“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” ~ Anton Ego
No, Anton Ego is no self-deprecating veteran critic, in case you thought so. He’s but a rather accurate representation of those bunch of professionals who apparently have enough expertise to rate books, art, cinema, wine, fashion and what not without actively creating or even trying to create/build any of the aforementioned consumables. However, I am not quite sure how do these ‘experts’ exercise so much influence on public opinion and where do they gain their expertise from? I have an idea, at least when it comes to cinema/films in India: be in the good books of the powers that be and voila you are a certified expert!
The formula is simple. Be all praises for ‘arthouse’ when it comes from the ‘Father of Independent Cinema’ no matter how bad it is and slam ‘commercialism’. So, now let me whine and opine about one such arthouse film I saw as a mere lover of cinema and not as an exalted critic.
Last night- after a pretty long break of deliberately avoiding ‘serious stuff’ – I decided to watch ‘UGLY’; ‘Anurag Kashyap’s finest film’ according to one rather well known expert in the domain. Overall, all the bigwigs maintained the standard ‘critically sound arthouse film with dark theme’ tone in their reviews with high ratings. I harbour no such sentiments for this piece of Kashyap’s.
At the end of the rather confusing and eternally stretched 2 hours or so, me and my ‘too many loose ends ’ hating hubby sat together to try and sew the ends and discuss the gaping flaws in the storytelling. Well, it’s ‘serious cinema’ and not Chennai Express; you are entitled to expect sense and realism (the movie in no way falls within the purview of surreal although there’s a distinctly surreal – and equally pointless – frame in typical Kashyapic tradition. I will come to that later though).
In a nutshell, the movie revolves around the actions and reactions of certain adults after a 10-year-old girl is kidnapped. All through the movie these adults are seen doing precisely one or more of the following things:
- Extract money out of one another by exploiting the circumstances
- Busy in one upmanship over some silly college fallout ages ago
- Being the ‘ugliest’ of human beings possible…no surprises there
- Beating up one another and spewing the choicest of expletives
- Be habitually depressed or indifferent
The movie is old enough so I needn’t concern myself with spoiler alerts. For starters, how cum nobody notices a balloon-wala kidnapping a 10-year-old girl from a car in the middle of a busy market area. Farcical still is the girl’s lifeless body being found inside a 3-seater motorbike (at least that is what it looked like) after almost a week not so far away from the market. Won’t the stench be overpowering enough for people around in 2-3 days?
Next, why would the police need secret cells inside dingy flats to beat up and extract information from suspects? Weirder still, why would they keep a little boy – who stares like a ghoul – inside these secret torture cells?
If three people – viz. the girl’s father father’s friend and mistress – are plotting together to somehow grab a bounty out of the situation, then how cum they are depending on so many ifs and buts to get a ransom? Now, if I try to figure out how the fake ransom calls were orchestrated by (presumably) the three and a fourth ‘ugly’ character, I will give Intersteller a run for its money! So, I will leave it at that.
In the end, the trio does get a ransom, as does the fourth character (the by now forgotten girl’s Uncle for the curious cats) and the girl’s mother (who is stuck in a bad second marriage with the policeman investigating the case, primarily because he has to outcompete his old college rival, viz. the poor girl’s father and his wife’s ex-husband. Does that even sound surreal, let alone real? It’s just plain bad plot for fuck’s sake).
Then again, the father is repeatedly told by the police that his friend is making the calls but he refuses to believe. Finally he gets on board to actually be a part of fake ransom call to upstage the policeman till he realises that his friend simply took him for a ride by insinuating that his college rival actually had his daughter but was pretending otherwise. By what stretch of imagination would a sane person take this theory to be true and not want to ensure that his daughter is safe and secure?
And yes, noone really seems to care about the girl or anybody else for that matter. Apparently, ‘that’s the whole point’ as critics would say. Now our revered experts say it’s a film that shows the ‘darker side’ of humanity. I would gladly go back to the ‘Mera Naam Hai Bulla, Mai Rakhata Hun Khulla’ kind of darkness than this utterly pointless piece of ‘arthouse darkness’! It’s one thing to have weak and flawed characters but this is making characters forcefully dark as a plot device and then not knowing what to do with them. It was so bad that I can’t even find a bad enough metaphor (I usually manage).
As for the ‘Kashyapic tradition’ I was referring to, there’s this one frame of one ‘ugly’ wearing a hideous red underwear, notes tucked around his waist, dancing obscenely in a yellow tungsten-lit room to the beats of some obscure rock music till the police bust in. How grotesque and out of place it looked! Now as the esteemed expert would say, ‘but that’s how he wanted it to be’. I am sorry, I don’t buy that. In a film, which assiduously tries to be ‘real’ this one frame was the last straw that tore apart the veneer of ‘realistic cinema’ and emphatically pushed it into the realms of pretentious cinema. With all due respect, Mr. Kashyap is increasingly becoming inclines towards the ‘P-Genre’ although one would still like to believe he’s the father of ‘Independent Cinema’ is Bollywood. What else explains an effort like Bombay Velvet (the trailers were bogus enough to make a conclusion and I assume it’s way too substandard for even his trusted experts to give it a stamp of ‘critical’ approval).
Coming back to Ego, who btw was the rather intimidating critic in that evergreen film Ratatoille…
“But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source.”
Well, Ugly certainly is an average piece of junk, and it has certainly been given more meaning than it deserves, by the real-life Egos. Only these Egos, won’t probably be half as truthful as the fictional one when they do come across something new and exciting from whatever source…after all who wants to unsettle the powers that be?