Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The beginning of the Perpendicular

Not very often in these times does one get a chance to be part of history of any kind, let alone the most outrageous one. I am proud to have been there, just about a decade back. The Perpendicular was a term coined to honour films that dared to avoid both the commercial bandwagon and the pretensions of art. It is a seriously difficult line to tread, for as the name suggests it is movement along a different plane altogether, maybe the z-axis. Right through the history of cinema, there have been concerted efforts to make films which not so concertedly want to fall in this bracket. Perhaps the earliest example could be those of Ed Wood in th US and Joginder in India. It is difficult to class Glen or Glenda, just as it is impossible to straight-jacket Rangakhush. I am not even qualified to comment on these gems of the bygone era. As the master of madness, Klaus Kinski once bludgeoned, “They were not just very good or excellent, they were magnificent, epochal.”

Time doesn’t stop for anyone. But it is advisable for Time that it stop for a moment, at least at certain times, and savour the greatness of the Perpendicular. I think this happened only once in the 90s, when Time stood still, outside the Nataraj theater in a nondescript corner of the Mumbai-Agra highway town, Dhule. Dhule or Dhulia is a buzzing place because of the many colleges there and also because it housed, at least till 2000, 7 cinema theaters inside a very small radius.

On that blessed day in 1998, Nataraj was not lit by serial lights, there weren’t long queues for tickets, certainly no black-marketeers and I don’t remember seeing more than 20 people in the hall. Just the kind of lull before the Perpendicular storm. If movie posters say all about a film, this one was holding on to a great secret. There were three of us in our row of seats, me, Ali and Kamal. Or, in the spirit of this great film, I should call them Ali Albela and Kamal Commando.

Till the movie began, people were smoking, joking, drinking, chewing, blowing their nose, doing push-ups, reciting politically-charged non-rhyming poetry or like us, were catching up on some pre-movie sleep. However, a strange sensation affected us suddenly. There were no curtains in the movie theater (not that I can remember at least), but we were woken up by a tingling feeling as if a joyous spirit had escaped captivity and was calling us to a fairy land. The screen lit up with a magnificently dull font which modestly informed us that we were to watch, “Kanti Shah’s Gunda”. Thanks to Albela, I had been a follower of Mithun-da after watching Military Raaj. I thought that was epochal. I had also seen Dus Numbri in a packed theater and thought it magnificent. But this was something else. It is cinematic bliss, if you may call it so, but its too cheap a phrase these days. Review stars cannot tell you the magic of this film. It has to be associated with a deeper, maybe banal, yet a lot more metaphysical meaning. Have you felt the joy on a giant-wheel when it circles down from a great high? Have you run into a mango grove in your summer holidays and stolen ripe mangoes? Have you smelt the fresh smell of the mud on the first rainy day of the season? Have you held your bladder fast for the entire day and let go triumphantly on your neighbour’s compund wall? Then, dear reader, only then can you understand this bliss.
There is so much to write about this experience, yet you feel as if you are exploiting a native secret. I will desist from this as much as I can, but there is something called duty. Gunda is not just about good versus evil. It isn’t just about retribution. I agree there is an existential angst in Shankar, the protagonist, played with unbelievable restraint by Mithun-da. But that isn’t the point. The symbolism is but a fact of the film, not its truth, as Herzog would tell you. Some art-house fans want to own Gunda as theirs by pointing to the “swinging cots in the kotha” with Razak Khan and his apprentices as being a categorical revolt against the social mores and rigidity in this subtly repressive time. My contention to this is, dear friends, Kanti Shah wouldn’t even think about it. For him, Razak Khan is running a group of hustlers and their “office”, instead of being a dingy room with low candela lights, is a huge hall with swinging cots. If anything, he debunks that theory of restrictive freedom by depicting an atheist communion-like idea inside a very Brechtian setting. Lars von Trier made Dogville with similar imagery, but Gunda was made first.

The other aspect I am always at loggerheads with with my Parallel and Mainstream friends is with the poetic aspect of the dialogues. I can understand why the Mainstream needs Gunda so much. This film has enough poetry for Bollywood to survive for at least three years. It is a simple capitalistic desire of the Mainstream to make business from this masterpiece.

In a film with many characters, it often becomes impossible to sketch each one with conviction. The length of the film is of course important. In Gunda, the problem is handled by an effective use of post-modernist poetry. The Pote character is between a evil boss and a henchman. How do you sketch this character? He isn’t the most important villain, but nor is he a two-cent conman. This dilemma has to be resolved only by deliberating on the character for too long OR like Kanti Shah does here, sort it out with a single line of genius. “Naam hai mera Pote, jo kisi ke baap ke bhi nahi hote.” It is a seminal line in cinema history. At once, the peripheral Pote reveals how independent he is of the sickening hierarchy of rowdy-ism in Indian cinema. At once the character has depth and reason to share space with the monumental Mukesh Rishi’s Bulla.

Take also for instance Harish Patel’s Ibu Hatela. He is but a minor cog in the wheel of Bulla’s regime, but Kanti Shah etches a multi-dimensional character by giving him this eponymous limerick: “Ibu Hatela hai naam mera, maa meri chudail ki beti, baap mera shaitan ka chela. Khayega kela?” Note the various layers here to this character. Again, like Pote, he is a peripheral evil, but he reveals a satanic lineage thus justifying the inherent cruelty of the man. The final line of the rhyme might be a hint at Ibu’s disturbed childhood or perhaps his carnal orientation.

Imagination is a key in Kanti Shah films. It is especially true of Gunda. The audience is transported to a different world. For the money you pay to these films, it must be the cheapest space travel currently available. Violence is a dormant urge in all polite people and second nature in the impolite ones. It is an obvious urge, like death and destruction are obvious possibilities. That is what Kanti Shah’s Gunda says even without wanting to sound preachy. Chutiya (Shakti Kapoor with a ponytail) is a personification of the existential dichotomy of the human being. He has decided though that he wants to be a man, but it is a decision taken from observation, more than intelligence. Maybe, he is “almost” a metaphor for Perpendicular cinema. But unlike him who has decided he wants to choose one rather than swim away from two ideologies, the Perpendicular is happily in uninhibited land. That Gunda has been a significant milestone in ushering this new phenomenon is a true evidence of the film’s longevity and vitality.

(Article lifted with permission from here)

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