three men as different attitudes to life. The "doer" (the will), the "jester" (the intellect) and the "witness" (the conscience). Note that the "doer" (Dukey Bana) never jests in this film. The "jester" (Prithvi Bana) is insightful but never earnest. And the "witness" is silent, throughout. The "witness" is also a mythical creature: simultaneously a man, a woman, and an animal. And notice that the "doer" finally kills the conscience because he can't take it anymore.


girish said...

Harmanjit, are there other Kashyap films you like and might recommend? I haven't seen anything by him, and this post piques my interest. Thanks.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Girish,

I did enjoy Dev.D. I wrote about it here:

I am yet to watch Black Friday, his most acclaimed effort to date, but I am looking forward to it.

I didn't enjoy "No Smoking" much, but it is definitely wacky and a weird mix. Almost nobody in the mainstream audiences liked it, they hated in fact, and that should be a recommendation. :-)

I would like to see it again soon, since my first viewing was of a low quality bootleg cam version.

girish said...

Thanks much, Harmanjit--that's very helpful!

Tan2Pal said...

Very good piece on the movie, and very astute interpretations.

Di said...

haven't seen this film (or the previous one). In the films mentioned, I have seen S.M's HKA. Hopefully someday will see it...

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you've mentioned Kubrick & Lynch as a possible infulence on Anurag Kashyap cinematic style. Having seen all that Kashyap has made so far(Yes, even including Paanch), I especially find that his visuals & multi-narrative style is reminisce to that of Stanley Kubrick. Interestingly, Kashyap has never vocally cited Kubrick as an infulence, yet we see Abhay Deol wearing a A Clockwork Orange T-shirt in DevD & their's a small poster of Kubrick's Lolita in Ransa's home in Gulaal.

Anonymous said...

bq. I did find certain parts of the dialogue self-consciously crass. Normal folks don't use so many expletives.

Harmanjit, I feel that normal people use a much more abrasive language. I dont know if you are from India or the powerful section of the middle class which is depicted in the movie and i can assure you, I have heard expletives per sentence, just saying that i did not find them consciously added. If at all, I feel expletives were less as compared to the real life.

Hem said...

let me thank you for putting “raat ke musafir“ in Hindi as it has become a norm to transliterate Hindi songs in Roman alphabet. reading a Hindi song in the devanagari alphabet is a treat.

i think you have a point when you compared the story with Mahabharata.