'Peddlers isn't a movie of grand cinematic achievements, but one of small yet startlingly original victories,' says Sreehari Nair.
Most directors would kill to have Vasan Bala's ear. On watching his directorial debut Peddlers, I had the feeling that Bala is probably the kind of guy who, in real life, would respond to your questions only after a slight delay.
Why? Because he would be busy training his ear to discern the specific intonations and inflections in your speech -- about when you pause, when you blurt out sentences in a loop, when you digress into unrelated topics and when you break into a laughter in the middle of a narrative -- and what all of those specific speech patterns say about you.
Peddlers isn't a movie of grand cinematic achievements, but one of small yet startlingly original victories. And most of these victories have their source in how authentic the movie sounds.
After I was done watching it, and had hit the street for a smoke, I was hearing my environment in a whole new way: I heard the verbal posturing, I heard the monotonous rat-a-tats, I heard the sentences aborted midway and I heard the overlapping conversations.
Academically speaking, cinema may be a visual medium, but I think a big test of a new filmmaker's talent is how 'true' he is able to make his work 'sound.' Often 5 minutes into a film -- even a competently framed film, sometimes -- we can trace out aural aspects that just don't fit well: An actor parroting and croaking, a background score that is overdone or an ambient sound that's weirdly 'off.'
We have repeatedly seen directors with signature visual styles turn into aesthetes -- who then focus all their energies into creating gorgeous-looking frames and often do so at the cost of everything else that give life to these frames. Their pedantry for an obvious kind of beauty means that these directors eventually lose their cinematic rhythm; directors from Antonioni to Bhansali have all tapered off this way.
On the contrary, I think, any director who shows a deep concern for the auditory aspects in his cinema endures and gets better. Because they are never straining for a single, solitary effect, they are more fluid and the messiness of these directors is far more interesting than the prim aesthetics of directors committed to 'gorgeous stasis.'
In the same vein, Peddlers may be uneven cinema, but that doesn't diminish its beauty. In fact, the movie derives its beauty from something far more important than formal perfection: From those snatches of everyday life and conversations that oh-so-naturally find their way into its characters' interactions and their motivations.
In a scene set inside a seedy bar, one of the lead characters (a rooster of a boy, named Mac), takes two of his friends out for a drink. Mac wants to know from one of the two (JJ: A facilitator of odd jobs -- everything from Pellet swallowing to Camel Jockeying) about a girl he's interested in, and the other guy (A self-styled photographer) has just piled-on for company.
The conversation suddenly breaks away from the topic of the girl to the importance of truthfulness in friendship and then to the topic of a 'jacket.' JJ wants to hold back something, Mac wants his mates to come back to the core topic (the girl he loves) and the photographer dude wants his jacket back. They all talk over each other, and the cacophony is wonderful.
Vasan Bala populates the movie with instances such as the one above -- where the plot takes a backseat and his characters and the surroundings take over. Petty conversations play out like battles: it's the 'who shuts whom down' version of battles. And we learn more about the plot from the way these characters talk -- characters who are all loused up in some way or the other and on the edge of discharge.
Mac, the streetwalker, played by Siddharth Mennon, is only one of the three leads here. One of the other two being his object of affection, Bilkis (played by Kriti Malhotra), an ex-chemistry teacher who is dying of cancer and who then subsequently gets into a drugs-and-meth racket. (Maybe there is a reference to a great TV show somewhere, but it's rather faint.)
Bilkis and Mac are introduced to each other and then share a room in a chawl. She doesn't quite want him around and he isn't drawn to her immediately either; in fact he silently scorns at her when she moves around in her own orbit. But she has suffered more than him and risen through murkier experiences. We can sense this; which is why even her robotic actions seem more graceful to us when compared to his natural gaucheness.
Eventually he starts loving her standoffish-ness -- the thing that he once loathed. So he puts the moves on her -- on the off-chance that maybe she likes him too -- and she responds by pushing him away. This isn't Mac's first rejection, for he is a natural Trier -- the opening scene has him sprinting to the tune of Om-Dar-B-Dar's Kaun Aage Gaya; in his head, he is expecting to get laid with another girl who sees him as nothing more than a friend.
But when Bilkis pushes him away, it stirs up something more painful in him. Vasan Bala mounts a wonderful shot at this point that has Mac aiming stones at the birds -- even nature seems to be Mac's enemy. However when he goes back and apologises to Bilkis over two glasses of lemon juice, she calls him a 'Rapist' even as she has clearly discovered a softer side to him.
It's a moment of astonishing tenderness.
And it is such moments of tenderness and unexpected playfulness that Bala infuses in his central theme of 'urban alienation and dread' that lets him dramatise his ideas. This approach is also what sets Peddlers apart from the pretentious twaddle of many movies which under the pretext of delineating alienation go on and on about 'Metaphysical this, and Metaphysical that.'
Even as Bilkis and Mac soldier on, their romance full of sly, unrehearsed smiles, we are parallely taken through the rehearsed life of the third lead: Cop Ranjit D'Souza (played by Gulshan Deviah). In pure journalistic fashion, it's interesting to note that Deviah, who was wonderful as the incessant womaniser in Hunterrr, had here played a character that lies on the opposite end of the sexual spectrum.
On his really lucky nights at bars, D'Souza gives women the moony eyes and ends up shaming them by creating a sense of false sexual bravado. Most mornings, however, he wakes up berating himself over his impotency.
Bala doesn't quite shape the character -- he seems to have not got around to humanising his travails. The whole conceit about the impotent cop who plants insights and indulgences in acts of violence as a release for his infirmities has been attempted before and the movie doesn't have anything new to add to that pointer. Consequently, Deviah, who is sort of a master at playing the creep-cool, comes across as merely creepy here.
