Sunday, August 06, 2017

Narrative or anti-narrative? Thoughts on Gurgaon, a film of ellipses

[Did this for Daily O]

Shanker Raman’s intense film Gurgaon accomplishes something very strange, something I can’t completely put my finger on after just one viewing, but here’s an attempt. This could have been a strictly plot-oriented film, and it starts off seeming that way; and yet, almost without the viewer realizing it (and without any identifiable shift in tone), it segues into something much more existential and dreamlike – less concerned with how its story unfolds than with observing the characters and their private motivations and impulses.

All the elements of a narrative film (and a fast-paced thriller to boot) are established early on. There is a well-defined set of characters, mostly members of a nouveau-riche family living in Gurgaon: the patriarch Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), who has worked his way up from grimy beginnings to become a real-estate magnate, yet seems a little melancholy about the road he took to get here; his favoured child Preet (Ragini Khanna), who has studied architecture abroad and is stressed about her father’s property being in her name (and the fact that she is beholden to him as a result); and her jealous and resentful brother Nikki (the glaze-eyed Akshay Oberoi, holding the screen in almost every scene he is in). 

So: emotions run high, though they aren’t always expressed. Gurgaon kids behave like brats, placing obscene sums of money on a cricketing result and incurring debts they can’t repay. An uneducated but astute woman holds up a mirror to her husband, and he can’t always face it. A minor-league abduction – partly played for laughs – foreshadows a carefully plotted kidnapping that will occur later. A criminal plan spins out of control.

Which, you might say, is enough “story” for a 105-minute film. And yet, as Gurgaon proceeds, it becomes obvious that this isn’t so much a “this happened. Then this happened” narrative as a collection of poetic vignettes. You wouldn’t exactly call it an avant-garde or experimental film (like some of the “art cinema” of the 1950s and 1960s, when New Waves exploded around the world – or even something like Ashim Ahluwalia’s freewheeling Miss Lovely), but it is unconcerned with providing clear-cut resolutions or explanations.

Consider its very last scene (no spoilers - I won’t be too specific), which manages to be both predictable (at the level of what we expect to happen) and startling (in the way that it happens); shocking and hilarious at the same time. It involves a character being cut off right in the middle of a monologue – in fact, right as he begins a pedantic-sounding sentence (the opening words of that sentence are “Itihaas gava si…” “or “History is witness that…” and those are also the last words of the film).

Abrupt as that ending is, it makes perfect sense, because Gurgaon has little patience with characters who speechify. And because this is a film of ellipses. You see this at different levels: at the level of the terse dialogues, or the way in which little things are deliberately left un-spelled out. (For instance, what precisely is the nature of Preet’s relationship with her French friend, who comes to stay with her for a few days?) But the effect is achieved visually too, through some very elegant dissolves, where it feels like scenes aren’t so much following each other in linear fashion but flowing into each other, making the passage of time a vague, ambiguous thing. (Watching Gurgaon, one of the things that struck me was how long it has been since I have seen a Hindi film that uses dissolves often and well.)

Some of the establishing scenes and long shots reminded me of passages from Terrence Malick’s early work (Badlands, Days of Heaven). But the way in which the film appeared set up to be a straight thriller but then moved towards a “aw heck, none of this really matters that much” tone was a bit like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or Robert Altman’s 3 Women – all of which at various points appear to be very concerned with storytelling but gradually slacken the pace and become much more about simply watching, or straining to listen.

And you DO have to strain to hear in some of Gurgaon’s scenes, because it is all so quiet. Sentences trail off, people talk languidly, even when they are speaking in rough-sounding Haryanvi accents, and even when they are saying not very nice things, or planning crime. The term “noir” is associated with night and the darkness that accompanies it – a visual darkness that, in literary or film noir, also becomes a symbol for the darkness in people’s hearts – but here is a noir film that made me think of another “night” association: these characters come across as indolent and sleepy; they speak as if afraid to wake up someone in the next room (even when there is no one in earshot).

At first I thought Pankaj Tripathi’s mumble was purely an affectation, an actor’s nod to Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. But as we learn more about Kehri Singh’s past – including some terrible things he did many years earlier – and see him speaking in a more normal voice in the flashback scenes, I developed the theory that over time, he has been suffocated from the inside by the world he has built; his throat is constricted, he is so bloated by his own misdemeanors that he is now physically incapable of speaking loudly or for long stretches.

Or maybe it’s just that the concrete-and-glass world he now inhabits – the New Gurgaon – doesn’t afford the sort of acoustic encouragement that the wilder, more open Gurgaon does. Perhaps these people are just constrained by their setting, by the need to appear “sophisticated” or “civilized”.

There are many things that Gurgaon is “about”, if you need to look at movies in those terms. The talking points can be easily ticked off: it is about a place that is straining hard to be modern and developed even though it barely has enough water to meet its basic needs (much less sustain huge green parks and swimming pools); about a family that doesn’t know what to do with the wealth that has come its way, and is mildly suspicious that it doesn’t have enough “culture” to go with its lifestyle; about youngsters who move between the world of their rustic upbringing and international education, even moving between accents. It is about female infanticide and parental guilt that manifests itself in unusual ways; it is about young people who bury their insecurities beneath a surface of swagger and entitlement.

These are all “relevant” subjects in today’s cinema, and many other films have confronted them head-on in recent years. The charm and mystery of Gurgaon for me was that it understands all those things, but rarely seems to be about them in any overt sense. It is more about the slow creation of a very particular, very menacing mood.

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