How does a young man feel about sex? It's not a stupid question if you keep in mind that people actually do have varied responses to sex — revulsion, curiosity, pleasure, hatred, compulsiveness, fear and so on. Usually, in life and in films about sex, you sense how a person's take on this rather intimate subject when they talk about or engage in the activity. In B.A. Pass, a young man named Mukesh (Shadab Kamal) spends the better part of 100 minutes having sex and his expression tells you nothing about what's going on between either his legs or his ears.
When he has to show the helplessness of a grief-struck, orphaned Mukesh, Kamal does a fine job. It's when he has to communicate something a little more complex — the reaction he has to the fact of sex in his life, betrayals that leave him in a lose-lose situation — that Kamal flounders and this is more the script's failing than his. Like him, all the actors in B.A. Pass do a commendable job of taking flat characters and fleshing them out as much as they can within the confines of a screenplay that is intent upon ensuring the audience hates some characters and loves others.
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 has sex with women in an effort to make money. The economy's slowing down, it's tough to get a job and no one called when he put up posters offering his services as a home tutor (that isn't meant to be a euphemism). What's a boy to do then but answer some booty calls?
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. At the beginning of B.A. Pass, orphaned and miserable Mukesh is living with an uncle who is invisible, an ungenerous aunt and an obnoxious cousin. College is no escape because he is a student of BA Pass, an undemanding, neglected mess of a degree that doesn't carry with it the pride of BA Hons. He finds solace in learning chess from a book that deciphers Garry Kasparov's chess tactics.
This humdrum existence is rocked (and how) when he catches the eye of sultry Sarika (Shilpa Shukla), wife of Mukesh's uncle's boss. Sarika sashays around in satin wraps and keeps he bra on while making a man — or a loverboy — out of young Mukesh. Shukla's brief seems to have been to be an Indian Jessica Rabbit. This she does convincingly, right down to the hairstyle. It's just a terribly uni-dimensional role because the filmmaker doesn't offer any hints to what's behind this facade. It's only Shukla's complete commitment to the role that just about saves Sarika from becoming a caricature that speaks breathily and wears brightly-coloured bras.
Soon, Sarika turns from teacher to pimp and starts sending Mukesh around to different bored housewives. Thanks to them, Mukesh finds out what's happening in the afternoon soaps, because what else does a housewife do other than have illicit sex and watch crap TV?
There are brief moments — guilt, at first; later, pride — when Mukesh betrays some reactions, but most of the time, when Mukesh has sex, he's strangely uninvolved. (Note to boys and gentlemen: that's no way to treat a woman, no matter how bored she is.) If you want to see a truly complicated response to sex, watch Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen's Shame, particularly in the scene where he has a threesome. The torment, revulsion, compulsion and the physical pleasure that sex is for him are all there along with the business of sex itself.
In B.A. Pass, sex happens to people rather than being something people do because of personal and emotional impulses. Still, so long as Bahl's attention is upon a young man who becomes a prostitute because of circumstances, B.A. Pass holds your attention. There are all sorts of little nuances — the relationship between grief and sex, death wish and sexual gratification, notions of maturity, the importance of money — that you can imagine into the story.
Unfortunately, this is only half the film. After intermission, there are too many anxieties and people nipping at Mukesh's heels: Sarika's husband, Mukesh's family, Sarika herself, and others. Mukesh suddenly goes from passive to psychotic and there are betrayals and twists in the last part of the film that are meant to break your heart but just make you wish the film would end already. As the end credits rolled, someone in the audience said, "It's a bit of an anti-climax, no?" Their friend replied, "What do you expect from a manwhore? And a BA Pass one at that." Ouch.
Ultimately though, it isn't the sex or the characters of B.A. Pass that are memorable. It's the electric beauty of director-cinematographer Ajay Bahl's Delhi and that luminous, topsy-turvy Paharganj made up of lurid lights, dreams and nightmares.