Director: Sanjib Dey
Cast: Indraneil Sengupta, Subrat Dutta, Siddharth Boro, Shiny Gogoi, Mandakini Goswami, Amrita Chattopadhyay
III Smoking Barrels: Stories From Far East India is a multilingual anthology of three (long) short films set in a dire sociocultural environment most of us only ever read about. Each of them represents a different stage of life in the conflict-ridden, insurgency-afflicted border areas of the region we popularly refer to as 'North-East' India. Naturally, they are titled "Child," "Boy" and "Man". The easiest way to critique this film would be to state that the corresponding segments, too, seem to be directed by a child, a boy, and a man. I'm not sure this is intentional, but the level of craft advances in strange sync with the age of its protagonists.
Many creators fall into this trap – they tend to use storytelling as a ruse to exploit the exoticism of remote lands. This practice is, for lack of a better term, childish
Child, a story about an armed 14-year-old Naga girl (Shiny Gogoi, as Janice) who escapes terrorist camp to hijack the car of an Assamese city slicker (a wooden Indraneil Sengupta, as Anurag), is a young, juvenile and uninformed piece of filmmaking. The verbal exchange between the man and girl lacks the impulsiveness and depth one might imagine two disparate voices to adopt in such a reactionary situation. You can almost hear the director instructing her to look away from the camera in order to transition into a flashback. Anurag warms up to Janice too soon – in fact so soon that it's natural to wonder if he's just a pedophile in guise of a priestly man. In between, the changing landscapes across Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam are employed as if a life-altering event were just incidental to the travelogue-style scenery. Many creators fall into this trap – they tend to use storytelling as a ruse to exploit the exoticism of remote lands. This practice is, for lack of a better term, childish.
Boy, a story about a young Manipuri drifter named Donnie (Siddharth Boro) who takes to drug peddling, is a moody, indulgent but intense piece of filmmaking. It flows in stilted harmony with the mercurial nature of small-town boyishness. We sense his mental space through disruptive montages of death metal concerts, psychedelic booze binges and hedonistic nightclubs. The loudness is supposed to assault our minds, so that the strained equation between Donnie and his depressed mother attains a quiet heft. Her concern forms the emotional core of the segment. The film is at its most awkward when too many words are spoken – Donnie's casual interactions with his "business partner" and ex-girlfriend are particularly jarring. The director attempts to engage by highlighting the mother's foreboding feelings. Despite occasional bouts of pretentiousness, he partially succeeds, even as Boy becomes twice as long (tall?) as Child.
Man – a story about an alcoholic worker (Subrat Dutta, as Mukhtar) at the Assam-Bhutan border who turns to elephant poaching after the government bans forest fishing – is a mature, measured and well-acted piece of filmmaking. This segment is appropriately the longest (almost an hour) and is full-bodied enough to feel like a tragedy. It is always more disconcerting to see an adult – a creature otherwise expected to be responsible for boy and child – lose the plot. There is a lot more at stake. Mukhtar's struggle is constructed with patience and detail. His transformation from broke grass-seller to expert elephant hunter is carefully supplemented by the nagging influence of secondary characters: a mute best friend, a crabby wife and a shady middleman.
Subrat Dutta understands that the performance lies in his character's weathered physicality. It's his actions, more than acting, that defines the authenticity of his journey
Here is where the director's languid pace and his obsession with the region's atmospheric stillness works – it merges paradoxically with the protagonist's raging thrust to stay afloat. The result: nature is almost mocking its inhabitants. Dutta, who we have come to recognize from his bit roles in Hindi cinema, understands that the performance lies in his character's weathered physicality. It's his actions, more than acting, that defines the authenticity of his journey – the way he drinks at a roadside wine shop, mashes rice with curry in his plate, smokes marijuana, crouches to fart, mounts his wife, holds a rifle, or resourcefully packs the severed tusks into tall jute bags. He forms, rather than occupies, his environment. The makers display some film-school problems: the penchant to abruptly cut to a black screen when the drama peaks, and an overestimation of ambition by cobbling together the scene of a marauding elephant.
But Dutta equips his surroundings with a desperate context that is missing in the previous segments. When his baby is born, it's hard not to imagine the future: Will it grow up to be Janice, or worse, Donnie? Will its story advance from difficult to destructive? This cycle-of-life-ness is a projective effect that transcends the film's gimmicky title.