Director: Kabir Mehta
Cast: Buddhadev Mangaldas
At the end of BUDDHA.mov's 70 minutes, I found myself compulsively scanning through its subject's colourful social media footprints. Who was this ex-fast bowler I didn't know of? His barren Wikipedia page, his domestic cricket records. And his hip Instagram profile (@Buddha.gram), which to my mind looked like it was aping brash American playboy Dan Bilzerian's. I saw a vain Goan ex-athlete loving the high life – his privileges, pool parties, exotic girlfriends, selfies-with-A-listers, flourishing real-estate empire. I even looked for the handle of a mysterious girl mentioned in the film. I was more than curious. And then it hit me. BUDDHA.mov is precisely what my reactions are about. It is essentially a disorienting manifestation of my – our – internalization of digital voyeurism: a weirdly cinematic rendition of a person scrolling through a fascinating online profile.
Director Kabir Mehta uses his unlimited access – Buddhadev Mangaldas is his cousin – to replicate this gaze in hybrid-documentary form. For instance, Mehta's camera lurks at a distance while recording Buddha's uninhibited sexual encounters in balconies, bedrooms and churches, giving the videos a 'leaked mms' look. We are spying on them. His voice and phone calls play out like unfiltered recordings, and interviews like fragmented chat files. At times there is an overload of information in a frame – different windows pop up over unrelated visuals, reflecting the visceral disorder of our multi-tasking digital habits. Some of the "anti-narrative" unravels on a laptop screen, as if to suggest that the filmmaker's interactions with Buddha's footage and online persona are actually the core of the appropriately-titled film. Mehta exploits his own intrigue, and in effect creates a strangely captivating examination of modern-day social media culture.
Or at least it starts out like that. I don't think he arrived in Goa to execute anything more than a quirky social experiment. It might have just seemed attractive to observe the un-pious contradictions of such a piously named man. That Mehta then allows the documentary to find itself along the way is an indication of why he chose someone like Buddha – there is a reckless harmony syncing their shape-shifting ambitions. Buddha, too, goes from cricketer to real-estate agent in a heartbeat, while Mehta allows his film to influence, and be derived from, Buddha's freewheeling decisions. Both maker and subject are, in a way, different sides of the same person.
At first, we see Buddha be the "movie" we want to see – full of energy, deceptive charm, superficial worldviews (notice him trying to convince an older couple about his plan to father children from different women), and boyish anecdotes about sexual escapades (I will never forget the story about an ex-girlfriend who tries to poison him through cunnilingus to avenge his infidelity – he lost his voice and coughed for days after this "session"). Mehta shoots everything he can. Beyond the first few shots, we barely see Buddha's cricket career; it might be prudent to wonder if the sport and its fame are simply means (social currency) to an end (sex). He drives his car like a suicidal F1 racer on Goa's narrow streets.
But there is a specific point at which Buddha – and the film – transforms into real life. The fantasies are over. This is the point most social media stars feel like they've perhaps gone overboard by divulging too much of themselves. They want to retract their old tweets. It could be a concerned parent, a cracked mirror – or, in this case, a new career. You sense that Buddha might not have been prepared for Mehta's eye – the same eye that he had used for so long to exploit his own reputation. Buddha the cricket star tripped on Mehta's vision, but Buddha the real-estate developer, not so much. He looks a little unsure while watching the rough cut of his own portrait, like a man regretting a drunken decision.
The distance increases, and the film, too, seems to lose its admiration for a now-sober subject. When he gives a girl a tour of an under-construction property, you can almost sense the film anticipating this to be followed by a sex scene. But Buddha, it's clear, has stopped acting for the camera. The mask is back on. Was it ever off?
I've always wondered, often dismissively, about this new-age generation of validation-hungry celebrities – they thrive on online images cultivated through TMI tweets/blogs and unfiltered access. But really, do they lose track of the chasm between their real and manufactured selves? Do they know which one is the authentic version anymore? BUDDHA.mov threatens to answer these questions. But it refrains. Because that might have meant the filmmaker, too, exposing a part of himself. On a public platform, no less.
BUDDHA.mov is screening at the Mumbai Film Festival under the Spotlight section.