Cat Sticks, the only Indian film to be screened at 2019 Slamdance Film Festival, is a nuanced take on drug addiction
Slamdance, a subversive film festival, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Cat Sticks is the only Indian film to be screened at the festival.
At the heart of conscientious, suburban South Kolkata lies Rabindra Sarobar an artificial lake, whose grounds have hosted many generations of Bengali youth. Between 1992 and 2002, an old friend, Pradip (name changed), who then was a stellar student at an esteemed engineering college nearby, spent most of his waking hours at the Lake, ambling in and out of consciousness as he and Chuuthe - the local beggar he’d befriended - chased line after line of cheap smack. By nightfall, they’d move into Chuuthe’s home — a shanty across the street where his young daughter had hung up a flimsy cloth that separated their variegated reality from hers.
In Ronny Sen’s debut feature Cat Sticks, in a caustic frame, a father chases a line of sugar, while his young son sits across the table, eating dinner. It’s a typical day in the household; an archetypical poster of Taj Mahal flanks the wall behind them. The singular contrast that delineates the ‘normal’ from the ‘abnormal’ blurs the very line separating them.
This very obfuscation is what Sen set out to achieve in the first place. “Those that are ‘normal’ barely understand that they perhaps do not completely comprehend addiction. I’ve tried to bridge the gap.”
Set in 1990s Calcutta, the film explores these anonymous lives of addicts on a night when their lives intertwine despite their existence in different fringes of society - for all of them, their ‘normal’ is facilitated by their abject addiction.
Since the 1980s Calcutta has seen a huge surge in street drugs - among them is Halogen, a version of cheap heroin that hit Calcutta in the late 2005-2006 and has claimed a whopping number of lives. Together with brown sugar, these drugs altered the social fabric of the seemingly placid City of Joy. A New York Times article from ’87, estimated the drug-related deaths in India in between 1982-87 at anywhere between half a million to a million, with the addicts increasing almost at the rate of 15000 people every year. What the drug did in India, with its deadly addictive qualities, is act as one great leveller — everyone from university students, to autowallahs, rickshaw-pullers to businessmen, and government officials to petty vendors and rich kids, was addicted.
For his film Cat Sticks, Sen had to work with an ensemble cast, most of whom went through rigorous workshops, where he introduced them to recovering addicts at various stages, in an effort to create a more humanised, nuanced portrayal of addiction. His efforts did not go unnoticed.
Slamdance — a festival that a bunch of subversive filmmakers instituted back in 1995, when they refused rejection from the more illustrious Sundance Film Festival — marks it as “one of the most gorgeous and affecting films [the festival] has presented in recent memory”.
Slamdance celebrates its 25th anniversary this year - Cat Sticks is the only Indian film at the festival. This is a festival that marks itself as ‘a community, an experience, a statement’ more than a commercial marketplace; Sen ruminates that the film could not have hoped for a better world premiere. “Cat Sticks is the story of a collective conscience — the experiences of an entire generation that grew up with drugs on the streets of Calcutta.”
Stories about drug abuse, when they are told at all, come peppered with edgy undertones if not moralistic overtones. “Brown Sugar has been rampant in India for over three decades now, but there is very little empathy or awareness about how to deal with addicts. Addiction is very difficult to empathise with for someone who does not even understand where it comes from, or the biological agony it brings. Why else would you treat addicts the same way as you’d treat delinquents?” asks Sen. This is a problem that, Sen says, occurs in a society that deals with addicts with disgust and diffidence.
For Sen however, the empathy came easy. His ten protagonists are reflections and remnants of people he grew up with. Some childhood friends and neighbours never made it. “History counts its dead bodies in round numbers!” he smirks, adding, “these stories needed telling to make sure that the stories of the three people that also died, over and above the 1000 that were reported as the official figures, were not forgotten”.
In this telling, Sen has stripped the film of colour as well. “The moment you strip the layers of colours, it’s easy to see,” he says. The film is shot entirely in black and white, a grammar he credits to his cinematographer Shreya Dev Dube. “Very few people in India understand the logic of black and white beyond sheer aesthetics. Shreya’s work stands out. It was a blessing that I found her.”
Sen has been working on weaving redolent narratives around addiction for years now. His photographic work with the BBC is one of the few documented series on recovering addicts. Cat Sticks, he asserts, has evolved from almost 22 years of relentless research, that has been his life. With his gritty and stark black and white imagery, an aesthetic that Sen is often identified with, he hopes to bring a realistic counter-narrative to the chimera of drug abuse.
While the film is receiving much international acclaim, marking how “…Sen found a way to make such a depressing and grotesque thing such as drug use, look like its a painting in motion”, after its world premiere at Slamdance on 27 January, the makers have very little hope for a theatrical release in India. Sen however hopes to further this into a trilogy, with stories that branch off from Cat Sticks. “Cat Sticks was only my film school.” Sen, who has been an internationally acclaimed photographer, finds this new medium of storytelling quite enthralling.
After a successful world premiere the team is looking forward to their second screening at the festival on 31 January. Beyond the accolades, for Sen the film remains an homage to a generation that was fuelled by “innocence, more than anything else; a pure, unadulterated, unconditional love for drugs, and its eventual predictable end and consequences”. The tribute the film opens with is perhaps the only flicker of emotion that Sen exhibits, in what is otherwise a memoir unvarnished by the creator’s own emotional impulses. It embodies the impassioned melancholia of the highs and lows of addiction. His opening line: “This is for my dead friends to come back from the night.”
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