Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Cast: Saurabh Shukla, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Kharaj Mukherjee
Anukul, Sujoy Ghosh’s new short based on Satyajit Ray’s short story of the same name, is an ominous film. It might have been conceived as a clever standalone futuristic tale, but in Ghosh’s crafty hands Anukul almost feels like a menacing origin story of a dystopian franchise. This could well have been a quiet epilogue to a ‘Planet of the Robots’ series; android Anukul’s (Parambrata Chattopadhyay) impressionable “beginning” too, like intelligent ape Caesar’s, occurs under the tutelage of a learned human (Saurabh Shukla, as school-teacher Nikunj) in modest circumstances.
The human-like machine is purchased as an all-in-one servant by (bachelor) Nikunj on an EMI plan from Kolkata’s Chowringhee Robot Supply Corp. – a company that has clearly been fueling the country’s unemployment epidemic by replacing human jobs with their swanky AI products. Much of the city already resents the technological “revolution,” chief of whom seems to be Anukul’s bitter and newly jobless cousin, Ratan (Kharaj Mukherjee) – a homegrown manifestation of the “other side” of the human race, the petty portion responsible for perhaps kick-starting the hostile “Dawn” and “War” segments of the robot trilogy.
What works here is the exclusivity of Ghosh’s environment. Unlike the two Kahaani films, much of this occurs within the four walls of Nikunj’s house. The city cannot be as much of a character as, say, the blank-spaced servility of the robot.
In a world where I nervously sift through global news articles to find the first “Opinionated Robot renders film journalists redundant” headline (though in India, there is not much difference between the two), Ghosh’s film is a little more timely and less geeky-sci-fi than Ray’s story – because such an inevitability is closer than we think. The irony is that I browse the internet on my laptop or smartphone – and not the newspapers – for these articles.
What works here is the exclusivity of Ghosh’s environment. Unlike the two Kahaani films, much of this occurs within the four walls of Nikunj’s house. The city cannot be as much of a character as, say, the blank-spaced servility of the robot. His existence can be held as a moralistic mirror to the contradictions of Indian mythology. However, the calm physical space suggests that there might well be a storm of discontent brewing outside – none of which we hear or see too much (the addition of a Servants’ Union character is too obvious, and unnecessary) – but the Nikunj-Anukul equation is somehow a defining one amidst the invisible chaos. They seem to be the center of a universe in transition. For all you know, it could be Anukul (meaning “compatible”) who leads the battle against the humans in the near future, as soon Nikunj is subdued by his own kind. The tragedy being: Nikunj is actually the best of them, but still not good enough to save Anukul from acquiring a “conscience” – the one attribute that separates monstrous humans from innocent animals.
Yes, there is also the playful symbolism – the subversion of Bhagavad Gita’s Lord-Krishna-Arjuna dynamic, the “blueness” of their attire towards the end, the paradox of a robot obsessed with books – but it’s the characters that make us empathize with the understated bleakness of this film. Chattopadhyay dispels the notion of robotic “expressionlessness”. He is terrific – just about machine enough to enable the plot, and just about human enough to disable its flaws.
For example, the narrative device of equipping robots with the power to electrocute if attacked – though essential to the cinematic circularity of their world – makes no sense in context of the world itself. Given the conflict, half the city would be dead this way and the company would have been nuked. But Chatterjee’s actions keep us invested beyond this detail. Perhaps the best part is the fact that Nikunj’s journey is identical to his robot’s; at no point does he know more than Anukul, despite being the Krishna of Gita 2.0.
I was afraid that Ghosh would fall into his Kahaani habit of misleading red herrings when the lady selling Nikunj the robot initially ends their conversation with a warning – and the film conveniently cuts to the next shot mid-dialogue to keep the crucial information from us. Fortunately, there are no visual “cheating” or sleight-of-hand tricks here, because we learn about it at the midway point before the storytelling appears deliberately gimmicky. As a result, Anukul remains a good – and frighteningly feasible – film. If anything, this adapted project merits an original sequel.
I like the way Ghosh treats his short filmmaking as a separate entity rather than a practice break between his features. His language is most “compatible” with this medium – because if you think about it, if one takes the atmospheric flab away from the Kahaani universe, they are merely one-beat short stories blown up into tonal character portraits.