Director: Kranti Kanade

Cast: Saurabh Saraswat, Vinay Sharma, Mrinmayee Godbole, Abhay Mahajan, Isha Keskar, Geetika Tyagi

I’m not sure I can tell you what this film is about. This has nothing to do with a suspenseful plot twist or the element of surprise. It means I simply cannot tell you, as much as I try, because I can’t describe it myself.

CRD is absurd, indulgent, bold, abstract, surreal, shameless…and oddly hypnotic. It is everything I’ve grown to be wary about in “independent” cinema – the kind of audiovisual masturbation (sometimes, literally) that strives to be broken and provocative under the guise of rule breaking, daring originality. It is obvious and confrontational in its unorthodoxy. Most of us art critics are conditioned to admire what we don’t understand – for fear of the work being beyond our intellectual mindscape.

Yet, CRD is something I cannot dismiss.

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There is something undeniably artistic about it – like an arrogant painter splashing an array of colour across a blank canvas and bridging just a few of these blobby explosions with a brush to show us a semblance of order. It’s the kind of “method” storytelling (not unlike method acting) I’m convinced that Kranti Kanade, its director, truly believes in. He believes in its spirit. I cannot say CRD is overly pretentious either, in the sense that it is deliberately and playfully pretentious when it offers ironic sub-textual commentary about amateur Indian theatre’s inherent ostentatiousness.

On the face of it, there is one line of description I can give you: an aspiring college dramatist (Saurabh Saraswat, as Chetan, is all in) breaks away from his dictatorial theatre troupe to form his own ragtag group on the eve of Pune’s biggest inter-collegiate stage competition, “Purushottam”.

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I know – this sounds like any classical mainstream underdog story. Anything, but indie or individualistic. I’d be lying if I didn’t think of the dynamics of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’s talent competition right here. I’m sure Kanade senses it, too, and perhaps enjoys making me feel uncomfortable about parading a Bollywood pop-culture reference in context of his aggressively un-commercial vision. And also, a girl (Mrinmayee Godbole) is involved here: it’s a triangle of sorts between insane tutor (Vinay Sharma; frightening), shifty hero and enigmatic (Parsi) heroine.

Do not get fooled by this straightforward synopsis.

Kanade’s whimsical, visually moody and freewheeling filmmaking demands our attention, and then directs it towards what he really wants to communicate – is fascism in arts a prerequisite for greatness?

It’s precisely because CRD sounds simple that it aspires to be different. There’s a saucy French teacher (Geetika Tyagi), a submissively committed wannabe thespian (Abhay Mahajan; the TVF Pitchers nerd), and an interminable basketball-court scene that has the nutty tutor break down his disillusioned student by graphically describing a (fictitious, I hope) sexual encounter with his mother. This is also the conflict point of the film, and it’ll remain seared in my memory for how suggestive and unabashedly crude the teacher is.

Kanade’s whimsical, visually moody and freewheeling filmmaking demands our attention, and then directs it towards what he really wants to communicate – is fascism in arts a prerequisite for greatness? Does the term “genius” always have to be prefixed with “mad, diabolical and ruthless”? Is it just fashionable to be a criminally demanding director in order to push and inspire the team?

As puzzling as it sounds, Kanade’s is almost a social-message film. And because this genre is traditionally so formulaic and bastardized by cash-grabbing mainstream filmmakers (Toilet, anyone?), Kanade flips the treatment on its head to deliver an unforgettably anguished statement about his own arena. He knows – and feels strongly about – what he is saying, irrespective of the way he chooses to. Cinematic history, too, is littered with examples of masterpieces born out of unerring autocracy on the sets – right from Marlon Brando’s gall to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s anger issues to French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s merciless handling of his two lead actresses in the Palme d’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Color. Was the process, the limit-crossing sacrifice, always worth the result? J.K. Simmons ironically won an Oscar for manifesting this age-old conflict as the abusive (but successful) music teacher, Terence Fletcher, in Damien Chazelle’s intense Whiplash.

Kranade’s questions aren’t so much questions as they are little explosions and implosions of narrative grammar on screen. The “un film de” credit and spurts of random French voiceovers are designed more as nods to the gullibility and trying-too-hardness of the artistic culture CRD ends up addressing – and borderline parodying. For all their lofty philosophies and anti-establishment ideologies, Kanade shows us that some of the plays remain painfully basic: Indian and Pakistani soldiers fighting over the sanctity of a female prisoner, or a lady directly dramatically asking the audience to sympathize with their “cause”.

It’s like Kanade is purposely speaking about certain people – to those people – in their own language, so that they understand how futile their in-house fierceness can be

Some scenes even within the film are fashioned as prop-ridden stage setups hastily arranged, almost teasing the self-serious world Kanade is exploring. In another abrupt segment, Chetan goes around the city dressed as a nun to interview famous playwrights about how to write an “award-winning” play. And in another, his actor decides to consume real poison and semi-die in order to know the intricacies of a “poison death” performance.

It’s like Kanade is purposely speaking about certain people – to those people – in their own language, so that they understand how futile their in-house fierceness can be. It is bitter, yet amusing. There’s plenty more, including an admittedly aesthetic rainy lovemaking scene that ends in a way nobody expects it to. I’ll remember it, of course, because of its arbitrary climax.

None of what CRD makes us feel – like eccentric music playing over a detached video – is necessarily related to its form. It’s a peculiarly effective experience, though. One that makes me wonder if Roger Ebert was right when he wrote, “the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it” in his Mulholland Drive review.

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I’m not saying CRD is as dreamy and incomplete. It isn’t the purest style of art because it actually tries to mean something. And maybe that’s the “logical” part. I tried to read the movie, and I found something, though it could very well be something else to another trained eye. For some, just the actors giving themselves whole to Kanade’s vision could be the kicker. Imagine if he consciously treated them the way his director characters treat their actors in the film. A socialist condemning fascism by practicing fascism for the greater good – now that would be scary, and weirdly profound?

I’ve rarely ever seen an Indian film like this. I might not associate a name and time to it later on in life, but I will definitely equate a feeling and “look” to it. I don’t even want to know what the title means. It wouldn’t change what I saw – perhaps I don’t want it to. I’ll still have nothing when someone asks me what CRD is about, or whether it is “worth a watch”. Maybe this is what auteurs are about.

Rating:   star

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