There was a meme floating around on Twitter. Director Anurag Kashyap had sat down with film critic Baradwaj Rangan and given an extensive, hour-long interview, where his opinions, his memory of his filmography that spans around 20 films over two decades, and his unshaken faith in cinema in the face of growing disenchantment with the industry were laid bare. It was as much a lament as a diagnosis. In the context of the recent string of flops, Kashyap blamed Bombay cinema’s wasteful lust for pan-India fame at the cost of rooted cinema. He wanted rooted characters, rooted stories. Success, in his estimation, lies in one’s ability to transform these roots into compelling stories. Roots. Being rooted. Every time Kashyap uttered the word “rooted”, a shot was taken—that was the meme.
With Kashyap, it is not a new fascination, this fixation on rootedness. Right from his debut, the unreleased Paanch (2003) , his stories have always been about a specific place, a specific time, and he insists on bringing the world into the lives of his characters. When he was first narrated the story of Gulaal (2009) , he travelled to Rajasthan to see the world of the Rajputs in which it is set, soak in their fading hubris, the violence that resides at the tip of every interaction, and shade his characters with more anecdotal strokes, more grounding details. When demonetisation dropped on an unsuspecting public, he folded it into the proceedings of Choked (2020).
He craves detailing, even if it is entirely peripheral to the story, what a footnote in a non-fiction book would be. He folds these footnotes into the bulging, often unwieldy text. His films are famously long despite their treacly thin plots, for he pads them not with context but with untamed anecdotal chaos. In Black Friday (2004), his directorial debut (if we do not consider the unreleased Paanch), when the terrorists planning the 1993 bomb blasts are doing the legwork for the final day, he shows them going to Plaza Cinema to watch Tiranga in a houseful theatre for half an hour, before walking out. It is a detail that would not be caught in most filmmakers’ viewfinders.
A chase in the film is not thrilling because of the circumstances or the way it is shot but because of the setting: a shack of slums beside a rolling landscape of rotting miasmic trash. Even the language. The Bambaiya charm of “chirkut”, “Napoleon ke mafik”; the cloistered cheek-to-cheek houses of Amritsar with terraces like springboards to jump from and onto in Manmarziyaan (2018); the antacid government officials drink after burping through application forms in That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010). His camera waits inside the cab for the protagonist to open the door, seat themselves, and pronounce their destination, “Kalbadevi”, a shot whose entire purpose is to tell us that Kashyap has thought of the film as though he is documenting life.
Suspended in Time
In his desire to be specific, to refuse the geographic ambiguities that cinema can allow for, it is possible that nobody has framed Mumbai the way Kashyap has. The shredded beauty of the opening credits of Paanch; the jaundiced yellows, rash reds, ice-blues of empty, closed spaces and crowded, open roads of That Girl in Yellow Boots; the vintage polish of Bombay Velvet (2015); the grimy glamour of No Smoking (2007).
- Director Anurag Kashyap’s films are rooted in its time and place.
- They are unique for their lush detailing.
- His latest film, Dobaaraa, feels like Kashyap setting himself a challenge.
- There is something charmless in the neatness, the designer outfits, perfectly styled hair and make-up of Dobaaraa.
It is in this context, this laden understanding of space, that his latest film, the time-travelling Dobaaraa starring Taapsee Pannu, feels like Kashyap setting himself a challenge. To suspend his characters. Most of the film takes place in a gated community in Pune, one where the politics and upheavals of the world outside do not leak in. There are odd food trucks by the side of a road. The roads themselves are emptied of human hum. The hospital looks like a film set. It probably is.
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Throughout the film, there is perhaps just one comment made by a policeman—someone who lives outside these gated environs—about people being jailed without impunity, that might be considered prescient or relevant to our times. Otherwise, it is a politically, socially, texturally vacuum-sealed world in which only the decade-tumbling events of the story matter.
Unsurprisingly then, Dobaaraa is Kashyap’s worst film in a filmography which, even at its worst, was curious, unfolding worlds that felt broken into. I have often had the sense that for Kashyap, the story—the idea that one moment leads to the next, whose meaning is enriched by the previous scene—rarely matters as much as the feeling of experiencing a sociopolitical ecosystem through a dense, claustrophobic, often extremely apparent wielding of details. It is more about character than plot. Stuffed with plot, Dobaaraa, however, requires its characters to explain themselves and iron out creases that line the story. It is not that Kashyap is not good at telling stories. It is that he is not interested. He would rather dip you into a world. Where is that world in Dobaaraa?
Kashyap came of age as a filmmaker, working under Ram Gopal Varma in Satya (1998), in the burst of post-liberalisation energy, which according to the author of Bullets Over Bombay: Satya And the Hindi Film Gangster, Uday Bhatia, manifested in a certain kind of specificity. With a sudden proliferation of choices, a way to fix a character was by fixing the specifics around them—Cadbury and Amul, Horlicks and Complan. What happens when this specificity, this desire to bring the world into the film, chafes against the Hindutva political behemoth, when any film he is part of is carelessly combed through, then trolled to dust by the war rooms? When he is afraid of naming any of his future projects because even that much would be enough information to drag it through digital muck, swarm like flies towards its IMDb page, tanking its prospects?
