First-time director Karan Gour would have been drummed out of a Bollywood mogul’s office within minutes of pitching the plot for Kshay (Hindi for “corrode”): “It’s about a young woman’s all-consuming obsession with the statue of Goddess Lakshmi, and how this leads to her slow-burning descent.” So Gour makes a DIY film that is absolutely low on production (unknown actors, handheld camera) but extremely rich in plot.
Chhaya (Rasika Dugal), married to construction sub-contractor Arvind (Alekh Sangal), thinks all her problems (barren womb, decrepit quarters) have one panacea-like solution: a king-sized statue of Lakshmi. With her hand-to-mouth existence, Chhaya finds it hard to find the 15,000 rupees for the statue. Her obsession grows manifold over the movie — and its final twenty minutes are the most harrowing you are likely to see in a long, long time.
Kshay turns the stereotype of Indians’ fascination with gods and statues on its head. We are the nation that believed that a Ganesh statue can drink milk if offered. We make arduous treks for a fleeting glimpse of the numinous deity in Tirupati or Vaishno Devi. Gour’s anthropological interest in this has caused the making of the boldest Indian film after — no, not The Dirty Picture! — Gautam Menon’s Nadunisi Naaygal. Atheism in Indian cinema is not unheard-of; but, much more usually, plot contrivances lead the protagonist to believe at the end that it’s probably better to genuflect before a block of stone if that’ll help revive his dying relative or whoever. What’s more, the quid pro quo promptly happens. In the last decade, there have been three films that stand out for their distinct take on presence of god: Rituparno Ghosh’s Antarmahal, Trivikram Srinivas’ Khaleja and Bala’s Naan Kadavul (Tamil for “I Am God”). Ghosh’s period drama is about how catastrophic events are spawned when a zamindar asks a stonemason to carve out a statue of Durga Mata. Khaleja, in Telugu, is a 30-crore rupee answer to the question of god’s existence: divinity is something that we need to tap from within. Naan Kadavul, a bizarre Slumdog-Millionaire-for-the-disenchanted sort of a film, goes a step further and says that its protagonist (Arya) is the alphagod.
What sets Kshay apart from these middling-to-pretty good movies is its straight-eyed focus on Chhaya and her disintegrating self. The climactic episodes when she behaves like a junkie strapped of her daily fix is testimony to her Velcro-like tenacity. How do you rationalise with someone who wants a goddess in her bedroom? Even her husband, played with an understated demeanour by Ankit Segal, doesn’t veto her intention. If he had money, he would have got it the moment Chhaya sets her eyes on it — and she is not among those who believes in that Goethe dictum, “beware of wishing for anything in youth, because you will get it in middle age.” She’s more of a Walt Whitman girl — “resist much, obey little.”
Filmed in black and white, with naturalistic sounds and back-of-the-head shots, Kshay is an Indian aspirant to modern, minimalist, do-it-yourself schools of film-making like Denmark’s Dogme 95, the Berliner Schule or even the American Northeast’s mumblecore movement. Somehow, in Chhaya’s one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai — which actually looks like one, a rarity in Hindi cinema — Gour creates enough space for himself to brilliantly capture lower middle-class life in the city. The dialogue is never over-the-top, and sometimes lazily, naturally insightful. One of the opening lines sets the movie’s tone: “Patthar ko naaraaz mat karo” (Never upset a stone). The interludes in the latter half of an exploding statue are heartbreakingly good. Not that Kshay is faultless. At 90 minutes it still looks 20 minutes long; and, on a few occasions, Gour’s cinema verite techniques don’t quite cohere into the narrative.
So, have we finally discovered the poster child for the new, new Hindi cinema? (Remember, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop and Anand Patwardhan were supposed to be “new Hindi cinema”.) You never know. The reason you don’t is what I call “the Madhur Bhandarkar Syndrome.” Its latest victim is Homi Adajania; after making a wonderful, oddball movie — Being Cyrus — the fatal charms of neon-bedecked Bollywood seems to have sucked him into making Cocktail, which, prima facie, looks like a poor man’s version of Vicki Cristina Barcelona with tons of internet humour thrown into the mix.
So, for now, let’s leave Gour alone, and marvel at the fact that after a long time a Hindi film kicks the doors of movie greatness off its hinges.
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