Cast: Shilpa Shukla
Director: Ajay Bahl
Rating: Four stars
(Last year, I had seen the film at New Delhi’s Osian’s Cinefan Festival, where it picked up the Best Film Award for its humane treatment of a taboo subject: male sex workers. The jury’s decision was unanimous. Today, on second viewing at a multiplex, the film continues to pack a punch, as much for its explicitness as for its expose of sex liaisons in double-faced genteel society.)
A grim joint family meeting is in progress. Following the accidental death of a smalltown couple, what is to be done with their son who still has to graduate from college? Reluctantly, it is agreed to support the boy through his studies in New Delhi, and to enroll his two sisters in a hostel.
That’s the opening to the ironically titled 'B.A. Pass', produced, photographed and directed with maturity by first-timer Ajay Bahl. Adapted from a dark story by Mohan Sikka (printed in the anthology series, 'Delhi Noir'), it is suggested that there may or may not be that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. For a compact 95-minutes, the script sticks close to its subject – the wannabe graduate – without lapsing into commercial compromises. No cheddary club cabarets, gratuitous comedy or apologies tendered for its ensemble of characters, each carrying a baggage of complexities, and better still – ambiguities.
Take the mild-mannered Mukesh (Shadab Kamal), then, who tries to adapt into his relative’s hostile household. He’s unwanted, friendless, but finds some comfort in chess games with a jabberwocky grave-digger (Dibyendu Chatterjee) till he’s eyed by a femme fatale. Or Aunty Sarika (Shilpa Shukla) who seduces him into a physical relationship. Incidentally, this ‘aunty’ has an agenda: to supply the boy, trained and ready to start, to bored housewives for paid, afternoon sex.
Begins the boy’s descent into a vortex of no return, unless he retrieves his share of his earnings from the boss lady. Plus, he must somehow or the other rescue his sisters from the hostel, which isn’t exactly safe for under-age, orphaned girls. That’s the bare bones of the dramaturgy, replete with sensitively-realised sequences, especially the one depicting the boy’s encounter with a housewife, guilt-stricken by the very idea of adultery.
Also the manner in which Aunty Sarika operates out of her own house, scornful of her babbling mother-in-law, underscores her demonic bravado. She is bold, brazen, a Cruella de Vil, but with a serious psychological disorder. Clearly, her I-care-a-damn attitude is motivated by the need to be independent and sexually domineering.
This can be sourced to her chauvinistic husband (Rajesh Sharma) as much to her impulse to break out of a claustrophobic life in a typical, middle upper class housing colony. In the process, if innocents become her prey, so be it. The film’s end section is particularly hard-hitting, picturised on the neon mean streets, which to a degree do recall Anurag Kashyap’s 'Dev D'. The difference is that unlike Kashyap, Bahl doesn’t wave a magic wand to turn the story into a fantasy fable. Suffice it to say, the finale is harrowing.
Throughout, 'B.A. Pass' invites comparisons with reality. Hurrying through Delhi’s G B Road, Mumbai’s Juhu beach post-midnight or one of its equivalents – which exist in every sizeable city – we have all, at one time or another brushed against workalikes of Mukesh, unemployed losers-turned-desperate hustlers. And if we have been so careless as to meet his importunate gaze, at once sly and bold, we wonder about them – where they came from, how they live and even judgementally, how dare they live like this. The prime virtue of Bahl’s film is that he humanises Mukesh, buffeted by circumstances. He is to be understood, not to be held in contempt.
Like the insecure environment they inhabit, so many Mukeshes are the products of a ceaselessly exploitative society. And exploiters will be high on a lifelong bad trip. Both Mukesh and the cougar ‘Aunty’ Sarika make a connection as noir, fatalistic people. And if their morals and values are highly questionable, that’s the way it is in the world of sex, lovelessness and dhoka.
Bahl’s narrative is smooth, with some flaws though. The role of the gravedigger is much too opaque and after a point irritating. Also, the boy’s cousin behaves like a regular Freddy Krueger, nasty and monstrous. Perhaps, the foster family could have been dealt with in a more lifelike manner, instead of reducing them to Lalita Pawar and Yucky Son caricatures.
A transparent story demands a transparent style. Accordingly, Bahl’s direction and cinematography are like a pane of glass, with the described subjects clearly in view. Shot on authentic locations: Delhi’s Paharganj and on Sarai Rohilli and Barakhamba Road, the result is also remarkable for the performances of the consistently coiled up Shadab Kamal and the gutsy, no-inhibitions-barred Shilpa Shukla. In a cameo, Deepti Naval is reliably restrained.
In sum, here’s a work which is permissive, graphic – even shocking (for the squeamish) - and rule-breaking. In fact, it recalls the manner is which B R Ishara had sniped away at hypocritical sexual mores back in the 1970s. This is adult cinema, neither cheap nor sniggering, but revelatory of reality behind closed doors. Try it.