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‘Gypsy’ movie review: This Raju Murugan film leaves you in deep conflict

Jiiva and Natasha Singh in ‘Gypsy’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This Raju Murugan film is a curve ball.

It is hard to fathom Gypsy as a love story, especially after watching the original trailer (released last year). But it is what it is — a story of a man named Gypsy (Jiiva) whom Waheeda (Natasha Singh), the daughter of a Muslim man, Muthaleef (Lal Jose), who believes a woman’s agency is best placed in a man’s hands, falls in love with. Contemporary political scenarios affect their romantic journey and the filmmaker drops a message of social harmony into the package.

Gypsy is hard-hitting in parts. It is the kind of film that dares you to stare at the screen even as it kicks up a conflict and the feeling of guilt in your heart. But it is also an odd film because it leaves you conflicted about what to make of it. If love in the times of sectarian/casteist/politcal violence is the core of a movie, then there are better films that do justice to such a premise. Gypsy, in comparison, appears to be a collage of scenes that are wildly different from one another in terms of the emotion (some provoke you to hark back to it but none leave a deeply profound, thought provoking level of impact) it kicks up in the viewer.

Before getting into the details: besides Jiiva, the two real heroes of this film are Santhosh Narayanan for how his beats carry the ethos of the film from start to end, and Selvakumar SK, whose angles and frames are extraordinary in places.

The film begins in a fictional Kashmir valley. It is the sound that sets the mood: you are welcomed by the noise of automatic rifles firing at will, of bombs being dropped at a scenic location. We are then shown four people in a hideout desperately hanging onto their lives amid the violence (read as: war) — an inter-religious couple (the woman is offering the namaaz while the man is praying to the Hindu God Shiva), their just born son and a nomad. As the couple leave the hideout, they are killed and the child is orphaned. The nomad takes possession of the orphaned child and names him Gypsy.

The belittling of human lives in the name of all the divisive reasons under the Sun that human beings can conjure drives the narrative from this point on.

Gypsy travels the country with his adoptive father, who he calls Senior. He has no religion, no caste and no one language. Hence, he has no identity. In one of the earlier, poignant scenes, which sets up the film’s political premise, Senior tells Gypsy that having travelled the length and breadth of the country, he could tell the distance between Kashmir and Kanyakumari, but what he could not figure in his lifetime was the “distance between two human hearts”. When Senior passes away, Gypsy plants a sapling in his memory — how very meaningful, if only all those who passed were remembered as trees and not just on tombstones by their near and dear ones.

Gypsy’s proclivity to force you into a rethink can be found in its dialogues; such lines are littered all across the film. When Gypsy and his nomadic troupe are held responsible for their horse (Che) attacking an Imam, he is asked: “Gypsy na... enna matham, enna jaathi?” (What is the religion and caste of a Gypsy?), and he responds, “Matham pudikaatha manusha jaathi” (Humans without religion).

It is a clever pun. ‘Matham’ here refers both to religion and insanity, easily interchangeable depending on the context.

Raju Murugan is a clever writer. Years of practice as a journalist helps, his characters are sweetly-layered. But his writing is not without flaws; the screenplay suffers courtesy a lack of refinement, and his characters are distinctly one-shaded in that they only resonate with the ideology they are used to. They lack the natural flavours of a human being. Case in point: when Hindu fundamentals strike at the doors of houses in an alley, as they go on a rampage killing hundreds of Muslims, they repeat, in almost a robotic fashion: “Maar Dalo, Maar Dalo”.

Other such instances of where weak writing comes to the fore is when the grown-up Gypsy meets Waheeda. The film slows down considerably, at this point.

It takes time to build their romance: nothing flashy, no over-the-top attempts by the cupid struck hero to woo his woman. It is precisely at this point that, as a viewer, you can be certain of Gypsy’s ‘love story’ premise because until then, Raju Murugan shows a distinct eagerness to colour his screenplay using political commentary.

Jiiva in ‘Gypsy’

Jiiva in ‘Gypsy’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There is, however, one high point in the love track between Gypsy and Waheeda in the first half. If the Maruvaarthai Pesaathe song from last year’s Enai Noki Paayum Thota was an expression of a man’s boundless love for the woman, then Kaathellam Poo Manakka is just a beautifully-shot song, which has a man let the woman know why their love needs to push past the bounds imposed on them.

There are amateur scenes too, which does not fall under the “witty extrapolation” category. Like the scene where Gypsy is watching an India-Pakistan cricket match. He cheers for both India and Pakistan; it re-establishes what we have known since the start of the film that here is a man who is neither governed by religion nor is restricted by lines of control drawn by humans to separate themselves.

What we do not understand is how in the following shot, when he confronts an upset Waheeda, he proceeds to ask if the cause of her sadness is due to Pakistan’s poor performance (using the word ‘ungaalunga’). She retorts: “Neenga enna loosa? India than engaalunga” (Are you mad? Indians are our people).

With the benefit of hindsight, I will take it easy on Raju Murugan here and now. A secular society could look down upon a filmmaker for using such lines to drive home a subtle political message. But can I really say — with any shred of conviction — that what Gypsy asks Waheeda is out of context in the current political climate? I don’t think so. The rhetoric around people expressing an opposing view being branded anti-nationals, and being asked to (with the use of uncivilised language) “Go to Pakistan” on prime time news debates of all places, still happen.

