Of loss & desperation

A new small-budget film on the underdog’s struggle for survival in Kolkata, employing a narrative technique borrowed from Thousand And One Arabian Nights and Brecht.

Published : Jul 09, 2014 12:30 IST

Naseeruddin Shah as Hasan Ali in "Kashi Katha". The butcher and the goat who keeps thwarting his attempts to slaughter it exchange ideas and comment on the story unfolding on the screen.

Naseeruddin Shah as Hasan Ali in "Kashi Katha". The butcher and the goat who keeps thwarting his attempts to slaughter it exchange ideas and comment on the story unfolding on the screen.

KhashiKatha (Tales from a Castrated Goat) is a continuously interesting film directed by Judhajit Sarkar. It is in Bengali and shot on Fuji film. It is about the underdog in Bengal who finds it difficult to live a life of dignity on a day-to-day basis. Salma (Anindita Basu), a lower-middle-class girl, wants to make it as a champion amateur boxer so that she can get a government job in the sports quota to support her family. Her father, Zaheed (Shubhashish Mukherjee), a superior leather craftsman, is laid off when he develops a tremor in his hand and her older brother, Pervez (Prasun Gyne), a failed boxer, is only able to get an unsavoury job as an “enforcer” for a private bank, chasing up and threatening loan defaulters. The film has an intriguing structure; it is narrated by a goat marked for slaughter that buys a reprieve each time by narrating an interesting episode about the characters in the tale to the butcher Hasan Ali (Naseeruddin Shah). The idea, of course is borrowed from the tales told by the beautiful slave Scherezade to a bored Arab monarch in Thousand and One Nights . The device works here very well as the goat and the butcher exchange ideas and comment on the story unfolding on the screen.

Reflection of despair

The economic situation in West Bengal has been declining steadily over the last 30 years, creating a situation desperate enough for people to vote into power Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. KhashiKatha is a reflection of the despair of the worker deprived of the most basic of opportunities—the right to earn an acceptable wage in order to live in dignity. Shehzadi, a close friend of Salma’s from the leather crafts factory where they both work, jumps off the roof of their workplace because her cab-driver husband is killed on duty at night and she cannot face life’s vicissitudes without him. There is a continuous struggle to stay alive on Salma’s part despite the bleakness that surrounds her.

Witty comments from the goat on the grim business on screen, and a matching response to them by the butcher, bring much needed relief. There are also short bursts of animation between sequences, to, perhaps, add a bit of variety to the experience of the film. The (computer-generated) goat is both a technical and artistic triumph. It is visually integrated so well into every shot that it is in with the butcher that it would fool even the most ardent supporter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The audio dubbing for the goat is really skilful and is done in an east Bengali accent. The butcher speaks in Hindustani and is very articulate in his exchanges. This device comes from the various forms of Indian folk theatre; it can also be seen as an effective tool of distanciation, employed by the great German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). The allusion to a Brecht’s technique is apt also because Sarkar’s second feature film is on Three Penny Opera by the master and considered to be one of the finest plays of the 20th century written in any language.

Khashi Katha is probably amongst the last films in India to be actually shot on film and processed and printed in a laboratory. Directors and producers, big and small, have switched to the digital video format, eliminating the film laboratory, lowering production costs and making projection facilities less cumbersome, more “accurate” and, sadly, less mysterious, like the other branches of traditional film-making. Sarkar chose to shoot his first fiction film on celluloid because he was trained in classical film technique at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and is steeped in film lore. Akira Kurosawa, the great Japanese director whom Sarkar calls a film-maker of Shakespearean dimensions, is a particular favourite.

Surojit Ghosh’s cinematography brings alive the director’s intentions. The composition and lighting are always effective and deceptive in their simplicity. To state the often-overlooked fact, Sarkar and Ghosh both believe in apt camera placement, which articulates the content in the scene. The director, the senior of the two in years and experience, convinced his young cinematographer of the need to shoot correctly rather than flamboyantly. There is a consistency in the shooting of images which is admirable, more so because the filming was completed in a continuous, exhausting 20-day schedule. This was necessitated by an unbelievably tight budget of Rs.75 lakh. The pacing is quick and the images have a flow seen in really good road movies. The editor Tamal Chakraborty deserves kudos for making sounds and images cohesive and logical and giving them the right momentum in a narrative that might have become unwieldy. The complex story flows easily, and the director’s vision is clearly articulated.

Sarkar has written the script from his own story. He is well served by his actors. Anindita Basu as Salma is particularly good. She is a woman with a deep sense of duty and compassion. She is also considerably less confused than the other characters in the film who, like her, are battered by the poverty imposed on them by the mendacious political order of their time. Pervez, the failed boxer turned private bank-sponsored thug, is a luckless bungler. Zaheed is ill and jobless.

The supporting cast is competent, but Naseeruddin Shah gives a top-drawer performance as the butcher. He worked gratis and shot his portion in a single day.

Although he may surely have been fed his lines, he was reacting to an absent talking goat that was pasted in later electronically, which makes his performance all the more creditable.

Kolkata is a city of crumbling buildings and vanishing hopes. The latter observation is certainly true of the city’s lower-middle class that lives in fear of going further down the economic ladder. It is this lower-middle class, along with the daily wager, that constitutes an overwhelming majority of the population.

The middle and upper-middle classes are heartless, as is the microscopic rich minority. Sarkar focusses on those sliding down the social ladder but also makes clear that aspiring businessmen, too, are not spared the backlash of recession.

A failed businessman commits suicide after being hounded by Pervez and his fellow enforcer for non-payment of a commercial loan. The man’s son (Bishwanath), masquerading as a property agent, lures Pervez to a meeting near a busy railway crossing and stabs him fatally and then slips away unnoticed by the self-absorbed crowd.

Pervez bleeds to death, still carrying the new pair of boxing gloves which he had bought for his sister for her fight with an arch rival. Victory for Salma would lead to a reasonably paid job.

Sarkar evokes throughout the film an atmosphere of loss and desperation. He gives a feel of what it is for people to live on the edge, continuously fighting for their lives because there is no economic or political alternative.

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