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The voice of a monologue

Can conversion be seen as an individual's right to change in the hope of becoming upwardly mobile? It is exactly this struggle of transformation that `Kaya Taran' or `Chrysalis', directed by Sashi Kumar, tries to explore. KRISHNAN HARIHARAN comments on the film that is set against the backdrop of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the Gujarat carnage of 2002.

Sister Agatha (Seema Biswas) with little Jaggi (Neelambari Bhattacharya) ... the beginnings of a new identity.

"Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it!"

Robert Bresson

AS India transits towards a confusing global identity, members of the media search hard to find a frame of reference into which Indians can be categorised. And in this process new questions arise. Does India and its "history" exist in an objective manner? In the name of a "correct" point of view are we actually receiving a "biased" construction of events? Sashi Kumar's Kaya Taran stands precariously balanced on the brink of an investigation into the spate of communal clashes that have plagued the nation despite the garb of avowed secularism. Instead of trying to play the blame game, the film probes into the core issue of what surrounds the notion of "conversion" while a schizoid nation debates the dilemma of to be or not to be a Hindu. Beginning the narrative with the horrible right wing riots that shook Gujarat in 2002, the film skirts the right wing Hindutva card and locates the film within the turmoil of two communities who have rarely been represented as important subjects in Indian cinema. This is precisely where the challenge is situated. Instead of turning towards an oft-repeated sentimental narrative about Hindus and Muslims, the film transforms itself into a discourse and tries to seek such reverberations in the massacre of the Sikh community in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. Still further, instead of going into the gory details of the holocaust and the resultant cry for "Khalistan", Sashi chooses to introspect into the epistemology of "communal conversions". So, instead of just retelling the short story written by N.S. Madhavan called "When Big Trees Fall", the film chooses to explore the psychological journey of a victim in the manner of a very "personal cinema".

When most film aficionados in India have virtually written off such personalised statements, Sashi Kumar boldly straddles two ideologies — the political path of a modern Marxist while also donning the austere Catholic spirit of a Robert Bresson. The film is unabashedly as complex as the subject is. But before the formal concerns let's address the basic "story" — the term members of the news media strangely use to call a current affairs event.

Can the best of media agencies report in an unbiased manner? The answer is an obvious "no" and that's why Kaya Taran could probably be one of the sharpest critiques of the press in India today, in the subtlest of manners that only Sashi can achieve. Beginning within the confines of a press club where its operators schmooze out "stories" about realities they are totally removed from, the anguished narrative now becomes an enquiry into the process of storytelling itself inasmuch as it is a portrait of Jagpreet, a young shy Sikh reporter who struggles to come to terms with his self. Assigned to write a "story" on conversion, the traumatic events that he went through as a child in Meerut of October 1984 resurface like remnants of a shipwreck, solarised, rusty and disjointed. Riding a motorcycle on a bleached road; an elderly Sikh passes by on a scooter; he looks back almost frozen to see a mob attacking the innocent rider; in black and white images he is flung off a flyover; Preet runs out in colour to look down from his balcony only to see a group of kids down the lane playing happily. And the film, like Preet, sets out to seek fresh identities and possible meanings behind these images.

Expectedly, stylistics take over conventional narration as the camera confronts an eyewitness to the Delhi riots and turns him into another personality with a swift change of on-camera lighting. Reminiscent of Resnais' classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), the film constructs a dialogue between Elle and Lui around the veracity of participant experience versus intimate observation. Like Elle in Hiroshima, Preet (Angad Bedi) lives through the traumatic experience of the bloodbath inflicted upon Sikhs as too sacred. For him there just cannot be a dialogue on this since he has yet to begin a monologue even with himself. On the other hand like Lui, Sister Agatha (Seema Biswas) would like to state that she saw it all and was even responsible for the emancipation of the victim. Not only did she set Preet and his mother free but also "converted" them, giving a fresh "identity" and a new "faith" to begin life. This singular act of Agatha, while seemingly the act of a good Samaritan, opens up complex registers for a discourse. From the usage of force to the notion of benevolence; from opportunism to the only road for survival; from a position of sanctioned authority to one's ability to believe that all events are freely willed.

