No one wants to restrain a story flowing freely, smoothly riding crests, sharply hitting troughs — one that’s finding its feet, getting to know itself better. The story of independent cinema in general, and Indian independent cinema (or Indian indie) in particular, is similar. Having said that, it’s also true that, over the past many years, no one, from newbies in Andheri West to industry veterans in Juhu, can agree over what really constitutes indie. Its formal and universal definition, a film made without studio money, has gradually made way for a more colloquial definition: an ‘unconventional’ film that steers clear from the banal tropes of mainstream cinema.
Making a film, any film, is difficult. Making an indie even more so, for it involves a huge risk — a bunch of perennially cash-strapped individuals risking a few crores, and years of their life, is indeed a big deal. Which is also why indie films are often given free passes, especially by reviewers. A bad mainstream film will be severely castigated in broadsheets and on websites; a bad, but earnest, indie, on the other hand, will be called a “small film with a big heart”. It shouldn’t be so. Indian indies have lived long enough for them to be called out. By treating our own indies with kid gloves, we will do them the same disservice as a foreign publication does to our mainstream films. (If you don’t believe me, choose your favourite foreign film critic, read her review of an Indian film and compare it with her review of a film made in her own country.)
In August last year, news travelled from South Korea that the Busan International Film Festival would open with Zubaan, an indie co-produced by Guneet Monga (who’s backed such films as That Girl in Yellow Boots, Gangs of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox, and Masaan), starring Vicky Kaushal and Sarah-Jane Dias. This news was indeed encouraging, because Busan is one of the more respected Asian film festivals. Moreover, Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap was one of the New Currents Jury Members at the festival. A few days later, better news followed. Mozez Singh, Zubaan’s filmmaker, won the Rising Director Asia Star award at the festival.
Less than six months later, Zubaan’s hit Indian theatres, and, after having watched the film, the fact that Busan opened with Zubaan and conferred the coveted award to Singh seems no less than baffling.
Barely 15 minutes into Zubaan, you realise it’s made by a director who could do with a shot of confidence. Or shots. Because in Zubaan, Singh tries to think on your behalf.
Over-explaining to the audience
The film’s hero, Dilsher (Vicky Kaushal), a young lad from a village in Punjab, Gurdaspur, comes to Delhi, harbouring dreams of richer and respectable life.
His only connection and chance with that world is the pen that a real estate tycoon, Gurucharan Sikand (Manish Choudhary), had once gifted him many years ago. But once that fact is established, Singh keeps hammering it in. We see Dilsher roaming around the city, looking for opportunities, and the camera frames him rotating that pen in close-up. Not only is this a needless repetition of information, it’s also quite improbable. Why would someone carry such an important memento in his hand on a mundane day? This scene, just like many others in the film’s initial portion, exists for the audience, not for the characters.
Similarly, we soon know that Gurucharan and his son, Surya (Raaghav Chanana), don’t get along, but so much so that they can’t even feign an embrace in front of journalists flashing their cameras at them? When Dilsher enters a gym and picks a pair of dumbbells, where his senior from work is doing bench press, a menacing, thumping background score underlines the scene. At that instant you know that Dilsher’s going to land those dumbbells on him. And he does. It’s this inability of Singh to spring a genuine moment of surprise, or at least achieve something that’s not thoroughly ordinary and unoriginal, that fundamentally mars this film.
Singh and his co-writers, Sumit Roy and Thani, often take refuge in the uni-dimensional mannerisms of their characters. Surya resents Dilsher, but that fact is established scene after scene after scene. But what’s even more disappointing? The fact that in Zubaan, characters are not people but labels. Surya is jealous, insecure, and inept. Gurucharan is jealous, insecure, and smart. Dilsher is cunning, resourceful and troubled, but, essentially, earnest and loving. And the screenplay keeps running around in circle, using scenes as bludgeons — a sight that soon becomes pitiful and tiring.
But what’s unforgivable about the film, something that also makes it irredeemable, is its desperate tendency to appear profound. Amira (Sarah-Jane Dias) talks to Dilsher, wearing an expression of constant pain (she stoned, he sober), in an underground bar and a desert (which is, bizarrely, somewhere near Delhi) and tries to help him confront his pain. Dias, whose character is so poorly written that we don’t even know what she does, is so awkward in these scenes that it feels as if she’s constantly being watched — that she’s been told to ‘act’. You don’t really get a sense that Dilsher and Amira are falling for each other amidst the canvas of shared loss. Sure, that might have been the intention, but the execution always tells its own story.
Singh believes that one flashback and a few backstories will help plug the gap in his film, and his characters’ lives. But real life isn’t linear like that; you constantly progress and regress, remember and forget, hope and despair. The main problem with Zubaan is not that it’s mediocre, but that its failures are facile and insignificant.
As Indian indies keep discovering themselves, we will see both Zubaans and Masaans. And it’s only natural; anything (relatively) new or ‘different’ will have its success and failures — some more heightened than others. The least we can do is sit back and watch, applaud but also disapprove, champion but also castigate. We don’t need to rescue our films; they can look after themselves.