The Clash Between Style and Substance in Bejoy Nambiar’s Storytelling

Nambiar’s latest show, Kaala, has him zipping through timelines like a temporal Tarzan
Kaala, directed by Bejoy Nambiar
Kaala, directed by Bejoy Nambiar

Two women are kissing. They are horizontal, in heat, on a bed. You—and by you, I mean the camera—is staring at them from above, turning, like a hypnotic wheel. With each turn, the camera—and by camera, I mean you—gets closer to the two women kissing. When it all finally stops, the camera, the kissing, a light-headed dizziness sets in, like you have just disembarked from a roller-coaster, and your ears fluids are settling down. 

Is this what director Bejoy Nambiar and cinematographer Siddharth Srinivasan are after in the eight-episode action thriller Kaala—to produce in you, the feeling his characters are pulsating with, that same light-headed dizziness of kissing a lover? 

That is, perhaps, a kind reading of this scene. The other is more discordant. Where on the one hand you are feeling faint watching the visuals, and on the other hand, you are seeing two women kissing, and you experiencing these two things—the visceral vertigo and the cerebral acknowledgment of two characters kissing, establishing their love, but also their queerness—as two separate things, neither putting pressure on the other, neither building each other up into a singular swirl. You are experiencing the style of the scene as separate from its substance. 

This is something at which Nambiar — director Mani Ratnam’s protege and a worthy heir of Ratnam’s stabs of style — excels. To secrete style. But to secrete it so emphatically that he divorces it from the very thing it is meant to stylize? 

A still from Kaala
A still from Kaala

The Overreach of Style

American essayist Susan Sontag in “On Style” notes that there is a consensus that “style and content are indissoluble”, that style isn’t merely “decorative, accessory”, and yet, we seem to consider the two as seamed and seperate in criticism. She declares, “To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art.” Nambiar’s filmography so far — beginning with his feature film debut Shaitaan (2011), continuing with David (2013), Wazir (2016), Solo (2017); then transitioning to streaming with Taish, Navarasa, The Fame Game, and now Kaala — can posture itself as an argument against Sontag.

The way he uses indie music in his films, to upholster a scene, simultaneously makes it memorable by elevating its style and drowning its substance. Think of how, in Wazir, the final chase pulsates to ‘Tere Liye’; the way, in Taish, he coordinated the beat dropping in Lifafa’s ‘Jaago’ to his character ripping out of his car and galloping threateningly, gun in hand, into the marriage of his lover. That the song is actually about awakening the public conscience (“doob raha hai yeh desh”, the country is drowning) and not some doomed metaphor of soured love, is irrelevant. Nambiar uses the song to sieve the lyrics’ intent from its vibe, using the vibe to shock his scene into a trembling vigor, leaving meaning among the debris. When Kaala, in the last episode, allows its various times and spaces to collapse into one linear climax, bloody and many-headed and melancholic, the song chosen is Amrit Ramnath’s version of ‘Jambupathe’, in the haunting vocals of Bombay Jayashree, an 18th Century Muthuswami Dikshitar Carnatic composition in praise of Jambukeshwara, a form of Shiva revered in Tamil Nadu. The climax takes place in Kolkata. The more you read into it, the less it makes sense, the more it feels like something dazzling, dangling from the cluttered frame of the show. 

A still from Kaala
A still from Kaala

A similar thing he does with his storytelling, full of that spunk which lifts scenes, by leaving them behind. Unlike, say, a Baby Driver (2017), where the thrill of the opening car chase keeps ricocheting from the formal set-up of cars whizzing through the cinematic cut, to the rock music that overlays it, Kaala sees the style separate out from the scene. The first episode crescendos with a chase that begins when we hear the breathless musical panting that bumps to Hanumankind’s rap as an IB officer begins his chase on a bike. Nothing about the chase itself is thrilling, the camera swooping in the air like an eagle, you almost forget what is being chased, surfing about, doing tango to the music, with road traffic.

This is style that feels like it is floating above the story, whipped out every now and then, like the show’s indissoluble oil over its water. 

Is this the failure of substance or the overreach of style?

Unraveling in Kaala

Every episode of Kaala begins with images spliced, silence in between. Sometimes the image being spliced is as banal as a kettle being boiled. The point is not to see what is being spliced, but that things are being spliced. To evoke that agitation. For what end, except the sunglassy coolness of it all? 

Nambiar chases moments, as his plot topsy turvies, leaving characters by the roadside. Kaala has five writers—Bejoy Nambiar, Francis Thomas, Priyas Gupta, Mithila Hegde, Shubhra Swarup—with dialogues by Karan Vishwanath Kashyap, and there is a joke somewhere in here about needing five writers, so at any point, at least someone knows what is going on in the script, that moves across continents and decades. Suddenly you are thrust into a war in Jaffna, shot gorgeously in slow-motion; a flashback in Punjab here, a fast-forward in London there, with Kolkata, Darjeeling, New York, and Siliguri flung around like flipcards. This, too, is style. To be so intentionally choppy you have to spend time piecing together the debris, like a puzzle. 

A still from Kaala
A still from Kaala

One of the enduring mysteries of the first half of Kaala is a powerful woman, whose face we don’t see, who puppets the villainy of the story, and only whose voice and silhouette we hear and see. Parallel to this, we are shown brief glimpses of a soldier, Balwant (Jitin Gulati), wounded by war, being broth-ed on the simmer. 

We first see his villainy, and then, slowly, his sadness that has curdled into revenge becomes clear. The writing of Kaala is such that it can only explain characters through their past, because it is unable to use the present moment to say anything meaningful about them as a person. And so, to know more about him, we rummage through his past, images flashing by, only to realize that over time, over the episodes, it is he who becomes a woman, the woman that we see in the beginning of the show, her past villainy being explained by his story, some sort of twisting of time to allow both stories to unravel alongside each other.

The “Flashback Mein Flashback” gag from his first film Shaitaan has seen him through Taish—where he so vigorously switched timelines that its movie version and its web-series version did not even agree — and now has reached its flummoxed extreme in Kaala.

Every time you want to go deeper into a character, Nambiar goes wider in plot. He loves swinging through time, like some temporal Tarzan. What a gorgeous, foolhardy leap of faith that is — to imagine an audience has both the patience and will to do the same.

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