Monday, April 10, 2017

'Chatrak': Foraying into the unknown familiar

A veteran Assistant Director, when asked for his opinion on Vimukthi Jayasundera’s latest film Chatrak, gave the following comment: “It may be his best.” Whether I agree with this, I will get to later. For the time being, however, my verdict is predicated on disappointment: Sri Lankan audiences may never get to see the film, and even if they do, they’ll have to wait. This is sad, not because it unearths up the old debate about prudery in the Sinhala cinema but because that old debate has been unearthed despite a manifestly more liberal censorship regime.

Chatrak was first released at Cannes six years ago. It made the rounds with critics elsewhere, in Vladivostok and in Toronto. It ran into controversy even in the region it was originally shot in (Kolkata, India), where it was cut down considerably prior to its screening. To date, it has not been given a theatrical release, whether here or there. As a film enthusiast, I am disappointed not because I share Vimukthi’s worldview, but because (at the end of the day) he is quite obviously a talented director who has something to say and is not afraid to demand from his audiences.

Because the original plan to telecast the film was also scuttled, audiences here will not come across the kind of debate which visits Vimukthi’s other films. This is hence not an attempt at a review, rather a brief sketch of what the film is and what it represents. At the outset therefore, I will say this: whether or not it is Vimukthi’s best so far, for me it represents the kind of art-house cinema we should be getting more often: one that is free (in a relative sense) from the obscurantism which makes up much of that genre here today.

So what was Chatrak about, come to think of it? The entire plot revolves around four characters and a search for a lost brother, which towards the end is inadvertently elevated to the status of a fairy-tale, minus the obligatory happy finale. This last point is important for reasons I will get to in a less sketchy review, but for now let’s concentrate on the wider narrative.

Most critics, particularly in the West, have taken Vimukthi to task over his inclusion of many unnecessary sequences which take away from the narrative, which essentially is about a successful architect (Sudeep Mukherji) returning from Dubai to his hometown and his girlfriend (Paoli Dam). When Rahul (the architect) announces his decision to search for his long-lost brother in some unnamed forest, Vimukthi crafts that search in such a way that we are made to forget two important questions: 1) Why did he run away? and 2) How did he stay in that forest for so long?

For me, however, those sequences, unnecessary and tedious as they are, reinforce the director’s vision. I heard several people, at the premiere at the Film Corporation two months ago, call it “unsettling”. Yes, unsettling, and more importantly claustrophobic. That sense of claustrophobia is essential for us to juxtapose the two different locales Vimukthi brings together (or rather tries to): the urban metropolis which Rahul is both heir to and prisoner of, and the open (yet enclosed) forest which Rahul’s brother (Sumeet Thakur) is removed to.

The first 15 minutes of Chatrak is basically an interlude between the brother and the fourth character: an unidentified French soldier (Tómas Lemarquis). This interlude oscillates between playful banter and inexplicable hatred so much that even after the soldier disappears (he appears, I must note, literally out of thin air in the first few sequences), the tone of the film continues to teeter between two extremes, always unstable, disconcerting, and yes, unsettling. Which brings me to what I think is Vimukthi’s preoccupation: the clash between two irreconcilable cultures. To get to this, however, one must get to his characters.

Consider Rahul. Rahul has, with what we gather about him, no reason for complaint. In the first sequence of him, we see a worker at a construction site bring his child to him and get him to help the boy out at his talent for computing. The man is at first indifferent, then loosens up, then offers the obligatory sympathy and encouragement to the child. His emotional strains, in other words, have clearly been repressed by a successful career, but these sequences are vital (though superficially desultory) for us to get to the man buried beneath the architect. So repressed is that man, that the architect can only be bewildered when he manages to “get out” in the end.

Rahul’s girlfriend is less solid, less complex. She eagerly awaits her lover, but even in her neighbourhood she has to face the drudgery and repression of emotion which is as life-denying as the buildings Rahul is working on. There are sequences where she has to shoo away a nondescript boy (who’s either eyeing her or begging for leftovers from the kitchen) and where she comes across a procession of a Hindu goddess (which at one level juxtaposes her sexually frustrated nature with her calm public visage). When her brother-in-law is taken to their lodging in the city, she is at first repulsed and then intrigued by him.

Of the actors, I think Sumeet Thakur caught my attention the most. Sumeet is given less screen time than the brother or his girlfriend, but with what little time he has, he laughs, cries, pouts, gapes, grins, and (after being taken to the city) rebels. Sumeet to me symbolises not just repression, but also revelation: it’s no coincidence that Rahul does what he does at the end (I will not reveal any spoilers) and then re-emerges in the final shot (with an almost Beckettian monologue) after the brother is returned to the wild.

Is the cast (and the able acting therein) enough to qualify the entire production, though? Asian art-house cinema has almost always received a drubbing outside the Riviera. The Americans usually take the proponents of that cinema with a pinch of salt. Nothing new there.

That probably explains the drubbing Chatrak received from the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, the latter of which indicts the film’s “sense of torpor” and the former of which, in a more expansive review, faults the narrative for being depressing, nihilistic, and meaningless. I have not asked Vimukthi for his take on these critiques and I am sure he isn't required to reply, but for the purpose of this sketchy review it would pay well to revisit them anyway.

The HR review is less an examination of the film than a scathing indictment on the Riviera. In one paragraph, the Festival de Cannes is rapped for pandering to “overindulgent festival programmers and film critics” who favour poetic visual essays over coherent narratives. I understand the American critic’s less-than-favourable take on art-house cinema, which is probably why even the most independent director in that country (the Coen Brothers included) is alienated once their work becomes too obscurantist to bear, but to indict an entire Festival for promoting Vimukthi and other “incoherent” filmmakers is serious, so serious that it merits a second glance at the film.

What was there in Chatrak that I liked? I liked the acting, the lifeless buildings, the narrowing alleys, and the only real form of life in the city, the children. I also liked the visuals. As for the narrative, I couldn’t figure out how much dialogue there was, but I am willing to bet that the visuals transcended the spoken word rather strongly. In a paradigmatically different film industry, a disconnect like this between the visual and the verbal will be unfavourably viewed if that industry subsists on the conventional narrative. I am not sure whether that alone can explain the American's attitude towards Vimukthi, but I am sure that insofar as the incoherence that is alleged to be in his work is concerned, I subscribe to that attitude.

Why do I say this? Despite my earlier contention that Chatrak brings up the kind of art-house cinema Sri Lankans should patronise more often, that still is not (for me) enough to salvage it from the verbose visuals it panders to: a quality, I must mention here, of Sri Lankan art-house cinema in general. It is that quality which has tripped even older and more experienced proponents of the genre, both here and elsewhere.

I am not accusing Vimukthi, rather pointing out what Pauline Kael did in her less-than-complimentary review of Antonioni’s Blowup: an incoherent narrative (which is what Vimukthi gives us to jar us) can be rescued from obscurantism through visual poetry only so far. Vimukthi seems to have regained the footing he lost with Between Two Worlds, a film that was both obscure and obscurantist (a double sin). Chatrak is not obscurantist, but it does wade through difficult territory. To my mind, the Absurdist monologue at the very end saves it from that territory, which is why it thankfully does not become obscurantist.

So here’s my verdict, short as it is: Chatrak is Vimukthi’s best work so far. It does not succumb to the trap of metaphor and symbolism that The Forsaken Land and Between Two Worlds did. In Chatrak, despite its flaws, I understood what Vimukthi was trying to get at and appreciated the effort. The man has a future. He should be more coherent about it and he should spend time contemplating on it. If he does that, his next work may be even better. Better than most, I’d be willing to add.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 9 2017