Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks Transports Us To Kolkata’s Hidden World Of Brown Sugar Addicts

The acclaimed photographer on his personal first feature film, depicting drug addiction without judgement, and use of black and white image
Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks Transports Us To Kolkata’s Hidden World Of Brown Sugar Addicts

In an interview I had done with director Abhishek Chaubey, soon after the release of Udta Punjab in 2016, he spoke about being aware that his film had to be fitted into a mainstream straitjacket. Chaubey talked about the compulsions of making a film that screams SAY NO TO DRUGS even as he acknowledged that drug use is ultimately a matter of individual choice, and that art had no business moralising. "Here I am making the first drug film in Bollywood. So I am really trying to create the space…Now people will come and break this space and make a more evolved drug movie," he said. 

Ronny Sen's Cat Sticks – which got a Jury Honorable Mention at the recently concluded Slamdance Film Festival – might be the closest we've got to that "evolved drug movie." The film, about brown sugar addicts in Kolkata, has been made with an insider's eye, without judgement. (Brown sugar is an adulterated, cheaper form of heroin, also known as 'smack'). The level of detail shown in the film seem so specific – so weird – they seem to have come from a place of truth and accuracy. Sen teases out great visuals and ideas out of them.

There is a scene, for instance, in which two young men strip themselves naked looking for unused veins in their bodies to inject their next dose of smack. It's a shocking act of desperation, but in Sen's hands – shot in gorgeous black and white by Shreya Dev Dube – it becomes a sort of dance: human bodies floating in blank space. In an interview conducted on phone, Sen told me that he got the scene choreographed by an old friend: a recovering addict who had a similar experience. 

Cat Sticks follows Kolkata's brown sugar addicts – all kinds of people, from different sections of society who never meet – on a heavily rainy night. A single father (Raja) smokes his stuff as his son (Aritra Naskar), sitting across the table, finishes his dinner. The boy's behaviour is strangely indifferent because it is normal, everyday life for him. On the wall is a Taj Mahal poster, along with a family portrait of happier times, when his wife was alive. A bizarre interview of an astrologer, who gives tips on how kids with musical talent can improve their chances to get into reality shows, plays from a television set we don't see. It's a stark, droll picture of an addict's family life.

In one of the film's other tracks, three friends (Kalpan Mitra, Soumyajit Majumdar, Joyraj Bhattacharjee) talk nonsense, non-stop, as they wait for their dealer, from who they will score the night's share. Another group of addicts (Rahul Dutta, Sumeet Thakur, Saurabh Saraswat) assemble inside an abandoned aircraft – that looks like their regular haunt – to smoke. The aircraft is not just an intriguing setting in a surreal sort of way, but also an insight into the how this world works: smack addicts look for closed spaces where there is not much scope for wind to play spoilsport.

The soundtrack (by Oliver Weeks) has flashes of grunge because that's what they like listening to. "It's like how stoners like psychedelic music," says Sen. 

The film's title refers to a brand of wax matchsticks that used to be popular among users. They produce a uniform flame, which helps the brown sugar – smoked on an aluminium foil – to melt and produce uniform smoke.

Sen feels strongly about the underrepresentation – and misrepresentation – of drug addiction in films and pop culture."Even in media, and journalism, there is a specific lens, of pity. Oh poor thing…" he says. Sen's reason to make the film is more personal. He knew these people.

Director Ronny Sen (photo by Girma Berta)
Director Ronny Sen (photo by Girma Berta)

Growing up in the Salt Lake neighbourhood of Kolkata in the late 90s – early 2000s, he spent a large part of his youth with brown sugar addicts. Many of them aren't around anymore. The film is mined from his memories. Cat Sticks opens with these lines… This is to call my dead friends back from the night – white scrawl on a black screen – that sets the tone of a world that feels part-ghostly part-real. A place where the spirit of his friends still live, and a subterranean Kolkata we don't see much of: Ruinous industrial estates, dark alleys, walls fading with political graffiti, a rehab with its foreboding gates. Sen's film is also a lament on Kolkata. "It's a collective doom, in the backdrop of a city which is dead," he says. Sen is not so much after 'plot' as he is into creating an atmosphere. He wants to make a trilogy.

Sen's film is also a lament on Kolkata. "It's a collective doom, in the backdrop of a city which is dead," he says. Sen is not so much after 'plot' as he is into creating an atmosphere. He wants to make a trilogy.

Sen is one of the acclaimed photographers working today in India. And the visual style of Cat Sticks, his first feature film, is very much in line with his grainy, out-of-focus, blurry aesthetic. My conversation with him, at one point, turns into a crash course on black and white image – which Cat Sticks uses beautifully.

"The strength of the black and white image is how you use the shapes, forms, lines, pure shadows, the richness of blacks, geometry and many such things and how your characters move between all of this and the kind of energy they produce subsequently," he says. "It's not just desaturating the colour, he adds. Sen says that everything, from the costume to the production design – every decision made on the set – was dictated by the fact that he was making a black and white film. Few contemporary filmmakers follow this, instead using black and white as a go-to filter to create a sense of nostalgia, or, as Sen puts it, "to give an arty feel for free." Sen could go on about it – and I wouldn't be complaining – but he thinks he might come off as arrogant. "I'm slightly stubborn in a purist and old school way, while choosing my aesthetic and my visual vocabulary," he says.

Watch the trailer:

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