Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under is another in a line of very interesting, relatively low-profile films that haven’t done too well on commercial release but which seem likely to acquire cult followings on DVD. Other notable recent movies of this type include Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar and Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking (posts on these here and here). These are films made by directors who are unafraid to play auteur, bring very personal visions to the big screen, and who are serious movie buffs themselves – as much students as practitioners (much the same way as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and the other “kids with beards” were in the late 1960s, and the French New Wave directors a decade earlier). They know a lot about other cinemas and about a variety of filmmaking styles and genres, but are secure enough about their own talents to be able to openly acknowledge their influences and to build on them. (Raghavan actually played a couple of minutes from the early 1970s film Parwaana to show how its plot inspires his protagonist, but this didn’t at all make Johnny Gaddaar seem jaded or derivative.)
Manorama Six Feet Under works with the template of Roman Polanski’s superb “neo-noir” film Chinatown, but it uses that template selectively and intelligently. Chinatown, about a private eye investigating corruption in the Los Angeles water department while also trying to figure out the motivations of the woman who has hired him, was an uncompromisingly cynical view of human nature that didn’t give the viewer a shard of hope, let alone a silver lining. Manorama doesn’t end on a comparably bleak note (in fact, it’s possible to argue that the last few minutes are a bit of a cop-out), but otherwise its tone is very similar to Polanski’s film. At the same time, one never gets the impression that the plot of an American movie has been arbitrarily picked up and moved to an Indian setting with incongruous results - the shift to a small desert town in Rajasthan here is done just as convincingly as the placing of Othello in the Uttar Pradesh heartland in Omkara.
The opening scene is assured, compact and immediately sets the mood. A brief glimpse of a large elevated water tank standing alone in the middle of the desert is followed by a tracking shot that includes ants scurrying over the parched ground, a group of children huddled together near a small fire, and finally an overhead view of junior engineer Satyaveer Randhawa (Abhay Deol) exiting the door of a Public Works Department site office and walking unhurriedly to his new motorcycle. In voiceover, Satyaveer tells us that his own life is as arid and uneventful as his hometown Lakhot. The place goes unnoticed by the outside world for most of the year, he says, making news only in the height of summer when hundreds of people die because of the extreme heat, and in the height of winter, when an equal number die because of the cold.
This sequence is the first of many reminders that film noir doesn’t have to be all about dark shadows or smoky black-and-white cinematography. The nighttime here (noir being French for “black”) is principally the nighttime of the soul and, as we’ll soon see, some very dark transactions can occur in the Rajasthani desert in blinding sunlight. The film’s trajectory is from small transgressions to increasingly serious crimes, and no one is innocent. For starters, it’s implied that Satyaveer’s new bike was purchased with ill-begotten money. He has been suspended by the department for taking a “commission” (everyone does it, but he was silly enough to get caught) and now he’s sitting at home with his wife and their little son, waiting for the result of the inquiry – and waiting also for the muse to strike so he can write another pulp detective novel, which is what he does in his spare time.
But a junior engineer taking bribes is a minor, almost feeble misdeed compared to other things that are going on in the area. Things start to escalate when a woman who says she’s the wife of a powerful local minister asks Satyaveer to play detective himself and bring evidence that her husband is cheating. By the time he discovers she was faking her identity, he’s already caught in a labyrinth of deception and counter-deception that resembles not only the plot of Chinatown but briefly nods at Antonioni’s Blow-Up as well. (Some shots also reminded me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with the severed ear in the ground and the suggestion of a tranquil surface hiding unsavoury things.) Circumscribed small-town lives, corrupt politicians and cops, social workers with their own agendas, femme fatales, chuckling goons who enjoy bantering nearly as much as breaking people’s fingers – all these elements soon come together with deadly results.
This is a confident, accomplished film. My one reservation (not counting a couple of minor, ignorable loopholes in the plot) is that it’s self-consciously slow-paced in places – occasionally suffering from what I’ve come to think of as a hangover from the made-for-Doordarshan features of the early 1980s: characters enunciating sentences more solemnly than strictly required, and with many Significant Pauses. Also, the big fish/little fish/small pond imagery is slightly overdone (it requires suspension of disbelief too; I kept wondering why so many people would have large aquariums in a town that has serious water-supply problems). But the script and performances are good throughout. Abhay Deol is proving to be one of the more interesting actors of his generation and his performance as Satyaveer is the least starry you could possibly imagine from a Deol. He’s the picture of the small-town everyman, getting by from one day to the next, convinced that he is meant for better things but not sure where the break is coming from – and eventually, not driven enough to worry too much about it. Gul Panag is good as his wife and the ubiquitous Vinay Pathak has a grand old time as his brother-in-law, a foul-mouthed cop whose personal motto “Zaraa si saavdhani, zindagi bhar aasani” (“A little precaution makes life easy”) derives from a condom ad jingle but soon acquires more sinister connotations for Satyaveer.
One thing I liked was the film's refusal to neatly tie up all its loose ends - it leaves us in the dark about a couple of plot details. Without disclosing too much, there’s an unnerving late scene when a peripheral character (about whom we know almost nothing) bursts into morbid laughter and it's left to the viewer to fill in the gaps. There’s also a question mark around the background and motivations of a woman named Sheetal (Raima Sen), who becomes Satyaveer’s confidante when his wife is out of town. All this adds to the ambiguity and discomfort that are so vital to this genre; we come away with the sense that there’s more going on than has been revealed to us – though, equally importantly, what has been revealed is sufficient to satisfy the curiosity of a viewer who’s watching the film as a straightforward detective yarn.
P.S. DVDs of many Hindi films have started including special features now, which is a welcome (and overdue) trend, and one that is particularly well-suited to films like Manorama Six Feet Under. There’s a “making of” feature (which I haven’t seen yet) on this DVD, as well as a few deleted scenes, at least two of which I thought should have been left in the film. Also, I like the imagination and flair shown in the film’s publicity material – for instance, the poster of four of the main characters standing inside what looks like a miniature model of the town, with serrated boundaries; the publicity still (not a scene from the film) of Satyaveer being lowered, head first, into a grave; and best of all, the poster that’s broken up to look like a jigsaw puzzle of photographs.