Sashi drives the narrative to see the chrysalis in such a symbolic context. Is the emergence of the butterfly out of its larva an act of changing faith? Is the butterfly free, now that it has changed its identity? Can conversion be seen as an individual's right to change in the hope of becoming upwardly mobile? It is exactly this struggle of transformation that the film tries to explore while negating all conventional aesthetic positions to internalise the conflict.


Preet (Angad Bedi) with Sister Agatha ... sensitive portrayal.

Preet and his mother run away from bloodthirsty marauders after the father has been killed. They find a local nunnery as the only place for refuge. After some vacillation, sister Agatha decides to give them a place to hide. A few days later, realising that the marauders are determined to exterminate Preet and his mother, Agatha decides to give the refugees a fresh identity. The mother is given a nun's robe and the boy's long-haired identity is shorn. The conversion complete, mother and son are now liberated to fly free. As if in a tribute to Luis Bunuel, Sashi takes off at this point into a kind of surrealistic ballet choreographed by Chandralekha, depicting the struggle of a larva emerging out of its pupa only to realise that as the newborn "butterfly" it is aged and virtually ready to renounce the world while still being allured by nymphs clad in white. But unlike Bunuel, Sashi's compassion for his subjects does not let him lampoon or openly attack this claustrophobia of outmoded values, rigid disciplines and cold-blooded patriarchy. And here is where one sees a tender acknowledgment of my first guru at the FTII, the inimitable Kumar Shahani and his Maya Darpan (1972). From the deliberate selection of non-actors to the top-angle diagonals, the film denies any kind of emotional point of view and thus echoes the basic thesis of negative aesthetics, a concept propounded by Theodor Adorno. "The aesthetic experience is a negative event because it is an experience of the negation of understanding".

Thus by holding on to a slender narrative the film layers in more complexities. The convent where they have taken refuge is, in reality (or is it a metaphor?) a place where old invalid nuns come to spend their last days. And amidst these dying nuns is sister Agatha, nubile and energetic, but an orphan condemned to preside over death. The nuns report to their male counterpart, in a seminary, who only arrive to preside over their funeral and bless the soul on its "free flight" to an ethereal world.

Like the stoned Christ on the stained glass, the narrative chooses suffering and the experiencing of this agony as a way of liberation and attainment of grace. And this is where one sees "Kaya Taran" as ultimately homage to Bresson and his idea of grace, that "wonderful" feeling of liberation, which can be availed only through rigorous negation — a denial of all that ensnares the human mind with fake identities. A stone comes crashing through a stained glass amidst echoes of its splinters and it is immediately negated by the popping sound of a soda bottle on a diagonally composed bar-counter, to the reverberations of its own fizz. The images now travel through a cacophony of asynchronous sounds merged with distinct statements on communal riots, a feat in sound composing amazingly rendered with clarity by Lakshminarayan. Preet goes through the narration of his own torturous moments and the subsequent feeling of joy in an illusory liberation within the walled confines of a grim nunnery lulled into death to the melodic strains of an elegy. Isaac Thomas's musical score is a blend of the sacred and the distorted. His randomised score speaks of a deliberation, which seems to counterpoint with the phlegmatic visuals of Kaul's cinematography.

Sashi Kumar directs Seema Biswas on the sets ... subtle touches.

Kaul's compositions lend very well to Srikar Prasad's realistic editing style and that's the reason one feels that Kaul could have been a bit more radical and non-definitive in the points of view that the "story" has to offer in order to enhance the discontinuous narrative that Sashi's screenplay sets out to be. Even Madan Gopal Singh's dialogues could have punched in more into the viccisitudes of the profane, thus enabling the monologue to unfold in clearer terms.

Undoubtedly there will be some who will accuse the film of avoiding, thus condoning, the massacring criminals still at large in the capital; of using a heart-rending holocaust as a mere backdrop; and even of being reactionary as the film chooses to end with Preet proudly donning his "religious" identity back again. But then as a sensitive artist one has to learn to listen and still say "That's the story of another film. Perhaps my next! Who knows?"

Krishnan Hariharan is a filmmaker and writer.

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