August 16 1947 Review: Humourless, Charmless, Grotesque and Tiring

Produced by AR Murugadoss, this film is written and directed by debutante NS Ponkumar
August 16 1947 Review: Humourless, Charmless, Grotesque and Tiring

August 16 1947 is tragic in more ways than one. Tragic, first and foremost, in the story it attempts to tell. Singaad, a village, is in the talon-like grip of a brutal British dictator Robert (Richard Ashton) and his son Justin (Jason Shah). ‘Darinda’ and ‘Raavan’ are few of the choice descriptors the film showers on them. Serrated whippings, spiky lashings, rape, burnings, boilings, burials are all par for course. Any woman who reaches puberty is yanked off by Justin to be raped. To prevent this, sometimes, men in the family kill the girls before Justin can lay a finger — the logic, like that of jauhar, is a weepy upholding of false dignity. Other men try to dress up their girls as boys hoping this would keep Jason’s eyes off them. And then there’s the landlord, who locks up his daughter in a gilded room for years, telling the villagers that she died of disease as a child. The village is isolated, surrounded by dense mountains. So marooned that the villagers are not even aware that India is going to become independent. 

The racing pulse of the film is the race to get the villagers up to speed on the political situation, so they can overthrow the British beasts before Robert and Justin commit another heinous crime. In this pursuit, Param (Gautham Karthik), a footsoldier of Robert, is the character who is catalyzed into action, in order to protect his lover Deepali (Revathy Sharma), on whom Justin has laid his lust-brimmed eyes. A lanky, kohl-eyed opportunist, Param is moved to heroism by desperation and personal vendetta. 

The second tragedy — the one more potent — is that of the film itself. A tragic state of affairs that results in this kind of blunt-edged storytelling being pushed through production houses, being exhibited, promoted, even discussed. August 16, 1947 is a film in the barest, most banal sense of the word ‘film’. It screeches till it leaves you deadened with fatigue. A humorless, charmless, tiring piece of technology, it’s storytelling in which rape is pulled out of its narrative toolkit with about as much flair as the rapist does with his ravenous dick; where a drip feed of torturous, meandering plot twists leaves you gasping as you exit the theatre, as though you had been held against your will. 

If you’re watching the Hindi version of August 16 1947, then part of this second tragedy is, undoubtedly, the dubbing. It is gin clear that the makers do not consider dubbing an artform worth investing time and care towards. There is no attempt made to match the words spoken to the visible lip movements. Sometimes, the sentences end and the mouth keeps moving. Or the lips stop and the dialogue continues like a non-diegetic sound. There is a shocking lack of rhythm, with gestures and words at odds with each other. Tamil and Hindi have a different relationship to sounds. As linguistic studies have shown, speakers of Dravidian languages on an average gush through more syllables than any other language speaker. It is why, as Indologist David Shulman notes, these languages, to an outsider “give the impression of a bubbling or cascading stream.” To force Hindi into such mouths, an exercise that can feel like fitting square pegs into round holes, is an artform — it involves ingenious labor. To merely replace the Tamil film posters with Hindi film posters in the frame’s background in post production is not enough. You cannot, as a filmmaker who claims to be interested in a pan-Indian audience, treat dubbing as a disposable post-production shrug. It must be built into the script. Otherwise you will end up with a film like August 16 1947, where characters make gestures for words that have not arrived yet, or have since passed. 

But to assign the entire blame on the dub is to turn a blind eye to the film’s grotesque visuals. Here is a brutality that makes you want to look away from the screen. To see unsavory violence depicted is not new. But it is as though the film is deriving pleasure from this disgust. Men are punished by putting them on spiky columns, their bodies being pierced slowly and steadily as people watch. The whips have metallic thorns that scrape the back with the sound of skin being scratched off the body. There is always water boiling for some skin to scald. If the film keeps giving us excuses to look away, lean away, it does not attempt to make you, through its storytelling, lean in. The point of the barbaric bloodletting was to shake your sympathy for the village people. But to stretch villainy into such a loud caricature that you despise it more for its noise than its violence spells doom. Rarely have I wanted to leave the theatre as soon as the last image surfaces to scrub myself clean of its images, its noise, its ideas, and so rarely do I succumb to this urge. But sometimes, the savage indignity of a film triumphs — it just pushes you over the ledge. 

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