The literal and the literary

Prawin Adhikari | May 26, 2014

Eelum Dixit’s directorial debut, Red Monsoon, explores abuse and refuses respite. It looks at the spatial character of relationships. It traces a line between rebellion and its genesis in abuse: literally between one pair of characters and with a bit more subtlety between others. It peels back the layers that obscure our chaotic metropolis by looking at different homes – made of the frail web of bondage between persons and their possessions. But mostly, it chronicles abuse of many kinds. Well, actually, the one kind – from the strong, unto the weak, but in many shades, or tries something like that. The work seems at once assured and fortified, and at the same time a bit limp.

Sarita Giri – for whom it seems impossible to do any role wrong – plays her Anushka with painted, pouty relish. She is not the lead, but each look she steals on screen, seals the scene for her. Anushka is the squalid conscience of those of us stuffed away into a dark chowk, forced to collect baubles and dream of a brighter time. Her evil is reptilian, her slithering tongue poisoning the ears of Karuna – played with halting vulnerability by Shristi Ghimire. Anushka wistfully stares out of the window at young children playing, but old enough to have fallen into the natural sins of men and women, she wants only to corrupt: through insinuation and invitation. Her pointed goading seems to indicate an inner strength and not a fatal weakness as the moral world would perhaps like to suggest.

Ghimire, playing it plain and unadorned, manages to parry Giri’s thrust: Karuna will absentmindedly push prayer wheels before she can do anything that a perfect heroine would or could. Of course, she also comes from abuse, the conclusion of which makes for one strand of the wispy ending. But for most of the time, she asks the same question: Is this the life I chose? When she makes a choice for the second time in the movie, it just doesn’t feel like Karuna has gotten very far from where she started. She is still in abuse, still alone.

Her husband Krishna, played by Sandip Chhetri – whose impressive work I first saw in a yet-unreleased feature (then) called Signature – is the spine of the movie: he holds it together by allowing all the other characters to interact through his presence. He is lost between making something of himself and becoming someone for those who love him. Of course, he comes from abuse. His inability to move towards honesty is the clasp that opens to allow everybody around him to unravel and descend into their personal hells. He is the heat that precedes the vitalizing rains of monsoon. Krishna shows us how abuse begins: when we try to hide our flaws in order to impress our strengths upon those who demand a different kind of strength from us: something moral, something essential.

At the center of it all is the wandering consciousness of Himali Dixit’s Chetana. She, a newly minted widow, and therefore, of course, subject to abuse by her in-laws. Dixit jumps headlong into a role, whose challenges, a more seasoned actor would have relished. Dixit plays it between maniacal abandon and melancholia: her Chetana is always at the center of coincidences and chaos, and thus the force that nudges the plot along.

There is a neat line drawn between Anushka and Chetana: somehow, when women take on desire, they wear gaudy eye-shadows. Karuna – for whom desire is a distant concern, now that she is worried about a ‘secure future’ – floats through the movie unadorned, yet daring to ask, beseech, and beg for attention. The camera gives her plenty of attention: when she asks accusatory questions in a subdued voice, her face is a delight to watch for the subtle inflections in emotion it goes through. But the plot of the movie leaves her languishing.

What do these characters want for themselves? Is it in the nature of a flashback to always fall down a well of clichés? Were the dialogues written in English and then translated into Nepali? Are some of the abusive characters a metaphor about or commentary on the larger political picture? Does Lochan Rijal – who wrote the music and sings throughout the film – imagine that a disregard for grammar gives the lyrics profundity? The context comes through wonderfully – but what of being contextual? Being grounded? Do certain actors seem miscast because they seem not to belong to the context? What is the director’s mother doing in the film, as if her presence is required for the story to propel forth? These questions come to mind while waiting for the movie to finally come out of its shell and speak to the note-taker in the audience. But these are mere questions.

Red Monsoon could have shed itself of the numerous time-lapse Kathmandu clichés, and it could have perhaps thought its tone better. But it is an attempt at being literary that we rarely get to see in Nepali cinema. If Nabin Subba’s by-now-forgotten Good Bye Kathmandu had made it to the theaters a couple of years ago, we’d perhaps not need Red Monsoon. But since we don’t have that movie to show us our city in a certain light, this latter effort is important.

We aren’t yet a confident industry in terms of how we make movies or how we watch them. The audience kept laughing at what seemed the most inappropriate times – but how can you blame that on the audience? While Kabaddi, in its third week, had nearly half a dozen shows on a Monday, Red Monsoon, on its fourth day, had two shows at QFX theaters. That should shame us as viewers, as people who want better cinema to emerge from the nation.

Just before I went to watch the movie, I called a friend from the industry to ask why there were only two shows for Red Monsoon. He answered with a question – “Aren’t there ten thousand people like you and me in this city?” People who would go and support a work as ambitious and original? I switched to Hindi to answer, because the melodrama was called for: “Hum toh lakhon mein ek hain – hamare jaise hazaron kahan?”  That was an attempt to hide the disappointment at my fellow movie-goers. Damn your lot! Go watch a movie when something original is being attempted! Don’t wallow in the literal – challenge yourself with the literary, once in a while!

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