Morality plays are a genre in literature that consists of dramatised allegories with plots that involve the pursuit of salvation. But the journey, as always, is never easy – the path is ridden with temptations, opportunities to sin and the like. The protagonist in such plays represents us or humankind as a whole and there are a host of other colourful characters, the chief antagonist of whom is, of course, Vice.
In a sense, our own lives are no different from morality plays. We are constantly making choices between good and bad, right and wrong. Cinema is a reflection of our lives – it mirrors the myriad individuals that people this universe, flawed, complex and layered. As we watch these films with their messy protagonists, we find ourselves drawn into their world but at times also repulsed. We find ourselves judging the characters in some way or the other. But what if a film chose to turn around and forced us to question our own judgements and perceptions?
Shaitan (very aptly named), directed by Bejoy Nambiar, is that film. It tackles the trials and tribulations, the messiness, of adrenalin-seeking youth with astounding adroitness. It tells the story of Amy (Kalki Koechlin, who infuses each and every character of hers with astonishing depth and vulnerability), who is recovering from a traumatic past involving her mother (Shivani Tanksale) and who moves to Mumbai and immediately befriends a group of 'wild' youngsters – Karan "KC" Chaudhary (Gulshan Devaiah), Tanya (Kirti Kulhari), Zubin Shroff (Neil Bhoopalam) and Dushyant "Dash" Sahu (Shiv Panditt). Their lives are spent in seeking the highs that all of us at that age wish to seek, albeit not in the most suitable ways – their days filled with bunking classes and attending pool parties, their nights drowned out in drugs or alcohol and taking the car out for wild spins. It is one such midnight rendezvous that lands them in trouble – KC, carried away upon outracing a car, runs over two people on a scooter. This is only the beginning of the chaos that the group eventually finds itself in. They are blackmailed by a cop Malwankar (Rajkummar Rao) who asks them to pay him twenty-five lakhs in order to brush the case under the carpet and pretend it never happened. This is when the group, on Dash's initiative, decides to fake Amy's kidnapping and demand ransom from her father (Rajit Kapur). But things are never so simple, are they?
Just as they fall out of one mess, they dive headlong into another – mostly of their own making. The film, written by Megha Ramaswamy and Bejoy Nambiar, makes sure that the tension never lets up. As viewers, we watch, horrified as events take a turn for the worse. But most of all, the writing of the characters is so brilliant that we find ourselves questioning our own reactions.
An example of this for me would be the character of KC. Many times, cinema has reduced several characters with anger issues to mere tropes. The moment they arrive on screen, as an audience, we immediately realise what the film and its makers are trying to tell us. But Shaitan doesn't spoon-feed its audience. We make discoveries, slowly and steadily, and realise that the clues were always there – it was only we, as an audience, who didn't spot it.
For example, KC begins by running over two people. Thereafter we see him attack a man (though one could rationalize he was only trying to protect his friend Tanya) and throw a television set over his head. It is only when he grabs Tanya's throat in rage and bangs her head against a wall that we gasp in horror. We watch as she falls to the floor, blood coating the space surrounding her, Amy in cocaine-induced confusion and KC in panic looking on. This is where we realise that KC possibly requires help managing his anger. But can we say that as an audience we were unaware of this? In one of the songs in the first half of the film, we watch KC smash a glass bottle over a man attempting to get close to Tanya. Yet we are often at the risk of being dismissive of such an action, labelling it as the frenzy and headiness of youth.
This exposes our fallacies as an audience – of how deeply numb we have become to violence around us, how we have stopped questioning what is being presented to us. When we are unable to critically think about the material that we consume, we too unknowingly become complicit, hand-in-glove with the characters and their actions because we accept everything that they do and are then horrified when they seem to 'shock' us; when in reality, the facts were before us all the while.
The characters of Dash and Zubin too make us question what we have come to believe about people. Dash is supposed to be cool as a cucumber, a cold, cunning thinker but we find that he too is not without his own problems. He is just as desperate as the others, attempting to make sense of a plan gone wrong, only hidden under a façade. We watch as he too exposes the deep rage within himself, by violently killing KC and unleashing a roar of frenzied wrath and frustration. Then again, can we say we did not know that he was capable of such an action? In one of his introductory scenes, Dash is shown competing with a man who flagellates himself with a whip. Dash seems consumed by the action, almost enjoying this act of violence that he has unleashed upon himself.
Zubin, on the other hand, is shown to be fun-loving, someone who goes along to get along. Yet contrary to our expectations, he does not entirely follow through with the plan of the group. He rebels, first for Tanya's sake and then for his own conscience and sense of sanity. Some part of all of us is Zubin. We want to support the people we like and are close to, but when their actions are incongruent with our own personal beliefs, we find ourselves in a fix.
Tanya is the moral compass of the group. We've all had that one friend (or been that person ourselves) who is always slightly cautious and frequently labelled the killjoy. Yet, she is the only one who constantly questions the group and its decisions. She is unafraid to be unpopular, although this is partially driven by her fear and anxiety but also by the inherent goodness within her that refuses to be stifled by the darkness around her.
Amy is all of us at some point or the other in our lives – vulnerable, unable to tell right from wrong, desperate for support, compassion and empathy, attempting to make sense of the hurt and grief, and simply seeking refuge from the ghosts of the past that refuse to stop haunting her. In trying to find answers to the void within her, she gets carried away by the actions of her friends.
Easy as it is to judge the five youngsters, the film made me realise that as an audience I am no paragon of virtue either. Instead, I possess a 'shaitan' within as well, even if that is not as horrendous as the ones portrayed on screen. In an age when we are constantly falling prey to the traps of façades and fallacies, and the cages of prejudices, perceptions and judgements, while believing ourselves to be superior to everyone else, Shaitan shatters our self-created illusions and provides a much needed reality check.