Then, Waheeda decides to take a leap of faith. The significance of the ‘why did she do it’ is held together by this scene where Muthaleef meets with his future son-in-law. He runs a hotel where his mother cooks food for customers. She does not exit out from behind the curtain from where she cooks. He tells Muthaleef that Waheeda should come soon (read as: rush the marriage date) so that he can relieve his mother off the cooking duties. The two men talk; the woman is nowhere in the scene, we only get glimpses of her when the wind lifts the curtain to reveal her presence.

Jiiva and Natasha Singh in ‘Gypsy’

Jiiva and Natasha Singh in ‘Gypsy’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Muthaleef’s fundamentalist ideals are further represented in a later scene when he forces his community’s religious heads to formalise Waheeda’s separation from Gypsy. When Gypsy insists that he won’t agree to the separation until Waheeda says so, Muthaleef responds with something along the lines of: ‘What has a woman got to say after the men have come together to make the good decision?’

The women in Muthaleef’s universe ought to be chained to their patriarchy-enforced responsibilities, and it is precisely these chains that Waheeda chooses to rid herself off, when she asks Gypsy to take her on a ride atop his horse, the night previous to her nikah — “for a little distance”, she says; “a little further”, she adds; before she asks him to take her away for good. Gypsy doesn’t say a word. He takes her with him; to show her the world she had been boxed away from, the world that she longed to see, know and experience, away from the rigidity of organised religion’s fundamentalist shackles.

And then Leaderji happens.

Now, if you haven’t already watched the “censor cut” clips the film’s production team has made available on YouTube, with an explainer at the start as to why these scenes were demanded to be removed by the Central Board of Film Certification, go watch it. Not that it would enhance your experience of watching Gypsy, but it does lead one to wonder could Raju Murugan really have been hampered by the demand for unrealistic cuts, crippling his visualisation of how the script ought to have been presented on the big screen?

I felt that there is little evidence of jarring, obnoxious cuts in the film’s certified version. But neither the production team nor Raju Murugan never came out clean on the extent of cuts demanded; what we knew was that there was a dispute in terms of what was deemed objectionable representation by the certifying authority and what Raju Murugan thought was fair representation.

As a result of the dispute, we do not see the colour saffron anywhere in the film except for when right wing fundamentalist characters sport them as tilak. The violence, the bloodshed and goriness all take place in a world hued different using the Inkwell filter from Instagram, which is a shame considering how brutally upsetting it is. Raju Murugan incorporates Bilkis Bano, Mohammed Akhlaq and the many faces who we seldom remember in the aftermath of riots. The rioting sequence is jarring considering how they do not look out of place, especially after the events in Delhi over the last couple of weeks. There is no aesthetic about it; riots are dirty, it is abhorrent, especially when the inciting cause is religion, a rhetoric of ‘Us versus Them’.

That is exactly what Leaderji does clad in his hued-out-of-meaning-and-context saffron robes, standing near the Ganges bank in a fictional North Indian town that eerily rhymes with Allahabad (I’m giving the benefit of doubt to Raju Murugan, his script and dialogues easily pre-dates Prayagraj’s period of existence). But we see little of Leaderji; actually we see nothing of him, the scene I mention above is from the censor cut (his likeness and appearance has been cut right out of every single frame in the film, we only hear him in voice-over capacity), but we do see his evil lieutenant, the man who believes he is tasked with the responsibility of upholding “morals”, and of the fight to restore the “natural order of things” with respect to minority communities’ existence in their midst.

Jiiva in ‘Gypsy’

Jiiva in ‘Gypsy’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Then, there is Sonu Kumar (whose name seems to have been changed, judging by the dub). He becomes the face of religious hatred and majoritarian violence in Gypsy, not too dissimilar to the gunman who fired at protesting JNU students a little over a month ago in Delhi. The imagery of him standing with arms raised, wielding a sword, and having a pregnant Waheeda at his mercy as the merciless assailants around him chant, “Maar Dalo” is as chilling and spine-tingling as it is recent.

What unfolds as a result of the riots, and how it affects Gypsy’s love life forms the rest of the plot.

It is this latter half of the journey that makes a viewer feel distant about Gypsy, allowing one to only enjoy it in parts and not in its entirety. As a whole, the film struggles to appeal to our collective, to call us out on our bigotry and to remind us of the consequences of keeping our maun vrat in an hour of need. It confronts one political ideology head on, but Gypsy’s premise as a love story unfolding in the backdrop of a radically right wing fundamentalist political climate needed more juice. It lacks in the department of hard-hitting moments, like a Joker did.

Perhaps that is what making a film with an established hero entails, although credit where it is due, Jiiva is exceptional as Gypsy. He seems to have put his heart and soul into the character’s representation and portrayal. It ought to be said that the script seldom pushes the actor beyond his comfort zone. It is as if Raju Murugan imagined Kavalai Vendam Jiiva growing out long hair, sporting nomadic clothes and carrying a custom-made guitar around with a horse for company.

In other words, Gypsy is no Joker. There is no single superlative performance (like Guru Somasundaram in the latter). There is no isolated defining moment that strips nude the frivolous nature of the life and times we live in (like the death of a wife for want of a proper toilet). There is no impact after the event.

Raju Murugan, it would seem so, is less likely to not be crucified at the altar of his National Award-winning sophomore film. Gypsy is no Joker but a gypsy is who we could all aspire to be, if not for the jokers ruining it for us.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 8:36:17 PM |

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