Film: Dekh Tamasha Dekh
Director: Feroz Abbas Khan
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of playwright Feroz Abbas Khan’s sociopolitical satire is the complete absence of a single strand of background music. As a direct result of this, there is a simmering heaviness and real-world gravity to the dark, comical undertones that attempt to mould this fragmented communal drama. I can’t say ‘comical’ without thinking twice, but the few flimsy characters that kickstart this film soon melt away into a rather frightening (and very familiar) small-town atmosphere.
Based partially on real events, ‘Dekh Tamasha Dekh’ begins as any Indian satire does – through an unlikely event, which eventually spirals out of proportion. But instead of assuming a silly Priyadarshan absurdist tone most religious satires succumb to, the film primarily revolves around the slow-burning – and very, very serious – chaos that ensues after a drunken man is crushed by a full-sized cutout of a vile local politician (Satish Kaushik). The religious identity of this man is debated furiously between two warring communities (buried or cremated?) of a traditionally sensitive coastal Indian town. As is often the case, the victim is forgotten, and chests are beaten and sirens alarmed for a cause far more selfish than death or life of an individual.
The power of this bizarre premise lies in its’ unyielding narrative style— peppered with a bunch of motley characters that add little by way of pace, but offer great scope for priceless set pieces. Right from the first scene—where a hawaldar disintegrates mentally after being ordered to find a rapist named Kalia that impregnated and killed Elizabeth (dogs)—the film descends into long-winding phases that initially seem indulgent, but add up to create an atmosphere that typifies a moody nation in a riotous nutshell.
Even today, the country is just an inch away from imploding and venting; formulaic stereotypical screen characters often leave viewers unprepared and off-guard for what is to follow. Remarkably, violence is never physically displayed; Khan’s filmmaking prowess comes to the fore with minimalist technique— especially in two standout sequences: A deaf Muslim historian is completely oblivious to the desperate screams of his servant being slaughtered outside his thundering door. The blood that then spills through from under the door is chilling and vivid; Khan’s vision would be hailed if not for the milky redness of fake blood (production designer, why this cola-very?) Equally exemplary is a hysterical scene – it’d be funny and I’d feel guilty for laughing at it if not for the underlying grief – that involves a chest-beating group of typical village women that converse through loud wails, before disappearing at the first sign of running water. Survival before mourning, as usual. There’s also the long introductory scene of Satish Kaushik (topless again after ‘Lakshmi’) being bathed in paste while discussing various outcomes of the unfortunate incident. This is perhaps the goriest scene, only because Kaushik manages to be utterly vulgar without even trying. All part of the plan, I guess.
The admirable part about this cleverly-mounted liberal dialogue is that despite its mid-90s setup, this film refuses to take sides. Khan tries too hard to stick to a multi-tracked parallel setup though, and perhaps loses out due to the absence of a sole protagonist. It’s always more relatable to have a personal touch in between – a single character or story arc that takes audiences through the story with his/her neutral or partial gaze. At times, Khan tilts towards an idealistic newly-transferred cop, but stops short of giving him a real voice. The film thrives on overpopulating frames, which is why even the poster seems to suggest this deliberate impersonal docu-dramaisque narrative tone. This unfamiliar treatment only adds to its topicality today, at this moment, in a country perpetually on the verge of a fierce political revolution.
Eventually, however, the question begs to be raised: Is there no bridge that connects Satish Kaushik, the uncompromising actor, and Satish Kaushik, the compromised director?