Marty (Vipin Atley), the protagonist of Musical Chair (a direct-to-OTT release with an original indie soul) is 32. It’s how old Adi Sankara was when he passed away, a line in the film informs us. It’s also the age till which Bruce Lee, Alexander The Great and mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan lived. Forget being an overachiever, Marty does not work, lives off his mother’s pension and his lifestyle is fuelled by a network of freeloaders who spout poetry in peg measure.
A hedonist, Marty is certainly not. He is a hypochondriac who can rattle off the locations of diagnostic centres across the city, the way an alcoholic lists bars. His condition is a result of two events that formed his childhood. The first is the death of his grandmother. She explains death as a sort of powerlessness. “After you die, you can still see and hear everything. But you get buried. Centipedes and crawling cockroaches then start biting you but you cannot do anything.” If that traumatic explanation isn’t enough to scar a young boy, he has to deal with the death of his father, who’s just 40, following a heart attack.
These instil in Marty an ‘undying’ fear of death. But when a person is paranoid about death, doesn’t it also mean that he’s terrified about living? That’s the irony Musical Chair deals with.
This irony is why it affects us differently when we’re shown Marty stress-eating, smoking or drinking. The film is careful to not judge him, and, as a result, we don’t either. In essence, Marty is trapped in a vicious cycle of stress and anxiety that pushes him into continuing the very habits that are fuelling his health worries. Which means that when he’s warned about his sky-high cholesterol levels, he deals with it through a binge of cigarettes, junk food and alcohol.
In the people he meets and the conversations that follow, Marty understands that he needs a purpose in life for a turnaround. But where does one find such an abstract thing? And even if one does manage to find one, does it also mean that life ends when one’s purpose is fulfilled?
In the guise of a documentary, these are the questions Marty tries to get answers for. From a temple priest to an auto rickshaw driver, everyone seems to have answers, which range from the purely spiritual to utterly rational. In a striking scene, a woman is crying in front of a picture of the Weeping Mary, when a character asks, “Why pray to a person who herself is crying?”, suggesting the manipulative nature of organised religion. And later, a blind pastor is shown to have the ability to see spirits, further dividing his search into what’s defined and the undefined.
At times, the film seems to stretch itself to meet its ambitions. In the scene where Marty receives his test results, a boy cries in the background. An angle where Marty starts to write a novel is left underdeveloped (there’s a cheeky scene where a librarian suggests a book on screenwriting to the film’s director/actor) and his relapse into addiction feels abrupt. Even the film’s music, by the director himself, doesn’t entirely create the effect it’s going for, distracting the viewer.
Yet, with its strong philosophical core, this is a film that offers material to ponder even in the smallest of scenes. Like the title suggests, the musical ‘chair’ in question becomes a metaphor for life itself. Your right to sit on the chair lasts only until the music starts playing again. So, is there a point in searching for a higher purpose when you’re merely momentarily occupying a space?