Camouflage review: Purab Kohli, Sumeet Vyas compensate for this short film's failure to engage
Camouflage ultimately fails to engage because in a set-up that’s limited to two people conversing across a table, the characters better have something interesting to say.
In October 2017, celebrated filmmaker Wong Kar Wai paid a unique tribute to one of the earliest motion pictures ever made — the Lumiere Brothers' Workers Leaving the Factory, 1895. The occasion was the 2017 Lumiere Festival in Lyon, and the venue was the same spot where the brothers filmed a set of workers exiting a factory. Wai assembled a few people inside and then filmed them as they came out. Ever the romantic, he asked a couple in the crowd to kiss, lending a personal touch to a legendary film.
People coming out from a factory: that had been the humble birth of storytelling in cinema. The original film wasn’t more than 45 seconds long. A pittance compared to the Hollywood and Bollywood mammoths that regularly clock in at over two hours. However, over a hundred years later, the allure of the short film refuses to die. Almost every other year witnesses the release of an anthology of short films featuring the most celebrated artists in the movie industry. Maybe it is the sheer challenge of compressing a story within this short duration that draws them to it. Or perhaps the freedom for experimentation it offers due to its shorter runtime.
The arrival of digital cameras has led to a democratisation of film. It has sprung filmmakers from across the country trying their hand at the shorter form. Platforms like Large Short Films and Pocket Films, among others, are doing a great service by encouraging new talent. From the Mumbai Film Festival to the Filmfare Awards, short films are everywhere. More and more actors from Bollywood can now be seen featuring in these films.
Aman Dahiya’s Camouflage, released on 26 February 2018, features Purab Kohli and Sumeet Vyas, well known faces both, in the roles of two men in uniform enjoying a short vacation at a beach resort. They are Marine Commandos belonging to MARCOS, the legendary special forces unit of the Indian Navy. The film revolves around an animated conversation the two friends engage in that night. What starts out as light nostalgic banter slowly turns into a discussion on duty and morals. The two men’s opposing views about the notion of action and justice drives the story. While Krishna Singh, played by Vyas, admits to itching for action, Kohli’s Balram Singh seems to have become disillusioned by the futility and horror of bloodshed.
As the reader may have noticed, we as a people have lately been increasingly obsessed with our armed forces, patriotism and national pride. Patriotism is being used to sell everything from motorbikes and soaps to fiction and morals. Dahiya’s film could have been an opportunity to examine this garage sale through the eyes of the men who suddenly find themselves plunged into the thick of the national conversation. And, for a while, it appears as if the director has taken up the challenge. Unfortunately, the narrative soon devolves into a stilted conversation that cannot avoid tipping its hat to the current national discourse.
Vyas and Kohli’s able performances can’t rescue a film plagued by drab dialogue. For a topic and situation that presents a plethora of conflicts, the best moments are taken up by the friendly nostalgic banter. The moment the film tries switching gears by raking up issues of duty, terrorism and morals, the dialogue turns ineffectual and staid. It takes great skill to create genuine dramatic tension out of a simple conversation. In a film whose protagonists play heroes in real life, the conversation cannot risk sounding unnatural, even momentarily. It leaves the viewer in the lurch.
Not that Dahiya’s heart isn’t in the right place. He recognises the potential of the material at his disposal. But by resorting to meandering monologues laced with grandiose ideas of civilisation and duty, he caricaturises his leading men. For a film whose very title promises a fascinating subtext, the eagerness to deliver a message drowns out the subtle conflicts that may well have elevated it. By the time the ending comes around, the tension has been spread all too thin to cohere.
The little spark that it offers comes largely due to Vyas and Kohli. Despite their thinly etched characters, they try to bring a solemnity and genuine sense of camaraderie to their on screen relationship. Kohli radiates warmth springing from wisdom and maturity that suggests years spent experiencing the manic futility of it all. Vyas considers action inseparable from his job. His notion of justice is prevailed over by his emotional and instinctual reaction to injustice. Vyas is all immediacy to Kohli’s contemplation. Together, they provide the viewer reason enough to sit through the film’s short runtime.
Camouflage — despite the sweeping, but ultimately wasteful, aerial and underwater shots it starts off with — fails to engage spiritedly with important questions. The director would have been better served by focusing on sharper, far more realistic dialogue to underscore the atmosphere he tries to conjure. For in a set-up that’s limited to two people conversing across a table, the characters better have something interesting to say.
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