Movie Review: Kashyap's 'The Last Act' tries to be more than some of its parts

Trisha

Dec,15 2012 14:49:49 IST

The best thing about The Last Act is its unpredictability. It’s rare enough to sit down to a film – especially a film that’s coming out of the Bombay film industry – and have little idea what to expect. If you go in with the expectation of an "Anurag Kashyap film", you might be disappointed.

By handing over its 12 segments over to 12 young directors, the film manages to keep us from ever quite settling in. Just as we start to get used to a particular style or mood or pace, the film is up an running, transporting us to a different place, in the hands of a different guide.

The film’s 12 directors were chosen via an all-India contest by Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and Chakri Toleti, and asked to make 10 minute short films that would be part of a larger story, whose plot was written by Anurag Kashyap.

That original plot is a simple one. A corpse is discovered on the road, so badly disfigured that it cannot be identified. Twelve clues are discovered on or near the body, each leading to a different place. So we begin in Mumbai, where the ‘clue’ leads to a theatre troupe led by Saurabh Shukla. Then we move to Ghaziabad, where the trail leads to an English coaching centre. Then comes Calcutta, where the clue leads to a crumbling old house; Delhi, where a man seems to have disappeared; Kalyan, where it’s a woman who is missing, and so on until all 12 cities have been covered and we return to Mumbai for the last act.

The Last Act. Poster

It’s not a bad idea, though the “clues” being solved in different cities make the film seem even more like a puzzle than murder mysteries already do. Perhaps it’s the game-like quality this creates, or the fact that each segment gets only ten minutes time to establish its characters, but The Last Act is certainly much more of a mental exercise than an emotional one. Even when a character seems memorable, she’s not someone you can cry for.

The larger problem, though, is the unevenness of the segments.

The film begins well enough, with Saurabh Shukla as the theatre troupe director in a stock but nicely done interrogation sequence. The Ghaziabad section was pretty decent, working with predictable elements like an English teaching class and a Jat cop to create an intriguing narrative (and it’s great to see Ghaziabad and Kalyan given a chance to be places in their own right). Tathagata Singha’s Calcutta segment managed to incorporate a bunch of Bengali trademarks: indigestion, poetry, old houses with an amiable gentility largely derived from the rhyme-solving policeman at its centre. Anurag Goswami’s Lucknow narrative displayed a similar attachment to the urban types of that city, taking us from the shops of Aminabad to the studenty rooms of Habibullah University with an attentiveness to speech that consciously upturns the over-used ‘pehle aap’ stereotype with a jeweller who can’t stop swearing on the one hand and makes it a point to say Allah Hafiz on the other. Hisar’s cop-as-angry-young-man and Himanshu Tyagi’s Gwalior, with its tailor shop and Sherlock-style policeman, too, were engaging creations.

But segments like Varun Choudhury’s Chandigarh one and Jagannathan Krishnan’s Pune one, while clearly made by imaginative people, grew more and more surreal and abstruse as they went along, to the extent that it was hard to tell what was going on – or whether anything was going on at all. Pune, at least, had a quirky central character who kept it together, Chandigarh’s bizarreness simply fell apart. If Nijo-Rohit’s jumpy Delhi section had too much going on, Tejas Joshi’s Kalyan story had too little—and was made even worse by the annoying background music. The Chennai story – of four young upper-middle-class boys rounded up at a hopelessly genteel police station – felt pointless and unmemorable: a limp balloon floating aimlessly above the city, reflecting none of the energy or colour of the world below.

The 12 segments are united by the presence of the police as central figures – in almost all the segments, since the “clue” is sent to a police station, a policeman (or a police team) is at the centre of events. This ought to have made for a fascinating tour of cops across the country -- but there’s something oddly unreal about most of these policemen. There’s only one cop in the entire film who is shown to be corrupt, the police teams seem remarkably unafflicted by internal conflict, and (barring Hisar) there’s not a whiff of violence. In Chandigarh and Pune, each man we see seems to operate quite alone, which adds to the sense of a strange parallel universe. It’s pleasurable enough to watch a series of grave, gentle cops unravel mysteries – but the absolute lack of dread makes for unaffecting cinema.

There are other problems with this film: internal inconsistency, many unsolved questions, a whole bunch of characters left in the lurch and a final segment whose emotional tenor feels sudden and ill-fitting. What really plagues The Last Act is a general sense of unease about how we’re meant to take what we’re watching: is this realist drama, surreal experiment or genre fiction?

Muddled as it ends up, this is a brave film, made in an admirable spirit of adventure. One hopes the collaborative form will find more takers in India—perhaps the next time round, the ride will be a smoother one.

Updated Date: Dec 15, 2012 14:52 PM