Director: Sandeep Mohan
Cast: Arjun Radhakrishnan, Salmin Sheriff
Shreelancer is an indie version of a typically inward Ranbir Kapoor or Imtiaz Ali coming-of-age vehicle. It’s quiet, personal and unromantic, but doesn’t advertise its frills and existentialism as much as many tangible cinematic transformations.
The devices are predictably similar – a nonconforming protagonist, an anxious parent, an art v/s wallet dilemma, a picturesque life-altering road trip and a muted resolution – but the expression of these conflicts are a little more rooted.
For instance, there’s a familiar scene in which an artist, who has compromised on his passion and joined the corporate rat race, wants to break free again. He can feel the walls closing in on him. He fiddles with his pen. We’ve seen this moment very often; there’s an explosion around the corner. But he simply walks out of the conference room in the middle of a round-table briefing. He won’t be back.
His boss, who is addressing the team, merely continues after a tiny pause. This boss, too, isn’t made out to be a sterile or cutthroat villain during the interview earlier – just a polite realist warning a disillusioned dreamer about his world. The dreamer, of course, has an Amélie ringtone.
Shree is a freelance writer, and not an established one, which means he can’t yet afford to dream of girls, music and expensive dates
As a result, majority of this film isn’t so much a dramatic “interpretation” of real-life experiences as it is a direct translation. It does run the risk of being unremarkable. Everything we see and hear on screen seems to look – physically, emotionally, scale-wise and tonally – exactly like the filmmaker’s moments that must have inspired them.
There is hardly any added pretense. That’s not to say it feels overwhelmingly real – the narrative is fairly formulaic – but there’s a lived-in homeliness to Shreelancer. And for a change, love isn’t used as the all-in-one trigger. A woman doesn’t rock his core.
Because young Shreepad’s (Arjun Radhakrishnan) concept of survival is far more basic and dire. His battle is middle-class; you could say he is at a stage before the ones that are usually made into angst-ridden movies.
Shree is a freelance writer, and not an established one, which means he can’t yet afford to dream of girls, music and expensive dates. Even the background score accompanying his journey is eclectic – French, English, acoustic, moody – like a digital playlist. He is a creative scavenger, and writes everything from copy ads, webpages and obituaries to one-off sets for struggling standup comics. He barely earns enough to keep his bike fueled.
Everything about him is a little accidental. He is a Maharashtrian boy living with his widowed father (Salmin Sheriff) in Bangalore. He is an accidental freelancer, too – he mentions that he got “sucked” into the lifestyle in the wake of his mother’s death. His reluctant relationship with his father is accidental, too; you sense he was understood better by his mother, and that she must have even prodded her orthodox husband to give him a longer rope.
He thinks he is destined for greatness and Pulitzer-winning novels (don’t we all?), but being a lonely social media addict might have hampered his talent. Even his fragmented memories and dreams appear as part of a surreal Facebook wall.
The contrived mechanics of his trip up north – a potentially soul-soothing journey into the mountains – gradually acquires the sobriety of a giant accident, too, especially given that he spends most of it penniless and in soiled pink pajama bottoms. This trip is the only part that feels manufactured – written – with handpicked “characters,” instead of real people, inserted methodically.
For long-time freelancers like myself, their humble posture – Shree sitting on the floor eating his meals, and Mr. Naik cribbing about a leaking ceiling in front of an ubiquitous TV set – is a reminder of how fast things can go downhill if we take our eyes off the ball
A transition of mood in an indie is often a tricky aspect. Most storytellers favour low-budget restraint, and invariably depend on a marijuana or alcohol-drenched evening to organically introduce crises into proceedings. Intoxication is unpredictable, so anything can go down without seeming abrupt. It makes for a fun story in hindsight, but this is often too easy a moment that catapults a meandering life into the universe of a plotted film.
In fact, Shree’s stilted interactions with his father make for the most intimate and unassuming parts of the film. For long-time freelancers like myself, their humble posture – Shree sitting on the floor eating his meals, and Mr. Naik cribbing about a leaking ceiling in front of an ubiquitous TV set – is a reminder of how fast things can go downhill if we take our eyes off the ball.
The hand-to-mouth existence is a real one, but also one that keeps us alert, strangely resourceful and somewhere between regretting and celebrating our choice of work every day of the week. Credit must be given to both the actors for making us sympathize with their situation without really asking us to do so.
At one point, when Shree tells his father he feels “suffocated” in office, the older man responds genuinely, “Don’t they switch on the air conditioner there?” This reaction isn’t only parental and an amusing manifestation of today’s generation gap; it’s essentially a no-nonsense, pragmatic indie-film reaction to lofty mainstream phrases.
It’s the calm reaction of a fiercely independent storyteller (this is director Sandeep Mohan’s third full-fledged feature) to the increasingly commercial and designed language of the genre he has chosen to explore. His characters aren’t eloquent, and they struggle to communicate their frustrations and tensions. Just as we do.
Either way, there is no explosion.
Watch the trailer here: