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Pankh Movie Review: Uncompromised Positions

April 02, 2010 - Source:

Cast: Bipasha Basu, Maradona Rebello, Lilette Dubey
Director: Sudipto Chattopadhyay
Rating: Four stars
Caution: This film is not for the feeble-hearted. Or for those unwilling to accept cinema which isn't spoonfed to them like breakfast cereal. Or for those who are resistant to inventive technogiri.

The story is to be assimilated and interpreted in any which way. Indeed at one point, someone says, "I'm the character here as well as the audience." Extraordinary line that, and an audacious enterprise this - so uncompromised that it gives you gooseflesh.

Quite clearly, once in a very bluish moon, zero-expectations can yield one helluva surprise. Director Sudipto Chattopadhyay's Pankh is one such. Like it or not, you went apprehensively to a Sanjay Gupta ‘Arthouse' production. It would probably have jump cuts, mad zips-‘n' zooms, a plot cadged from a DVD, and a Bipasha Basu pole-dancing in a salute to the producer's own wigglefest Kaante.

Thank heavens, this project - narrating the psychological turbulence of a child artiste-turned-unstable-adult - is anything but. Sure it takes a while, maybe a reel or two, to grow on you but once you've adjusted to its circular trolley shots, frequently lurid red lighting schemes, post-modernist visuals, and characterisations devoid of any saccharine-coating, you're hooked, and even extremely moved.

You're in a deep heart of darkness here. A 20-something loser (Maradona Rebello), drags at joints, smirks at life in general and fantasises about a larger-than-dream diva (Bipasha Basu). Bleached out flashbacks take you to the time when his mother (Lilette Dubey) had coerced him into film acting, using him as a surrogage to realise her failed ambitions. If she had to pass him off as a girl, no sweat. So what if the boy's boozed-out father would launch into a ranting spree?

Yesteryear's child stars, sisters Daisy and Honey Irani, often portrayed males. It is rumoured that they were kept awake all night at the studios; if they protested, they were even physically beaten. Another `moppet' on growing up had confided, "My mother would stub a cigarette on my arm so that I did not fall asleep." More lately, there was the case of Ahsaas Chanana whose mother had passed him off as a male, raising the hackles of her estranged husband. Child exploitation is rampant in Bollywood, only no feature film has dared to expose it.

Sudipto Chattopadhyay deals with the real, yes, but in such a hallucinatory style that his film becomes more than just a simplistic plot about the ghastly deeds behind the doors of glamour. His approach reminds you of the vintage works of the iconcolastic German director, the later Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who stripped his characters emotionally to their bare bones (check out Beware of the Holy Whore or Merchant of the Four Seasons). The Boy-Man Loser in Pankh is a mess, right there on the precipice of a nervous breakdown.

Traditionally child stars fade out. Only an exceptional few click in lead adult roles (no, let's not think Aftab Shivdasani, please). Now, you catch the Boy-Man's mother hustling him to an audition which she insists will make him a superstar. Baby Kusum will transform into a Jai Kumar, Khanna or Khan. Cleverly, she hides their Catholic faith (later in a fit of rage, she yells if she had not been Christian she would have had him aborted). Verbal violence abound. In the event, the boy has no escape route besides the dream diva. But is she his comfort zone really? Even she taunts him time and again about ambiguous sexuality, purring, "But you are a eunuch."

The script works remarkably in conveying the boy-man's struggle with his sexual identity. He wears lipstick but is outraged when a hunk kisses him. Perhaps, Kusum-turned-Jai wants to remember the hunk - now a bitter stuntman - as the sweet-natured canteen-boy who would once bring him omelettes in the make-up room. Theirs was a friendship of innocence, and caring, now reduced to gender role-playing. Jai may be attracted homosexually to the hunk but would rather remain his Kusum. No judgement is passed on the boy's latent bisexuality. It's there, he can come to terms with it...if he wants to.

A major section of the film is located in Mumbai's excessively-photographed Mukesh Mills. It is brilliantly shot by cameraman Somak Mukherjee, who makes the environment border on the macabre. Several shootings are underway at the location as well as the crucial audition where Baby Kusum must become Superstar Jai. He impresses the director (Ronit Roy, controlled) and the effeminate, flowery Hindi-spouting writer (Mahesh Manjrekar, brilliant) but wait there's a catch. Arrogantly, Jai tells them that he would rather portray the heroine's role - because the hero's is not only cliched but far too easy for him.

The finale is metaphorical but hard-hitting. So are the allusions to the boy's Oedipus complex, his dependence on his father's memory, and his flair for self-destruction. Incorrigibly, he sees the world around him with an air of superiority, scoffing at a nervous girl who'd rather study science than audition for a movie. About the only element he cannot tackle is that fantasy diva, fetching up in surreal interludes like their conversation amidst a group of predatory ballet dancers.

On the techfront, the effort is creatively edited. Raju Singh's mood-enhacing music is another big plus. On the acting front, Lilette Dubey as the high-strung mother is excellent. In the central part Maradona Rebello is correctly kept on a low simmer. Bipasha Basu is often decorated like an X'mas cake. Yet with her whirlpool eyes and measured dialogue pitch, she exudes allure and sensuality.

Bottomline: Pankh is fiercely individualistic cinema. Those who support for edgy, mind-pubbing cinema, should check it out immediately...before it vanishes from the ‘plexes like the boy's diva dreams.