'X: Past is Present' review: This experimental film puts style over substance and falters

Spoiler alert. (I'm too cheesed off to avoid them)

X: Past is Present review: This experimental film puts style over substance and falters

A still from X: Past is Present.

Have you ever been bored and angry with a film at the same time? It’s an awkward mix of feelings because one robs you of the energy to express the other.

Boredom dies down once the film in question is over though. The anger I felt against X: Past Is Present, however, is still very much there.

Remember that spoiler mentioned at the start? It is in the next paragraph.

X made me furious because beyond that lethargic pace and pretentious storytelling style (barring two segments), this is a film that takes sexual violence lightly. To use rape as the suspense element and nothing more in a purportedly thought-provoking film is no better than cracking a rape joke in a stupid comedy. Actually, the former is worse, because when you position yourself as something to be taken seriously, you had bloody well not trivialise such a grave issue.

The problem is not that X: Past is Present uses sexual assault as the big revelation behind why a character behaves the way he does throughout the story. The problem is that the assault has no role other than being that big revelation, a rabbit pulled out of a hat by a too-clever-by-half team of filmmakers and writers in what appears to be an effort to elicit awe and admiration from us for them, rather than shock, disgust and revulsion against the act.

The lack of compassion is not in the scene of the attack itself, but in the run-up to it. The build-up is so filled with an effort to impress us with technique, that by the time the depiction of the violence rolled around, I was left cold by it because I did not care for the character.

This is a pity because on its own, this part of the film – directed by Nalan Kumarasamy, who earlier made the acclaimed Tamil film Soodhu Kavvum – could have yielded so much. Placed within X though, it seems like a post-script written on second thoughts.

That said, the film has emerged from a concept that clearly had potential. X has been put together by 11 directors. It is not an anthology. Each director has handled a different segment in the same story. On paper, that sounds intriguing. Now that I’ve watched the film though, I can tell you that except for Nalan and Q (who earlier made Gandu), the rest are similar in their storytelling style here, including the ones who have been vastly stylistically different in their previous work.

For instance, if the credits had not told me so, I would not have guessed that Anu Menon and Rajshree Ojha were among the group of 11. Anu earlier made the sweetly romantic London Paris New York starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Ali Zafar. Rajshree made the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Aisha, a breezy retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. In X, their approach to their segments is indistinguishable from the rest, complete with shadowy spaces and pointless camerawork. What purpose then was achieved by assembling so many directors for one project?

Incidentally, X is the story of a director called K (Rajat Kapoor) who we first meet at a film fest party where he bumps into a much younger woman (Aditi Chengappa) with evidently amorous intentions towards him. Soon they discover that K might have been involved with her mother. As they chat, K is disturbed by visions of the many lovers he has had over the years, through a series of flashbacks to 10 ladies either with Rajat or with Anshuman Jha playing a younger K.

Except for Nalan’s segment, in the rest of the flashbacks we barely see K. What we’re given instead are his voice or over-the-shoulder and other partial shots of him while the women are in focus. Perhaps the point being made is that in those moments of his life, he was not the central character, they were.
This cinematographic choice makes little sense though, since K seems to be focused on himself for the most part. It particularly works only in Q’s segment where a frenzied, alcohol/drug-ridden K discusses writer’s block with his housemaid.

Since the camerawork does not match the script, it is distracting and comes across as being pompous. It’s as if the filmmakers were keener on style than substance.

Then in a village in Tamil Nadu the camera gives us a complete view of Anshuman when K meets a sexually adventurous local woman (Swara Bhaskar). This segment is like visual sunshine compared to the rest of X, but it should not have been part of this film because the subject it deals with is too crucial to have been given a mere passing mention. This is Nalan’s story.

In terms of acting, Swara, Rii (as K’s household help) and Radhika Apte (K’s feisty wife Rija) are the only ones who somewhat make a mark. The rest, including the otherwise dependable Huma Qureshi, are either done in by the stilted writing or consumed by the film’s pretensions to being something it is not.

Among other things, X should spark off discussions about film reviewing since four of the project’s directors are or were film critics. Critics are influencers in ways that even big commercial producers do occasionally acknowledge. This translates into clout. If at some point in your career as a critic you realise your true calling is filmmaking, is it ethical to continue reviewing films by people you may simultaneously be approaching with your script/s?

Irrespective of the precise route taken by the gentlemen critics involved in X, this is a debate we must have. Because their career move gives fuel to film industry folk who assume that reviewing is usually a stop-gap arrangement for aspiring filmmakers; and allege that film critics misuse their power.
As for another point made by some filmmakers, that making a film is the ultimate test for a critic, I humbly submit that that’s a silly contention.

A critic is a consumer of cinema and a creator of literature on cinema, not a creator of cinema itself. The two jobs require different skills that a single individual need not possess. If I write about problems I experience on a flight, would the airline be justified in telling me to shut up unless I am capable of running an airline myself? Filmmakers often try to discredit film critics by claiming that those who do not make films are not qualified to comment on them. Don’t fall for that line.

These are matters worth discussing whether or not you have seen this film. Before that let’s wrap up this review: X emerges from an interesting experimental concept that comes to naught.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2015 11:40:23 IST

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