One of the first novels I had ever read was British author William Sutcliffe’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ – a hysterical account of student gap-year travel. In it, Dave, the sarcastic stuck-up narrator, backpacks across India with Liz, his best friend’s girlfriend who he just wants to bed. He jumps from one torrid experience to another, before learning to love the country for its imperfections.
Agneya Singh’s M Cream is mildly reminiscent of the book, if only physically. It is beautifully shot, easing us into the mood of drifting where the wind takes us. Only, it isn’t satirical or funny, and revolves around a desi journey to procure a mythical form of hash named, yes, M Cream. It employs a narrative that attempts to take on the lucid, soul-searching form of its drug. It assumes a similar coming-of-age aura found amidst nature and mountains and assorted collections of colourful hippies, philosophical words and passionate revolutionaries. There’s literally a new adventure at every stop made by its protagonists – a series of ‘happy accidents’ until they’re not. This gets a bit repetitive after a while. That one is able to predict something exotic or eye opening around the corner is an inherent drawback of the finding-oneself genre. It therefore comes solely down to its inhabitants, all of who come from a stage background.

Dave here is actually a Delhi stoner named Figs [Imaad Shah]. After a mandatory conservative-parents-planning-future scene (Tom Alter, as his father, is too fleeting; his presence is felt more in the fact that he has named his son Figaro), he tags along for a road-trip to Dharamsala with his best friend (and longtime crush), Maggie [Auritra Ghosh; suitably ‘girlfriendy’]. Joining them are Maggie’s photographer boyfriend, Niz [Raaghav Chanana; saddled with bad lines], and his activist friend, the “outsider”, J [Ira Dubey].
The film begins with a continuous opening shot of a smoky farmhouse party; the camera follows random figures across the bungalow and sprawling lawns until it arrives at our core group of loose doobie-smoking characters. This single take, of course, is designed to arrest our attention immediately, as is the case with many smaller films that emphasize on these gimmicks to lay down the technical marker early on.

It is immediately established that Figs and J occupy the opposite sides of the existential spectrum. The oversexed couple, meanwhile, simply exists to serve as necessary instruments of conflict. J wants to fix the country and its mother; Figs just wants a fix, at all times possible. He drinks straight from the bottle, which can get unnerving after a bit. They’re a match made in hell. In one scene, he rambles on about the futility of religion to a Buddhist Free-Tibet activist; he expects to be slapped, before J unexpectedly agrees with his views. Figs’ reaction (“What? I have a point? Of course I do!”) is priceless, and says a lot about how he has perhaps never taken himself seriously, until J interrupts his life.

They dislike one another at first, which, in terms of ‘road-movie’ parlance, suggests that these personalities will eventually gravitate – and borrow – from each other. From a booze-addled guesthouse to a brief Free Tibet project, from a visually extravagant acid trip and moon-rave party to idealistic protest groups, M Cream touches upon everything ‘backpacky’ to explore its contrasting characters.

Imaad Shah seems to idolize his father [Naseeruddin Shah] enough to become his mini-me. As the gangly, wasted spoilt brat discovering that there’s more to life than rum and cigarettes, his lilting boyishness holds your gaze. Unfortunately, he isn’t given much of an arc other than reacting lethargically to other voices. Ira Dubey internalizes the debate-team captain stereotype, but with a sort of sincerity that makes you want to believe her (conveniently) changing worldview.

Such trips, and by extension movies about them, don’t usually have an end; in the real world, a bunch of North-Indian kids would just come back after a drug-addled party weekend. But cinema must have stories to tell; they rely on internal transformations and epiphanies, often realized in the haze and clear air of the Himalayas. Suddenly, life becomes about everything and yet about nothing – as denoted by J’s ambiguous “now what?” expression towards the end of the film.

When I look back at the film, I remember its moments, like fragmented memories. I remember a passionate French journalist with some very wise lines (“There is a difference between hyping a cause and advocating it.”) I remember a debauched old American hippie [Barry John] and his magic pills. I remember a frantic mating session between Maggie and Niz, and all the copious amounts of booze and dhaba food consumed on the trip. I remember some very agreeable music. I remember a vague bust-up, and cops cracking down on protestors. I don’t want to remember Figs’ writer-like voiceover almost morphing into Farhan’s poetry from Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara. I don’t want to remember half-baked theories about politics and governments in passing.
There’s no completeness to these memories, and no definite thread binding them. Much of it feels mythical, as is evident from the countless hungover mornings its characters endure. And perhaps that is the sole point of a film named M Cream – an obvious, but fairly effective side effect.

Rating: 3 stars