Director: Aman Dahiya
Cast: Purab Kohli, Sumeet Vyas
Renowned sci-fi writer Jerome Bixby’s final screenplay, The Man From Earth, was made into a conversational chamber drama by director Richard Schenkman. The Man From Earth revolves around a young American professor named John Oldman, who is preparing to leave town. His colleagues – learned men and women of varied vocations – turn up at his home for a surprise farewell party. Over the course of the 90-minute film, as day turns into night, an increasingly pensive John slowly attempts to convince his friends that he has been around since the beginning of mankind; that he is, in fact, divine; and that he changes locations every ten years to avoid suspicions about his fixed age. Some of them think this is an intellectual prank; the others are on the verge of declaring him insane. Yet, he has all the answers.
In the process, the film’s viewers, too, are put in the same situation – is John Oldman really who he says he is? Did he go from seeing dinosaurs to occupying Babylon to being Jesus Christ to befriending Van Gogh? A decade later, The Man From Earth remains one of the most exceptional – and intrinsically challenging – pieces of independent storytelling. The film essentially switches acts through the machinations of one long debate.
With the ten-minute short film, Camouflage, writer-director Aman Dahiya aims for the same tone of existential suspense around a seemingly harmless conversation. Except, it has to be an Indian version, which, given the state of this country, forces Dahiya to compress the allegory into its most concentrated cultural form. You’d think Oldman might have met them at some point, too. It also, rather limitedly, means the words spoken must contrive to fit the context not of authentic human history, but of devout Hindu mythology.
Camouflage, the title, stands for “disguise” in plain view. So we have two exemplary Marine Commandos – played by Sumeet Vyas and Purab Kohli – who, over dinner and drinks on a relaxed night, go from banter to biblical seriousness while trying their best to pepper their sentences with enough Easter (Diwali?) eggs. “Remember the days when there were no borders?” the older brother reminisces, himself tittering on the borders of anguished jingoism.
At one point, their Hindi exchange extends into a rush of heavy English – as if they were writing the pages of history even as they go about creating it. The lines are overwrought, in the sense that they are designed solely to flaunt the unnatural knowledge of the commandos; John had historians, doctors and archaeologists around him to communicate with in order to establish the same impression. But these lines are also perversely appropriate, given that the two men – like overworked superheroes fed up of civilization – end up over-narrating the purpose of their being over glasses of potent whiskey.
The film begins with pretty aerial shots of them swimming through an ocean and racing on a deserted beach at sunset. If you think about two restless brothers in paradise, this is not an unusual image. Nobody else ever enters the frame; we later hear the faint sound of machine guns, soldiers and jeeps while they speak – almost as if these were two higher beings operating above the escalating turmoil of our universe. Their names, which are revealed towards the end with a not-so-subtle shot, define the impassioned “psychology” of this film.
It says a lot about the maker, too, given that he thinks – a little radically – that this nation has reached a stage where perhaps the Mahabharata doesn’t need to be reimagined anymore; that it could be occurring, quietly, in guise of warfare even as we speak; and that its undercover elements probably maintain the balance of ideologies today, missioned to keep us from tipping over. These thoughts can be both problematic and revolutionary, depending on how you digest the illusion of communal harmony.
The problem with Dahiya’s film, though, is its fierce exclusivity. At times, a director is so convinced about the core of his message – he might have visualized the power of the revelation so hard in his own head – that its translation onto screen misses the nuts and bolts. You know how you’re narrating a story to someone – you are the only one who knows how it ends – and expect the listener to understand it if you skip some details? In such cases, only the people involved in the film end up making it rather presumptuous; laymen are left condescended upon, grasping for clues and straws.
Consequentially, Camouflage might seem terribly banal on first watch – just two smug soldiers craving for action – if one isn’t aware of the deeper context. On second watch, or perhaps a bit of mythological reacquainting later, Camouflage acquires meaning. It need not be a politically correct meaning. But it is worthy of feeling. Which is why one can’t help but wonder how much further the maker could have taken it in the form of a full-length feature. Or even a devotional Marvel franchise. The Men from Earth, perhaps?