Specificity begins to look like a luxury, and this geographic, linguistic, narrative hollowing of context, then, feels like a retreat to a safer kind of storytelling. In this context, how much of the criticism of the film is, instead, a criticism of the times it sprung up in?
It is not like Kashyap had a perfect grasp over the form before this, however. His films, for example, have always had an uneasy relationship with music, as though he has not still concluded how best to use it. This tension is seen through his filmography where music sometimes blares over dialogues, unsure whether the lyrics or the words need more importance, coming out of nowhere, with a shock that makes you aware of it being deployed to make a scene more stylish, more egregious, like sunglasses.
Take Mukkabaaz (2017), a film on boxing in Uttar Pradesh that is also very much about caste. I remember watching the film with a nervous tic, constantly increasing the volume to hear murmured dialogues and immediately decreasing it when the music comes on at a deafening decibel. For Dobaaraa, I was seated next to the speaker at the back of the theatre, and I felt a sharp, piercing imposition every time music was used. Kashyap gives music directors like Sneha Khanwalkar and Amit Trivedi years to compose albums— Bombay Velvet’s jazz or Gangs of Wasseypur’s chutney music. And that Kashyap extracts the last drop from it is apparent in this tension which can—and does—ruin the emotional strain of a scene.
Even as he tries to be true to the world he sets his stories in, an unhinged stylisation creeps in. Think of the dancing twins in Manmarziyan or the locking and popping kid who steals the thunder of the “training montage” in Mukkabaaz. They not only stand apart as commentary, as court jesters, as evidence of Kashyap’s unkempt imagination, but also as signs of Kashyap having fun with the medium. But in a film as focussed on explanation, on logic, like Dobaaraa where is the space for this madness? Is cinematic joy, too, one of the casualties of self-censorship, of the looming state?
While the detailing Kashyap brings to a film is fascinating in and of itself, what it does and undoes is murky. It spins a character—however good, however bad—into a person. In one of the finest sequences of Black Friday, we follow one of the terrorists trying to hide from the police, thrown around, travelling from city to village, filled with an existential ennui, wondering if what they did was indeed an act of bravery and faith and not of violence and myopia. The song that plays in the background, written by Piyush Mishra, goes “ Jang ka rang sunehra samjha, lekin baad mein gehra samjha, jang ka rang tha kaala re”—what he once thought of as the golden aura of war turned out to be black nothingness.
No moral shades
Kashyap, according to Uday Bhatia, follows in the footsteps of his mentor, director Ram Gopal Verma, who “wasn’t interested in the moral fallout of organised crime; he was only trying to show the ins and outs of a cruel and charismatic world”. Kashyap is so relentless in the detailing of his worlds that even the villains end up humanised. One of the reasons the censor board rejected his first film, Paanch, was because it did not have a single positive character. Similarly, he is not so much interested in “events” as in what leads up to them and what comes afterwards.
The 1993 Mumbai blasts around which Black Friday is set is an event that is shown without any of the cinematic tension that comes with glass shards and flung body parts. The climactic fight of Mukkabaaz—a fight which, according to genre diktats, is a rousing peak—ends in a sly whimper. He is as indifferent to the hero’s heroism as to the villain’s villainy.
Kashyap’s cinema, until Dobaaraa, stood apart from the moral demands of the time. Unsurprisingly, this is how Kashyap’s filmography begins, with Paanch’s statutory warning, “Evil is perhaps a child. It will play any game. Like the fictitious Characters in this film [sic], the treacherous waters of felony and crime would need a solvent compassion. The film serves as a Psychological Revelation and a warning to the Society in which urban ambitions and estrangement are ever on the rise.”
Later, while making Raman Raghav 2.0, on the serial killer, he would create an equally violent police officer to balance the moral scales. What fun is a world where there is a right and a wrong, a moral and an immoral, a correct and an incorrect? Men slap women just as women slap men in his films—in Gulaal, Manmarziyaan, Mukkabaaz, That Girl in Yellow Boots, Gangs of Wasseypur. They are laughing at feminist theory while absorbing its perverse beauty at the same time.
Where is this perversity in Dobaaraa and other recent films ? It has been dimming out since Manmarziyaan. There is something charmless in the neatness, the designer outfits, perfectly styled hair and make-up. Kashyap famously said in a decade-old interview that he prefers his actresses without make-up. His characters have now begun to resist the world they are a part of.
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His lament on rootedness, then, could also be directed at himself, as reflexive criticism. It is a fair grouse. If Tamil cinema tried to cull rooted Tamil stories with Bharathiraja, and Marathi cinema collects rooted Maharashtrian tales, where does that leave Bombay cinema?
For decades, Bombay cinema was seen as a catch-all, pan-India by default. Kashyap brought in an alternative grammar that most filmmakers were not even aware was possible. He stuck to Bombay. Soon, as his repute waxed, people across India—Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Amritsar—came to him with stories they wanted him to tell.
His palette grew with his curiosity. The tragedy is that it now seems to have outgrown it. Or worse, was made to outgrow it.
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.