Sometimes, it is a wonder we do not feel wonder all the time. That so much bizarre, brilliant, inexplicably complicated things are assumed to be natural, casual, an extension of being, as though this was how everything was supposed to turn out, as though we did not labour and luxuriate for centuries to produce technology, to produce ideas that can teleport our imagination, our voices, our feelings across scraps of seas and shafts of land. That a thing which can fit in your pocket, in the palm of your hand, can produce something that can be projected on a screen that dwarfs your silhouette; that a phone, sculpted to connect us, has taken on a grander role, that of mass connection, as a camera for films.
I grin at the idea of Fursat, a frenetic short film made by director Vishal Bhardwaj, written by Bhardwaj and Jyotsna Hariharan, which was shot using the iPhone 14 Pro. Make no mistake, the film is primarily an ad, a 30-minute exhibition of the features that the new phone prides itself in—“action mode” to smoothen out the distortions of movement; and “cinematic mode” to do what a focus puller would, by automatically adjusting the focus of a shot.
Is it harsh to call the film primarily an ad? This requires us to clarify two things. What is wrong with being an ad, as in what are the value judgments we are bringing in when we call what many consider “art” a commercial? The second aspect is to think of how to distinguish between art and commerce; and to ask if this distinction is helpful at all.
When art and commerce blur
Apple and, before that, OnePlus, muddies this distinction between art and commerce by lassoing auteurs to make films using their equipment. The very mention of the auteur’s name—Park Chan-wook or Vikramaditya Motwane or Bhardwaj—conjures cinema. This makes it difficult to see the film as a commercial throwaway. This is not the first time big directors have wielded the small phone. Steven Spielberg shot the music video for Marcus Mumford’s “Cannibal” on an iPhone, although not as a collaboration but merely as an artistic quirk.
The grunting here is about the blurring of art and commerce, which has become so difficult to parse apart, the seams separating the two seem buried somewhere in between. This is because art and commerce have historically been wrapped up in each other, with art being produced because of a thriving culture of patronage—by kings and merchants at one point, by industries and subscribers today. (It must be mentioned, then, that if you enjoy reading a magazine, enjoy the art, the criticism, the discourse it provides, you must become its patron, for that is the only way it survives.) If you go to Buddhist caves across India, you will see the names of donors etched as epigraphs—usually just their name and native place, but sometimes with some grand words accompanying them. The idea of patronage here is literally embedded in the patronised.
Yes, I get it. Patronage is complicated, because money is embroiled in moral questions, and money is so wracked with the duty of making more money, that it sometimes feels too dainty, too fickle a foundation on which to build art. Also, the logic of commerce and the illogic of art rarely find a common marsh pit in which to jump together. There is something suspicious, fickle about finding. If a Medici patriarch can be a patron of Galileo Galilei, then the next generation Medici can support the trial calling Galileo a heretic for pushing earth away from the centre of the universe. It is this discomfort that makes us want to separate art and commerce—or art and “content”. This naive belief that there is something pure about art, something that does not grovel to the base instincts of the market, the state, the church.
How to think of Fursat, then? The YouTube title itself gives our thoughts some direction. Look at what comes first—“Shot on iPhone 14 Pro | Fursat–A Vishal Bhardwaj film | Apple”. The primacy, the focus, is on the phone, not the film. That does not make it less appetising as cinema. It just makes it more suspect. And part of experiencing the film is experiencing this sneaking suspicion alongside a part of you that is excited by a new Bhardwaj film. That the two simultaneously exert a force on our perception—to be excited, to be suspicious, with neither one groping at or cutting off the other.
This is fascinating because, psychologically, the part of our brain that processes negative emotions is different from the part that processes positive emotions. Which is why they say that to be less unhappy does not mean to be more happy. That joy requires something of you which is distinct from that which gives you sadness or anger or disappointment. It is an unusually profound observation, that puts so much of our perception into question. That we can feel two things, which might feel strongly opposing, but, in fact, have no bearing on each other.
A weak film
Cinematically, however, Fursat is a weak film, so insistent on showing the technical versatility of the phone using the visual versatility of a genre like time travel and the musical that it is not as much interested in a coherent story that builds tension and momentum.
There is rain, mist, snow, water, protagonists run through markets and weddings, rest in deserts and swim through abysses. The actors Ishaan and Wamiqa Gabbi leap slowly into each other, the camera following them closely, with shreds of paper—or snow or confetti, no one really knows—blowing in the wind of that antiseptic set lit by two beams of blinding magnesium white light. It is such a strong image, so forcefully beautiful, so emotionally distant from the film of which it is part of.
The aesthetic is one of technical excess, with some blurs, some odd frames—where rain looks like crosshatches on the screen, for example. The film wants to scream the possibilities of the iPhone at us. One wishes only that it had come with the whisper of a story that moved us, too. But at the very least we are sold on the product, for the most part.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.