Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Kalki Koechlin, Prashant Prakash, Gulshan Devaiya, Naseeruddin Shah
Storyline: A girl comes to India in search of her father and works in a massage parlour servicing the seedy underbelly of Mumbai
Bottomline: A predictable but brave effort but not as bold as it pretends to be
For a film that with an ending you can guess even from the synopsis or just the storyline, it’s amazing how Anurag Kashyap keeps it all well concealed. If you thought a good film cannot be made with a bad script, Kashyap proves you wrong in his best directorial effort yet.
Direction is one department that becomes a whole lot easier when you have a strong script, good actors, the best of technicians, budgets etc. Here, all Anurag Kashyap has is a half-baked script full of clichés, indulgence, not the best actors for the part or the budget of a big film to hire the best of technicians or more days of shoot. Yet, every scene is crafted and staged with a touch of brilliance as Kashyap stamps his class over the most mediocre material he has worked with and turns it into a mood piece.
Didn’t think you would find clichés in a Kashyap film? Every guy in big bad Mumbai the 20-year-old girl turns to for help is a lech and wants sexual favours or money. How is this any different from a Madhur Bhandarkar film ridden with bad city stereotypes? If this film were made by Bhandarkar, it would be called Massage Parlour and he wouldn’t even need to change the script.
But at least Bhandarkar would not hold back the punches. He is more daring filmmaker than Kashyap in this regard. Kashyap’s heroine services this seedy underbelly of the ugly city by doing sexual favours to repressed men frequenting the parlour out of her own choice to make a quick buck but does not put out completely. She does not go all the way because apparently that would make it a movie cliché and is less disturbing than offering them her “handshakes”. It is obvious that the intention here is to shock and awe by employing something that’s rarely been spoken about on the Indian screen than do justice to what the film requires the character to be.
So, like most Yash Raj heroines, the girl is virginal, even when her profession demands the danger of it being threatened. So she has not even slept with her boyfriend because she can only think of finding her father. She would do anything to find her father and yet, when the situation arrives that she has to cater to a group of rich diamond merchants, the director checks that need with a convenient solution of her boyfriend showing up.
The bane of this film is that its idea of sex does not involve the act of sex itself. Since the girl hasn’t crossed the line of virginity, the ending of the film is way less shocking or disturbing than the script demands. Kashyap shows ambitions of being Gasper Noe but ends up being more conservative than even Robert Zemeckis. Even family-friendly Back to the Future showed more inappropriate behaviour than what’s in this supposedly bold adult film.
The impact is also diluted because of the way the rituals are shown in the film. We see shots her chucking tissues, washing her hands, routinely repeating it every day. While this “handshake” business may be shocking to the aunt next door, to people who are used to world cinema, this is a literally watered down version.
Yet, the film keeps you intrigued because of the way Kashyap has shot this material. His shot-taking (cinematography by Rajeev Ravi) and blocking will serve as a master-class for independent filmmakers with budgetary limitations.
The extremely natural, seemingly improvised quips of Gulshan Devaiya and Puja Swarup go a long way in providing the lighter moments the film needed to balance its one-note brooding mood. Kalki’s histrionic limitations are exposed when she has to share frames with Gulshan or Puja. Kalki is fantastic when she has to let her eyes do the talking (again, an example of director making up for the script without a single memorable line) and when she doesn’t need to get dramatic. It’s the screechy, high-pitched outbursts that she can’t seem to get right. They are always a notch above what the camera can handle, a performance that would’ve been more appreciated on the stage. Prashant Prakash is a victim of this stage-to-film transition too but shows great promise with his body language and timing.
How do you make a predictable plot less guessable? Throw in red herrings. That’s exactly what Kashyap does. It is gimmicky, of course, but without these misdirections, this is a film with an ending you would’ve guessed within the first five minutes.
In his efforts to divert and distract, he also gets the casting of the father wrong and the otherwise intense climax suffers hugely from this. The score by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor is just what the film needed to get its mood right, especially towards the final frames.
Overall, this is a film that, like That girl, sits on the wall. It may be virgin territory for India but done with far more intensity outside. And the Yellow Boots remain far from soiled.
(An edited version of this review appeared here.)