Kranti Kanade's sharp new film takes on questions about politics, art and life with infectious energy.
A recent profile of the film director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan) described him as having “a reputation for being combative and controlling, for breaking actors down and shooting them in extremis.” Aronofsky, however, disputed this. “It’s not about breaking them down. They break themselves down. They’re game,” he told The Guardian's Xan Brooks. “Sometimes they forget, but I think the original reason they started acting was to be able to cry in front of class... they love it, really.”
That disturbingly thin line between the realistic and the real, between performance and truth, lies at the core of CRD. Set in a fictional version of Pune's Fergusson College, Kranti Kanade's film turns a student theatre competition into a stage for his provocative exploration of life, art and politics.
The film opens with new student Chetan (the astonishing Saurabh Saraswat) interrupting an acting audition to announce that what he really wants is to write the play. But a student-written play, he is told, cannot ever be good enough to win. To have a shot at winning, the play is always written and directed by someone established: usually a Fergusson ex-student who has gone into theatre, and whose participation in Purushottam thus ensures a pay-off both for himself and the college.
Persuaded by the French teacher, Veena (Geetika Tyagi), and the college cultural secretary, Persis (Mrinmayee Godbole), Chetan joins the theatre workshop being conducted by Mayank (a scarily believable Vinay Sharma). What follows is a masterfully executed dance, with these four characters playing off against each other, alternating between attraction and repulsion, admiration and disgust.
Although set in a similar universe of young Indians trying to out-nerd each other while exploring sex, CRD, unlike the puerile Brahman Naman, isn't out merely to shock. It also wants to hector, to insinuate, to challenge, to play. So there's a remarkable masturbation scene, but what's even better is a documentary-style insert in which various talking heads get asked their take on masturbation. In the Indian cinematic context, the film's treatment of sex stands out not because of what it is willing to put on screen, but because of the penetrating intensity of its gaze. Kanade zooms not just into the sexual underpinnings of every situation, but the power dynamics underpinning the sex. “You surrender to me like a wife, and then see the magic,” says Mayank to Chetan in one remarkable scene.
Sex, like everything else in CRD, is a complicated matter: it can be erotic and maternal, intense and funny, sleazy and playful, often at the same time. More than anything else, though, sex in CRD is a mind game. The film's most disturbing sequence pushes Chetan to the brink, but mostly it's the men who're playing and the women who are being played. To be fair, the film recognizes this, often flagging the ways in which class or age or position are used to achieve sexual power. The talented Godbole brings Persis to sincere, quivering life, but she, Veena and Deepti (who does a fairly standard ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation) still seem like women imagined by a man. It seems to me no accident that CRD would not pass the Bechdel test.
Kanade and his co-writer Dharmakirti Sumant use a perfectly natural mix of Hindi and English to capture a very particular Marathi world. CRD's first achievement is to make us believe in the existence of this Pune: a still predominantly Brahminical cultural milieu in which theatre retains enough heft to be the site of a Bahujan actor's political “prayog” -- but where the fetishising of European thinkers now coexists with a trite, patriarchal nationalism. This world in which where Indianness is the subject of saccharine self-congratulation is also one where you can earn brownie points by namedropping Marx, Sartre or Foucault – and political mileage by discussing their pronunciation. Kanade's gaze is sharp enough to indict our hypocrisies, but remains human enough to be affectionate about our aspirations.
CRD's second, quite singular, achievement is to make us think about art. Is good art award-winning? What is the line between moving an audience and manipulating it? Or between charming someone and deluding them? Does a performance ring true only when it wrings the truth out of you? Is there such a thing as truth? The character of Chetan – and his mysterious alter ego Vikram – offer great entry-points into these questions, without necessarily bludgeoning us with answers. Kanade displays both political and aesthetic courage, constantly moving registers between lyrical intensity and playful subversion. Just when you're settling into his serious central narrative, he departs from it with exhilarating abandon, bringing in everything from animated inserts to black-and-white faux footage, from Hindi film clips to dream-like sequences about characters' inner lives.
Theatre is, of course, the film's theme and locale -- but also its self-conscious choice of form. Conversations that seem utterly sincere drop, without warning, into wink-wink mode. People we have believed to be one thing turn out to be quite another. Nothing and no-one is quite what they seem, suggests CRD. An anti-rape narrative can be co-opted into nationalism. A lack of class privilege can be turned to one's advantage. The politics of sexual liberation can be used to shame and suffocate. We are all playing several roles, and the curtain might fall at any time.
Published in Firstpost.