Dibakar Banerjee’s Ghost Stories segment is a scathing take on current politics, reaffirming his cinematic mastery
Dibakar has packed his short in Ghost Stories with commentary on the current central government’s fascist, totalitarian and majoritarian tendencies.
Spoiler alert: There are a few.
In Dibakar Banerjee’s short film within the Ghost Stories anthology on Netflix, there’s a sequence set in a classroom in a village (‘Smalltown’, as the English subtitles will tell you). In this classroom, even as gruesome horrors are about to unfold, you may notice the intriguing chalk-drawn illustration on the blackboard.
It is, ostensibly, a map of India drawn to show the flow of the monsoon winds. You will, however, see that while the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East are intact, the rest of India’s borders have been haphazardly erased. (Deciphering this detail isn’t much of a task. If you know, you know. You know?)
This is just one of the many ways in which Dibakar has packed this short with commentary on the current central government’s fascist, totalitarian and majoritarian tendencies. In fact, there are so many analogies and metaphors, big and small, used throughout his segment, that it feels like a ‘short film’ in the truest sense of the term; among other traits, it is precise, clever and ambitious, with every frame and every line of dialogue designed to continuously convey and reinforce the message of the film.
Be it the concept of the people of ‘Bigtown’ eating those from ‘Smalltown’; the symbolism behind the rules of engagement of this cannibal behavior; the frequent use of onions as a motif; or even the fact that the whole gory affair starts in - wait for it - a geography class; this is a film that constantly offers delicious tidbits to chew on, bad pun obviously intended.
In one stunning close-up shot in the aforementioned classroom, as the ravenous monster growls in the foreground, its face is framed to cover the rest of India on the blackboard behind, with J&K and the North-East sticking out from behind its head.
(It is even worth pondering over the Hindi names of the villages. ‘Smalltown’ is actually called ‘Bees-ghara’, loosely translating to ‘village with 20 homes’. Does that come from the 20% minority population of India? Bigtown is called ‘Sau-ghara’ or ‘village with 100 homes’. Does that signify a place with 100% majority population, a microcosm of a hypothetical ‘Hindu Rashtra’, so to speak? Such questions abound.)
To fully understand Dibakar Banerjee’s mastery, it is worth going over the many attributes that set a short film apart from a feature-length movie. (And no, it isn’t just about the runtime.)
Unlike feature films, short films are rarely packaged as commercial, profit-making ventures. They are, most often, a platform for filmmakers to showcase their skills and possibly earn a shot at a more prestigious project. Consequently, they are often filled to the brim with ambition, the length restrictions causing filmmakers to push their knowledge and application of cinematic grammar to extract as much juice from their craft as possible.
A languid, pointless short is rare; on the contrary, everything about a short film is usually in service of its *point* - an interesting anecdote, a social message, a big reveal, a shock ending, or even just the proficiency of the director in their discipline. There usually aren’t many scenes dedicated to fleshing out a character for the audience. That has to be achieved on the go, with brevity and audio-visual craft.
Unlike in feature films - so dependent on eyeballs and footfalls - spoon-feeding the viewer is rarely on the agenda with a short film. (The explanation spoon-fed at the end of his Ghost Stories segment also seems to serve a political purpose in keeping with the rest of his film - “Will those who *need* to get it, get it? Let’s make sure.”)
You won’t just see all these traits in Dibakar’s Ghost Stories short; rewind to Bombay Talkies in 2013, the first time Dibakar and his three contemporaries came up with an anthology based on one theme, and you’ll see so many of these characteristics in his segment in that film as well.
While that one, adapted from a Satyajit Ray short story and starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, wasn’t nearly as ambitious as his latest brutally political enterprise is, it was perhaps far more complex, with a spectrum of symbolism of which so much isn’t nearly as obvious as what you see in Ghost Stories. It had allusions to Bombay’s class divide, its reputation as the city of dreams (both Bollywood and beyond), nepotism, the tragic mill shutdown in the 80s, the Marathi pride sentiment, and even some subtle magic realism. (Nawaz’s jobless struggler Purandar owns a fourth-wall-breaking emu named Anjali, which turns up, out of context, in his imagination. Make what you will of that.)
Even throwaway lines in that film were used to aid some kind of commentary. In one sequence, Purandar – a failed actor, failed businessman, failed employee and on-the-verge-of-failing father – chances upon the shoot of a film starring then-flavour of the season Ranbir Kapoor. The name of the film he’s shooting? Tashan 2, for whatever reason.
In fact, over the three anthologies comprising 12 short films by the four filmmakers, these two by Dibakar Banerjee arguably jostle it out for best and second-best, with daylight between them and whatever else manages to claim third place. His segment in Lust Stories may be the weakest in his ouvre, but even that one - a story of three characters, marital discord and infidelity - was a mature, fresh take on what’s often seen as humankind’s most perverse interpersonal frailty.
Here’s the thing: His short films don’t just indicate a mastery over this format in particular, but merely reiterate Dibakar Banerjee’s cinematic genius.
Back in 2010, when a majority of Hindi movies were still being shot on film, Dibakar eschewed celluloid for his third feature, Love Sex aur Dhoka. But that one wasn’t a regular movie shot digitally instead of on film. He didn’t simply change the format and camera; he made a truly ‘digital’ film, something that had its own grammar based on the new, exciting tools he had at his disposal. Today, digital might be the standard capture format for most movies, but few filmmakers have tried to push and evolve the medium the way he did.
The debate over what is stranger – truth or fiction – has raged for ages. Yet, cinema tends to have this unique quality that blends both into something greater, and for a cinephile, often something transcendent.
Take, for instance, what I experienced when I revisited Dibakar’s short in Bombay Talkies. Nawazuddin’s Purandar is a failed actor with a theatre background; a wobbly, insignificant ‘Marathi manus’. (Even though Nawaz’s Marathi diction isn’t perfect, he makes Purandar into a living, breathing person.) Later, when unsubstantial Purandar gets his moment of glory, his chance to feature in a scene with Ranbir Kapoor, he transforms. Weakly Purandar becomes confident and takes charge.
To improve the scene, he asks an assistant director for a newspaper. “Loksatta or Saamana, because Times of India would be out of character,” he commands. At that precise moment when we see him ‘in character’ for the first time, it is almost prescient; because Nawaz looks eerily like Saamana creator Bal Thackeray, who he would go on to portray on the big screen about half a decade later.
Now obviously this has nothing to do with Dibakar Banerjee’s filmmaking craft. Yet, such moments that blow your mind years later, often tend to happen only with truly great filmmakers. Even if you leave aside the seminal Khosla Ka Ghosla, the avant-garde LSD, and the flawed-yet-underappreciated masterpiece that is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! – just two out of his three anthology shorts are enough to claim for Dibakar Banerjee, a spot among the finest filmmakers in Hindi cinema. At a time when Bollywood’s political engagement is largely (with notable exceptions) relegated to selfies and ‘scrumptious dinners’, Dibakar’s scathing latest short film is something we should all devour.
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