In fact, Vasan Bala seems so hell-bent at discolouring Ranjit D'Souza that he doesn't give his part of the story the 'juices'. He keeps it all pent-up, all consciously bottled.
There is a romance between D'Souza and his neighbour (Nimrat Kaur, in her debut film) and despite both actors working at the top of their capacities, that segment comes across as namby-pamby. This is also because Bala, I think, is too much of a true-artist to take advantage of the crude possibilities in the material -- an approach which might have, maybe, even worked here.
Like in a sequence, where Deviah joins Kaur for a dance, Bala immediately cuts to the next scene; almost as if to prove that D'Souza's flaccidity has its reverberations across all aspects of his life. It doesn't take a hack director to show a real dance between two people attracted to each other, but Bala -- too cautious that he doesn't turn D'Souza's problems into a joke -- just doesn't spit things out.
Nimrat Kaur and Gulshan Deviah do, however, rise above their unrealised parts, and that is a big reason for watching these flagrant bits in the movie. She is terrific at playing the lady who may not have the right words for comfort, but has just the perfect, icky remedy for a lecher.
And Deviah is simply one of our best young acting talents along with Jaideep Ahlawat, Radhika Apte, Shweta Tripathi, Vicky Kaushal, Amit Mistry, Siddharth Mennon and Kriti Malhotra (who are both life-like here) = and it's thanks to the actor's sheer instinctiveness that the movie sustains your interest even when his part of the proceedings just ambles off, aimlessly.
By the time that the lives of the three leads intersect and it leads to a violent and somewhat heartbreaking climax, Ranjit D'Souza starts to assume the look of a bogeyman in search of some arcane redemption. But Deviah still believes in the character. Whether it's his sitting motionless on the bed before putting the shoes on after a night of trying and getting nowhere OR thinking his thoughts for those two extra seconds when a barmy girl acts all coy-like demanding that he kiss her, the actor somehow manages to hold all the scrubby elements of his character together.
The one thing to note about all the performances in the movie is that even the underwritten characters are given a chance to discover their own reservoirs -- perhaps the key attribute that distinguishes a director who truly loves his actors from a director who merely loves that title-tag attached to his chair.
Visually, Peddlers goes for the effect that is maybe the most difficult to achieve: The movie seems to unfold in front of your eyes. Cinematographer Siddharth Diwan contrasts the vitality in the narrow chawl-lanes with the anemic-looking peephole-view of corridors in high-rises, and we realize that we are looking at two different shades of alienation here.
The rhythm of the movie is derived from the mundanities of everyday life and when Bala suddenly introduces a chase sequence -- that in its swiftness suggests City of God and in the way it ends, a tribute to In Burges -- the sudden, frenetic editing pattern there jolts you up.
The lanes look anthropomorphically-charged and there are rapid cuts to sharp visual cues -- to small kids who direct police officers to their prey, to a kerosene stove being set alight and to the clucking of a hen.
Almost like that, you get the feeling that the movie hasn't just burst into an underbelly, but also sucked in its survival tactics.
The shot compositions seem to naturally emerge from the material but it's when the poetry by Varun Grover kicks in inadvertently, that the frames achieve a complete sense of clarity. Grover is -- as you might have observed in Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan -- someone who writes poetry that put a flip on the poetry we learnt as kids: A poet of little-worlds-merging-into-grand-issues. Here the cold wistfulness in his lines, together with Karan Kulkarni's minimalistic notes, deepens the meaning of the scenes: they give them an amorous polish.
Peddlers -- which has been sitting out for release since 2012 -- has done some touring of the festival-circuit; Wikipedia classifies the festival audience's reaction to the movie as 'muted.' I can't help but feel that this has in some measure, contributed to the film not releasing in India. Which, of course, is tragic because, in the way it is designed, Peddlers is sure to have a more direct impact on the Indian audience.
Like I began this piece by saying, the movie is as much an aural achievement as a visual achievement; a minor classic, maybe even near-great. The quiets are punctured here and the confusions seem magnified.
But even as you subconsciously take in the wrenching, pulsating sounds, a more evident part of the Peddlers charm lies in its pointed, vernacular dialogues -- uttered in Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, and Marathi. And I can't suspect enough that hindered by flat, literal subtitling, the music in the daily-speak would have definitely been lost on an international audience.
What was missing in say, an austere film like Titli was a sense of shading. Vasan Bala's approach to cinema is as individualistic as Kanu Behl's, but he also knows how to make his texture dense; it's not all one-toned.
Bala doesn't share a ready-worship for Mumbai that other directors who have captured the city before him, had. What he possesses, though, is a numbing sort of fascination; an image of a city where someone would stop you from drowning and then direct you eastwards, where there are deeper waters than will let you drown in peace.
As a first-time director he shows the courage to wend off to harsher, more ascetic locations than what we have seen at the movies; and both in his photographing of the city as well as in his handling of the movie's emotional gradients, Vasan Bala never trots once out the regular party-tricks that may have helped advance his career-course.
In a scene towards the end, the cop Ranjit D'Souza, after going through a series of misfortunes, is shown in an elevator with a bloody nose which he wipes away. As a product of the movie-watching culture, it was natural for me to assume that maybe he is crying. But the immediate next shot shows D'Souza at the medical store, buying some cold medicines.
In its casual sidestepping of almost all the established cinematic conventions, Vasan Bala has made a movie that doesn't just unfurl a narrative but also digs up your set responses and makes you question their validity.
The result is an uncompromising work that partly sweeps you away and partly makes you feel as if you are found.