Director: Sudipto Roy
Cast: Ritwika Pal, Swastika Mukherjee, Sraman Chatterjee, Zahid Hossain, Joy Sengupta
She does not like yellow taxis. She prefers red. But as her father has told her that after every yellow car, god sends a red one, she can live with it. She loves numbers – lots of them, in circles, on ladders, pyramids. She does not like being touched; even her mother’s caresses make her cringe. She does not understand human beings, ‘they talk in a strange language’, she says. She has a thing for detective novels, Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi, and loves listening to them in Bangla, in her father’s voice. And using the tools these detectives employ, she is adamant about solving the ‘murder’ of the neighbourhood cat, Cosmos, which was pregnant at the time of her death.
She is Kia, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Sudipto Roy’s impressive debut feature, Kia and Cosmos. Kia (wonderfully essayed by Ritwika Pal) lives with her parents Dia (Swastika Mukherjee in another of the film’s powerhouse performances) and Kabir (Joy Sengupta). Though Kia’s condition is never spelt out (the novel too never states its protagonist’s Christopher’s disorder) and even the film’s promotion describes it as ‘pervasive developmental disorders’, it is clear that we are talking the autism spectrum here.
Things take a turn for the dark when Kia’s mother informs her that her father has passed away after a heart attack, and the neighbourhood cat, Cosmos, is found dead. Given her love for murder mysteries, Kia is determined to find out who killed Cosmos, much against her mother’s wishes who forbids her from having anything to do with it. Kia talks to her neighbours, her sympathetic teacher and the friendly rickshaw-wallah who takes her to school, taking copious notes, in the process penning a detective novel of her own. As the mystery begins to unravel, and her mother confiscates her notebook, skeletons start tumbling out and the stage is set for Kia to take a decision that could have far-reaching consequences.
What makes Kia and Cosmos work – and work remarkably well – is the director’s unsentimental approach to the material. There is no artifice, no effort made to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings, in the way the director brings alive Kia’s world-view and her efforts to negotiate the world around her. He also does not resort to any visual pyrotechnics to convey Kia’s condition either, leaving it largely to Pal’s body language and his own intelligent framing devices (giant close-ups of an ant, a red leaf, branches of a tree, the gibbous moon). There’s also a wonderfully understated streak of humour that underpins Kia’s response to people around her. As she tells her mother, ‘Why do you have to confuse things by saying your eyes are heavy, why can’t you just say you’re sleepy?’ Or ‘Why does Anup uncle have to say it’s raining cats and dogs – I went up to the terrace hoping to catch at least a cat, but only Anup uncle came.’ Or the planetary names she conjures for the kittens ‘Cosmos’ would have had!
The film is leisurely paced and a generation bred on speed might even find it slow-going – but the pace goes a long way in enabling us to get a feel of Kia’s world. It’s one not easy to negotiate, unembellished as it is with any of the filmy short-cuts one would expect from material like this, but for those with the patience to do so, it is a richly rewarding experience. Riding on its two magnetic lead performances and a couple of strong supporting ones (Sraman Chatterjee as the rickshaw-wallah and Zahid Hossain as the teacher), Kia and Cosmos is that rare bird – an ‘existential’ whodunit where a special teenager’s investigation of a cat’s death becomes a comment on the human condition.