Director: Sandeep A. Varma
Cast: Ashish Vidyarthi, Sasho Saarathy, Rhea Rai, Sanjay Vichare
Not for the first time, a film uses the ultimate manifestation of working-class masculinity – the taxi driver – as a dramatic device to highlight the vicious cycle of abuse. While most disgruntled men project their career frustrations onto their domestic spaces, Kahanibaaz’s Ashish Vidyarthi stars a tragic man who projects his personal trauma onto the dynamics of his job. The problem lies in the way the filmmaker genrefies what is essentially a quiet, inverted tale of suppressed fury.
The first half of the 15-minute short shows us a married couple getting unnerved by the strangely intrusive questions posed at them by their seemingly over-eager driver. The man probes mercilessly – he chides the irritable husband for clipping the meek woman’s voice – until he is convinced that his male passenger is a toxic chauvinist. This portion is awkwardly conceived, not because of how Vidyarthi starts to become unhinged, but mostly because the couple reacts inconsistently to his absurd invasion of space. He is creepy, and any sane couple might have cut the journey short in a minute, but they seem to be indulging him because the script requires them to. They even allow him to eventually narrate a story.
The second half of the short shows us why the driver did what he did. There is a flashback, childhood trauma and, again, a peculiarly realized sequence that insists on showing more than suggesting. The form of the film is a little gimmicky, consumed by the theatrical potential of the quintessential psychopath origin story. The score is choppy, the acting a bit loud, and there is probably more truth to its premise on paper than to the on-screen translation. Vidyarthi dares, like a superhero-turned-horror-movie-monster, but his edgy character ends up being as performative as the film he occupies.
We do realize that the message of Kahanibaaz lies in its title: A taxi driver makes for a natural storyteller. He sees more human stories in a day than most do in a month. But this specific taxi driver searches for the kind of stories that allow him to find a resolution to his own. And more importantly, the kind of stories that he can end before they breed another cycle of stories. That he is postured as both a villain and a vigilante says a lot about the times we live in. If only the film hadn’t taken its title so seriously.