Three small-time lawbreakers have a bomb in their possession (it was in a bag they stole) and want to blow it up in an isolated setting, just for fun. But where and how? “Mumbai mein ek bhi jagah nahin jahaan bomb ko shanti se uda saken,” (“There isn’t a single place in Mumbai where you can go to peacefully explode a bomb”) goes one of the funniest lines in the excellent new film Shor in the City. The story is set during the chaotic Ganesh Chaturthi festival: roads are jammed, people dance wildly along the streets. “So much shor — how is a man even supposed to hear himself think?” a character wonders.
It’s a question that recurs through the film, but some of its tensest scenes hinge on silences. Fooling around with an AK-56 and other weapons recovered from the bag, the excitable Mandook “fires” the unloaded guns at his nervous friends and then places a revolver to his own temple; time freezes as we wait for a blast that will never come. (When a blast does come in a later scene, the build-up is stretched out, so that the long, silent wait is nerve-wracking.)
Much of the pleasure of watching this movie is to see the skilful weaving together of its three main stories, all of which are about people struggling to earn a living by fair means or foul. In the first, Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor), the most grounded of the three friends, tries to maintain some personal integrity even while running a pirated-books business. (He even gets a whole set of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist — what else? — reprinted because a few pages are missing.) In the second story, a foreign-returned entrepreneur named Abhay (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is terrorised by extortionist goons as he tries to run a small business. And in the third, a young batsman looking desperately for a break must organise ten lakh rupees with which to bribe a selector.
The paths of these characters intersect at times, but there is no strained attempt to connect the threads; each story is taut and well-executed on its own terms. What Shor in the City adds up to is a fine microcosm of a metropolis and its residents. There are many telling contrasts — between the guy who spends a month’s salary on a ridiculously fancy phone (and keeps the plastic cover on for weeks) and the man who rides a scooter now but assures his wife that they’ll graduate to “a big car — a Nano” soon.
Particularly interesting is the film’s use of the Ganesh Chaturthi motif. In the hands of directors Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, this most mainstream of festivals — taking place in a contemporary setting — becomes a primitive, pagan thing. Watching the frenzied revelry and the continual sense of danger is a reminder that many festivals in their origin were pretexts for people to let out the accumulated repressions of the year (and that Hindi cinema has long associated festivals like Holi with a scale of deviant behaviour that ranges from “harmless” eve-teasing to gang-rape).
Of course, the festive shor can facilitate positive results too. It allows a likeable character, wounded during a heist, to simply walk away while policemen bow before a giant Ganesha statue. But by the end there’s little doubt that “visarjan”, in addition to being the elephant-god’s final immersion in the water, can also indicate a man hurling a revolver into the same sea after committing a triple-murder with it. As they say, it’s a city of unlimited possibilities.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer