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How existential despair is coupled with an intriguing sense of loneliness in B.A. Pass?

BY SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

Adapted from Mohan Sikka’s ‘The Railway Aunty’, a short story published in 2009 that was part of the Delhi Noir anthology, the film unbuttons, unbuckles and unstraps its scenes slowly, silently: it’s one erotic escapade – warped, caustic and brave; the film is neither exploitatively ‘erotic’ nor manipulatively ‘bold’. It is a deeply melancholic take on innocence being sullied and abused in a benighted world of dangerous liaisons and false moves, where the privileged and powerful prey relentlessly and mercilessly on those that are weak and vulnerable. Emotions are not even a distant mirage in this sensitively arid urban outback, and the fornication-act is indulged in with clinical coldness, only as a means to exercising power over the meek, not as a pursuit of pleasure by a pair soaked in love.

The narrative is located in this bleak, amoral universe, where vile treachery lurks at every bend. Set against the backdrop of a neon-rich Pahargunj that looks vaguely like Tokyo as seen in Hollywood movies, B.A. Pass is the story of a young man named Mukesh who gets quickly sucked into a bottomless abyss in an effort to make money. The economy’s slowing down, it’s hard to get a job and no one called when he put up posters offering his services as a home tutor.

The orphaned, bereaved and penniless Mukesh moves to Delhi to live with his aunt and complete his B.A degree. Mukesh finds himself in a humdrum and humiliating life, until Sarika Aunty calls him over to pick up a crate of apples. The sultry neighbourhood aunty Sarika (Shilpa Shukla) sets out to seduce him and Mukesh falls for her charm. He realizes, too late, that she has trapped him into a sordid life he cannot escape.

B.A. Pass is essentially a coming-of-age saga using sex as a tool to carry the plot forward. We’ve seen it before, certainly – Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) come to mind; the predatory housewife feasting on the boner of a young, willing man. For Bollywood, this is a first attempt of sorts, which makes BA Pass rather an unusual film; however, the director’s treatment is solid, his setting credible, his narrative unwavering and his actors uniformly impressive.

No one in this film allows us to feel sorry for the derelict lives; the characters fit into the film’s dreadful karma with disturbing inevitability, as though everyone we see in this motion picture was pre-ordained to suffer and fade away. The boy needs money to fund his studies and his two sisters’ stay in an orphanage. The sexual predator next door puts him in touch with other similarly sexually-famished ‘aunties’ in the neighbourhood, and he soon begins to earn enough to be able to dream of escape for himself and his hapless siblings.

Post intermission, as the focus shifts towards the other problems of life faced by the young man, the pace drops and it becomes a more intense film moving towards a shocking climax which might be depressing for many. But all stories do not have a happy ending and here we have the one which daringly talks about those dark and ugly, avoidable phases of life which do not give many choices to a person caught in their unbreakable trap. All that seems to exist and thrive is runaway lust. Here, seduction is only a deadly, soul-destroying game whose rules are as perverse as the morally barren terrain that it is played on.

By the time we arrive at the finishing line, we know the protagonist has exhausted all his options. It is the end of the road for the film’s achingly confused protagonist. Hard choices have to be made at pen-ultimate juncture. B.A. Pass is dark, even for a noir. Scenes in the sunshine come as a relief from the murky depths of a landscape which is Mukesh’s hell that lies under the serene, genteel veneer of middle class life in Delhi.

Violence is a constant presence in this callous world: lovemaking is carnivorous and leaves bruises and scratches that linger long enough on the body to singe the soul of the boy at the receiving end. And all this is always just one catastrophic step away from brutal blood-letting.

B.A. Pass is gritty and affecting because its characters, even the most minor ones, are vividly engraved, believable people. B.A. Pass combines the bone-dry quality of a chiseled short story and the stark directness of a minimalist tragedy to deliver a taut, gripping film about the hell that a big city can be behind the bright neon lights and the living room glass cabinets stacked with dolls. The acting lends coiled power to the story, with both Shilpa Shukla and Shadab Kamal holding their own all the way through this obviously difficult-to-navigate material.

Shukla invests the smouldering and scheming ‘railway aunty’ with an aura of mystery and ruthless impenetrability that is at once raw and refined. It is a performance marked by remarkable skill. With stoic candour, Sarika is unapologetic about being a cougar: she grabs, and she acquires. Shilpa Shukla, whom we saw first as a feisty hockey player in Chak De India, brings to the part a frozen graspingness. Whether she is labouring on top of her young lover, or having him pleasure her, or standing up to her boorish husband (Sharma), she doesn’t change expression while her intelligently expressive eyes speak volumes.

The director, who is also the film’s cinematographer, creates furtive flurries in the shadows, elongated disconcerting silences, and decrepit constricted spaces over which the stench of death, decay and cruelty hang heavy.

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